The human cost of fast fashion

My mum once knitted me a scarf as a present, and sewed on to it buttons from the clothes of my childhood. Just a glimpse of the red metal button from one corduroy pinafore (mm-hmm) brought back the taste of fishfingers and ketchup and the Diff’rent Strokes theme tune.

A few years after my pinafore period I started wearing a cardigan that my mum had made for herself when I was very little. It was soft and a rusty shade of fox. I wore it constantly as a sixth former until it was mysteriously ‘lost’ during a washing cycle. I have never forgotten it. It may have looked less than delicious to others but to me it communicated comfort, and a sense of being held. 

More recently a black sweater with a tiny criss-cross patterning in the weave won a place in my affections. I liked the shape and simplicity of it and wore it until it started to fall apart at the seams so I stitched it up (a sign of true affection as, due to an early scarring experience with a needlework teacher, this is not something I often do). After spilling a splash of bleach on it I had to colour the marks with a black sharpie whenever I wore it. Eventually we reached the point in our relationship when I knew we needed to say goodbye, but it took me a long time to act on that knowledge. 

Some clothes find a way into your heart – because of how perfectly they fit, or feel on your skin, or because of good things that have happened when you wore them. 

But the fashion industry that produces them needs us to see clothes differently, or the trajectory of its profits will start to slacken. It requires us to be consumers rather than friends of our clothes: to eat, digest and excrete vast quantities of clothes to keep its momentum going.

In order to make this possible, a high proportion of clothes are sold at relatively low cost to the consumer, so many people don’t need to think twice before making a new purchase. When I was a student, I paid £45 for a new pair of Levis. Today I can buy a pair of jeans for £10, and be pretty sure that:

- when I’ve had enough of them I can throw them out and buy another pair for the cost of a single cinema ticket

- the person who made them will be paid less than 40p for their work, maybe much less

- because the supply chain is global, I won’t need to see that person and confront the reality of how they live

As well as skimping on wages paid to workers, some clothing companies choose to use only a narrow range of cheap dyes to allow production of high-turnover fashion at bargain prices. But surely skimping on colour is like putting on an exhibition of beautiful pieces of art and then switching off the lights to keep electricity costs down? 

Clothes are meant to be fun, to be useful, beautiful, and interesting. Mid-century dramas are alive with the zing of the dresses of the 1950s and 60s, their prints and patterns, the scarves and sunglasses and lipstick. But when I go into some high street shops I see cheap clothes made hastily with poor quality fabric and dingy colours that run out of the washing machine into the drains by the third wash.

We are missing the point.

But, sadly, it’s not quite as innocent as that. We’re not just missing out; we’re involved in something much darker in our lunch hour, as we pop into the nearest shop for a quick fashion fix.

I read a book about slavery a little while ago, and the depths of the cruelty detailed in it still haunt me. What became clear through its pages was that, but for a few dissenters, an entire society contentedly fed its children on the proceeds of torture. Generations of British people who in many other ways lived useful and kind lives had explicit or implicit involvement in perhaps the most horrifying system humanity has ever devised. Most of them turned their gaze from the true source of their wealth so they could freely enjoy its benefits – even, in the case of one elegant walking party, speeding up as they strolled past a slave ship on the seafront, to avoid the stench of death it belched and find more bearable air. 

Thinking about that blinkered generation made me wonder what we might be busy turning a blind eye to now. Is there anything that our children and their children will look back on in disbelief and ask, ‘How could you silently sanction that?’

The more I learn about it, the more it seems that one of our most significant blind spots may be the way we buy our clothes.

Most of us are aware that many of the people who make our clothes in Bangladesh and Vietnam and other far-off places get a raw deal. We don’t like it, but judging which brands are more trustworthy than others can be complicated, and life is busy, and we need clothes to wear, and so we end up perpetuating a system that condemns living, breathing, crying, laughing, dreaming, feeling people to death: either a non-life of deadening poverty and appalling conditions, or swift extinction in a factory fire or collapse. 1,134 people were killed in one day alone when the Rana Plaza complex collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, but they were garment workers rather than western tourists, so it doesn’t seem to live in our collective consciousness like other, more famous tragedies do.

There are a number of reasons why working out what to do about our clothes shopping habits is less than straightforward. Here are four:

  1. Paying a higher price for your clothes does not guarantee that they’ve been made more fairly. It’s safe to assume that the making of a very cheap piece of clothing has involved exploitation at some point because maths is maths is maths. On average, four per cent of the price of an item goes to pay people in the country of manufacture, and 96 per cent to people in the country of sale. But a higher price tag certainly doesn’t mean a fairer wage for makers. Hermes and Chanel, for example, rank at the very bottom of the Fashion Transparency Index.
  2. Digging deeper to see which brands we can trust seems to reveal prime alternative facts territory. Fashion supply chains are long and very complex. Many brands don’t know exactly where or how their clothes are made; others do and choose to avert a profit-focused eye. H&M, for example, has won accolades for its efforts to institute a living wage for garment workers, but it's also the same company that runs supplying factories in Myanmar in which 14 year-old girls work 15-hour days. A Clean Clothes Campaign report found that over half of H&M’s strategic suppliers still lack adequate fire exits. The industry is opaque, and knowing who to trust is a challenge.
  3. Some wonder whether boycotting brands that allow exploitation of their workforces will hit the poor hardest: ‘If I stop buying these clothes will the people who make them be left with even less to live on?’ But surely propping up an unfair system because you worry about the fragility of the alternative will not give that fairer alternative the opportunity it needs to prove itself.
  4. Our phones flash with another notification and our attention moves on, and grappling with complexity gets dropped in favour of the next quick digital hit.

I grew up in Birmingham on Bournville land, developed by the Cadbury family to provide a healthy environment for the workers at their chocolate factory. The verges are wide, the houses built with thought and care, and the minimum number of fruit-trees in the gardens once stipulated by by-law. The old Cadbury kindness has seeped into the soil and I grew up knowing that business could be enlightened and successful, and intentionally and proactively good.

Fortunately, people with creativity, imagination and determination are still working to tackle exploitation and injustice. If we in turn seek out what they’re doing and vote with our bank cards, we can demonstrate to fashion industry decision-makers that respect for human life and dignity can turn a good profit. 

One of these people happens to live in the street next to mine. My neighbour Maria is a garment industry professional who runs a charitable organisation which helps people living in difficult situations to develop their dressmaking skills and generate an income.

In response to an invitation from a contact working with disadvantaged women in Mozambique, she has designed a dress and business model that is innovative and inspired. 

Photo: Laura Simmons. Models: Ruth Miller and Hannah Omar

Photo: Laura Simmons. Models: Ruth Miller and Hannah Omar

Into the very design of the dress are worked principles created to benefit the wearer, the maker, the seller and the environment. The same dress is designed to fit anyone, from size 6 to 26, and is made without zips, buttons or additional parts that may be harder to source in some parts of the world. It can be made on a manual sewing machine, if electricity is unreliable or simply not available.

  • The wearer gets to own a beautiful dress that has been made well and fairly, with 30 per cent of the price tag going to the maker.
  • The maker saves money on a pattern designed to minimise waste that does not require anything other than fabric and thread for its production.
  • The seller can be confident that any dress they order will fit any prospective customer. There is no longer a need to order a range of different sizes, or worry about stock that won’t shift.
  • The environment is protected as air miles, fabric waste, and turnover are reduced.

Fittingly, the dress is being launched on Fashion Revolution Day, 24th April, and will be on sale at Indigo, Oxford. 

While the current focus may be local, however, the vision stretches far. 

The plan is to use sales of dresses in Oxford to finance its extension internationally. The patented dress template and accompanying instructions can be used for a £1 license fee per year, making the product a tried, tested and inexpensive way for a dressmaker anywhere in the world to be paid fairly for a high quality, lasting product.

After all, it’s only fitting that a dress should be fun and beautiful, and something that increases rather than reduces the sum total of joy in this world.




Find out more about Maria’s Dorcas dress here.

On Monday 24th April, you are warmly invited to come and find out #WhoMadeYourClothes and meet Maria, Bahar and others involved in the project at the dress launch, from 6:00 – 7:30 p.m. at Indigo, 62 Cowley Road, Oxford, OX4 1JB.

Dresses will also be available from 24th April at Live Lagom, 6 Gabriel’s Wharf, Upper Ground, South Bank, London, SE1 9PP. 

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required