I spend a lot of time making pretty clothes, writing happy words and uploading images that I hope will transport you to tropical beaches with pink cocktails and little umbrellas. And I love doing that because I think it's important to be surrounded by beautiful and uplifting things. But there is a less frivolous side to Alexandria Main that I thought was time to share with you. One of the main points of establishing Alexandria Main is that I wanted it to be a venture that helped empower women. I've specifically sought out garment makers who work in an ethical space. A studio called Fair Sew make all my garments and an NGO called Human and Hope Association make all my bags (see photo above). The people who make my goods are empowered, not exploited by their work. In practice that means the following:
- they are paid a fair or living wage,
- their human rights are respected
- international labour laws are adhered to (including their right to strike and negotiate for higher wages)
- consideration is given to work/life balance
- they are part of a transparent supply chain
The garment industry hasn't had the greatest reputation when it comes to caring about the human rights of its workers. The shift to 'fast fashion' has meant good things for people who like cheap, fashionable clothes on tap. Unfortunately it comes at a cost - not to me or you as consumers - but to the people who make the clothes. That $5 t-shirt you picked up last week? How can they make it so cheap? Let's figure it out. In Australia, the minimum wage is $17.70 an hour. Let's assume you spent $1 on material and thread for the t-shirt. You want to make $1 profit on every t-shirt, so you've got $3 to spend on labour. That gives your Australian labourer 10 minutes 34 seconds in order for it to cost $4 to make. And that's before you've even accounted for transport and marketing and everything else. Heads up. It doesn't take 10 minutes to make a t-shirt, even if you've had 10,000 hours experience. Clearly you aren't making that t-shirt in Australia - you're a) finding someone who is prepared to be paid around 25 cents for their labour and b) you're making tons and tons of them so your volume offsets your low profit margin.
Making clothes at low cost in a developing country, is in itself not necessarily a bad thing. A transfer of capital from rich nations to poorer is actually a very potent way to lift people out of poverty and improve their standards of living. It becomes a problem when you're exploiting the labour.
A recent Oxfam report, In Work But Trapped In Poverty (the title sums up the problem), examined the working conditions of a number of garment workers in Burma. They found that the average base salary of the workers was $1.50 a day. For reference, the World Bank defines the international poverty line as anyone earning less than $1.90 per day. The Burmese workers reported doing an average of 10.5 hours of overtime every week in order to boost their salaries to $3.70 per day. More than one in 5 workers reported that they were forced to work overtime and almost 40% said the overtime was affecting their health. One worker said: ' We are always being told to work faster. They think we are like animals. I have no right to make a complaint, so I have to bear it.' Unfortunately Burma isn't an isolated example of the exploitation of workers in the fashion making business. You could swap these stories for garment workers in almost any part of the developing world.
So, the question is why should you or I care about this? I guess the obvious first answer is that as decent human beings we should all care if someone is being hurt making something for us. Another answer relates to us in a more convoluted way: keeping a whole bunch of people in poverty isn't very conducive to global stability. We all have a basic human need to feel engaged and valued and when we don't, we tend to resist the system that has trapped us. That's when protests happen and governments get overthrown violently and not to be overly alarmist, that's one of the cradles of terrorism. Inequity and instability in countries lead to refugee crises and regional disputes. And those impacts ripple out to affect us in Australia. 'Stopping the boats' is one thing, but it's the bandaid. Preventing the flow from starting in the first place is the harder, but more potent solution.
'Ethical production' can be part of the solution. It is well documented that women's economic empowerment has particularly widespread community benefits. Women are more likely to invest in their children's health and education than are men. They are more likely to save. When ethically made goods have a particular focus on economically advancing women, they will boost rates of development. That benefits all of us.
Speaking of empowerment, we are more empowered if we are consuming consciously and are aware of the provenance of the items we buy. We mitigate the potential for egregious corporate power if we demand information about who makes our goods. Fashion Revolution has spearheaded a movement asking 'Who Makes My Clothes' and giving faces to the people who reply 'I Made Your Clothes'. The photo on this page is part of the annual Fashion Revolution campaign. Transparency matters. Companies who care about ethical production will happily tell you where their products came from. An unethical company isn't going to promote that fact, but if they're not sharing the story of where they source their garments, then it's probably not a story worth telling.
I don't want to give the impression that I'm anti all 'big fashion'. I'm not at all. Some of the biggest players in the shift to ethical manufacturing are large companies. Their financial weight gives them power to improve standards. The Oxfam report I cited earlier refers to successful lobbying by companies such as Gap, Marks and Spencer and Tesco to force the Burmese government to introduce a minimum wage. Many garment manufacturers wanted to opt out, saying it would make their businesses unsustainable, but the clothing multinationals argued that a minimum wage guarantee 'would attract rather than deter companies from buying garments' from Burma. And jeans behemoth, Levi Strauss is one of the most exciting players in the field of innovative environmental and social sustainability. They have forged partnerships with governments and NGOs and other industry groups to spearhead a raft of programs designed to help the environment and the communities in which they work.
Ultimately though, all the power rests with us as consumers. By consuming consciously, by demanding to know who makes our clothes, and by educating ourselves about the impacts of our purchases, we have the power to shift practices and to make a positive difference in the life of another person. That's the best fashion statement you can make.