Last Sunday night, I went to see the documentary “Voyage en Barbarie” with my good friend Zelal, about human trafficking of Eritreans from refugee camps in Sudan to torture detention centres in the Sinai desert. It was a truly horrific exposure into one of the most brutal current criminal activities that I have seen throughout all my film-going and studying. I highly recommend the film for awareness and for the quality of the storytelling, yet it was the discussion that happened afterwards that is the subject of my post. As we left the film feeling so helpless and troubled, Zelal asked “what can we do?”. This question has been my underlining train of thought for months now.
I have spent so many years “upholding”, “defending” and “being interested in” human rights, and studying and discussing has been an essential part of who I am. Yet despite this, and aside for the occasional volunteering, marching in the street or signing petitions, my interest has never been actively expressed by my actions. 2016 needs to be the year that I graduate from student to actor. I’m starting with my clothes and would like to share my story with you. I realise, and would like to include a massive disclaimer at this point, that this subject has been overblogged about by wonderful writers more experienced than me. Yet I have chosen to write about this for those who do not spend as much time procrastinating on the Internet as I do, on the off chance that this is an unread story for them.
A few months ago, at the beginning of the year, I opened my wardrobe one morning and found nothing to wear. I spent a frustrating half an hour trying to pair tops with bottoms and shoes, and left the house, late and wearing an outfit that wasn’t quite right. I ended up stopping off at H&M on my way home from work, to buy a little something that would fill that frustrating hole in my wardrobe. News flash: that cheap new top did not solve the problem.
While I know that I’m certainly not the only one who has these moments, for me, it was one frustrating moment too many. I’m lucky to have lots of clothes (too many to store and constantly falling off the shelves of my small apartment in the city), yet I only have a few things that I actually like, and too many of my garments make me feel, well, meh. My lack of style, and lack of simplicity in the mornings, was taking up more mental space than made me happy.
So I started to pay more attention to my consumption patterns and the value that I place on the things I wear. I realised that the cheapness and disposability of my clothes enabled me to not care about them: I didn’t feel too bad about buying mediocre garments and so inevitably these did not make me happy. I researched, I observed, and the internet taught me all sorts of things about capsule wardrobes, minimalism, second hand buying and so on. For those interested, check out these links here, here and here. I decided to downsize my possessions, and to only keep or purchase things that I truly loved, in an attempt to curate a style and a simpler range of choices.
Among this research, uncomfortable truths kept popping up. Safety conditions in factories, measly wages, water contamination, child labour, desertification due to intensive production (for cashmere for example), human trafficking and landfill pollution are among the issues linked to the fashion industry. I realised that this was more about being uncomfortable with my personal style; this was about being uncomfortable with my purchases and their impact. About how my values and my actions were unaligned, and despite tragic events such as the Rana Plaza disaster popping up in my newsfeed, how I still popped down to H&M whenever I was mildly unsatisfied with morning routine. I was kidding myself if I thought it was a matter of streamlining my wardrobe and carrying on as usual.
With this reflexion in mind, I went to see the film “The True Cost” at the Geneva International Film Festival on Human Rights, which was followed by a debate with the representative of the Bangladeshi textile industry, the head of the International Labour Organization, a spokesperson from the Clean Clothes Campaign of the Berne Declaration and from the CSR department of the shoe company Bata. While I’ve read about this film on English speaking blogs, I don’t have Netflix so I hadn’t got round to watching it (it’s also available on iTunes!). I recommend checking it out, it’s one of those documentaries that tells you what you already know, yet is still very entertaining and moving. Some of the conclusions drawn are simplistic, and many of the scenes provide great sound bites yet lack nuance, but I think that the film is worth seeing just for seeing the reality of the conditions our clothes are made in. To listen to the interviews with factory workers in Bangladesh, to see footage of unionised workers beaten to the ground in Cambodia, and to see the chemicals from leather tanneries poured into rivers in India. To understand the toll that 52 “fashion seasons” per year have on our planet, to realise how the constantly cheap prices of clothes in our shops are affecting people’s lives. And also to grasp the numbers behind the industry: fashion being the world’s second most polluting industry after oil, with deaths of workers due to safety issues in the thousands in the past few years alone and minuscule salaries for those sewing our clothes. This contrasted with those at the top: the main shareholders of Zara and H&M worth a net 70 billion and 30 billion dollars respectively.
So how to start not only loving what I wear, but also respecting those and the resources that made it for me?
First of all by understanding that I need less. A few excellent garments far outweigh the value and enjoyment of many mediocre ones.
Secondly by purchasing clothes from companies whose business models include and value the human and environmental capital in the creation, transportation and sales of their products. I am not advocating for a boycott of certain brands, I will just not be buying their products until they demonstrate that they are taking these issues seriously and have found solutions. Although many companies have signed agreements and have busy CSR departments, change is not happening fast enough, and this is from the mouth of the head of Bangladeshi textiles himself, on behalf of the people stitching our seams. I don’t agree with the argument that stopping fast fashion purchases will be detrimental to workers themselves, as I believe that if companies see that their customers are serious about wanting quality, decent labour conditions, and inevitably are prepared to pay the price, the agonisingly slow changes will be implemented and decent wages will become a reality. I choose to open my purse to those who have already understood this. Luckily, the Internet is a great resource for finding brands and companies that approach fashion in a different way and do provide valuable livelihoods for those employed. The prices are often higher, and while price is not an indicator of quality or of commitment, I am happy to pay more for clothes if I can be assured that the money is being allocated down the supply chain. After all, I am buying less!
Thirdly, I’m looking for garments that will last and will be versatile. This may sound like an absolute no-brainer to generations older than me, but ma foi, I am a product of my age. My teenager years were spent buying cheap outfits with friends on Saturday mornings, and I have never once in my life checked at the seams of a piece of clothing before buying it. Well-made, quality, durability and taking care of my clothes are new phrases to my vocabulary, ones that I am sure my mum and my granny will be happy to hear.
Finally, I am learning to shop for second-hand clothes, which satisfies the cravings for new and cheap additions to the wardrobe without having any impact on the environment. In fact, as most clothes aren’t biodegradable, they spend up to two hundred years rotting in landfills, so buying second hand is the ultimate form of recycling. In the past month I have bought a practically new The Kooples jumper and a wool J Crew jumper, as well as an awesome denim jacket, each for less than 20.-. For those living in Geneva, check out this wee second-hand shop where you can buy and sell clothes.
My aim through this is to create a wardrobe in which each and every piece has been made in decent working conditions through sustainable practices that value both humans and environment. Obviously, this may take me several years, as throwing all my clothes out and starting from scratch would be entirely missing the point. Yesterday I listened to an interesting Foreign Policy podcast about the social media generation, which highlighted that grassroots feelings were strong amongst our generation, yet grassroots action was extremely weak. Many of us know what we are against politically and socially, but the question should be: what are we for? I’m against violations of human rights, dire working conditions and the destruction of our environment, and I’m for acting and purchasing in a way that doesn’t perpetuate these practices. While the cynic in my head cackles, “how sweet and millennial of you to think that you can make a difference”, I’ve chosen to brush scepticism aside. These small changes are my first steps into living more aligned to my values, and to answering the question “what can we do?”. And it feels really quite exciting.