Making a fashion revolution

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Last week’s Fashion Revolution campaign has provided so much to read, think about, share, and act on. Fashion Revolution Week continues to grow awareness and expand upon previous year’s one-day campaigns for transparency in the fashion industry (asking #whomademyclothes) in response to the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza Complex in Bangladesh. The tragedy killed over 1100 garment workers and injured 2500, many of whom were trapped in the building.

Of course, and most unfortunately, Rana Plaza was the largest but not the first garment manufacturing accident. Garment and textile industry working conditions have throughout history been abusive, with protests and backlash leading to the abolishment of child labor and the creation of the 8-hour workday.

When the Fashion Revolution campaign asks “who made my clothes?” it is very easy for us makers to answer “I made my clothes” — Fashion Revolution Day is but one week before Me Made May, after all. But last year the maker community went further, with many of us posting “I made my clothes” and then asking “who made my fabric?”

This year, Emily from In the Folds initiated a great set of prompts called Makers for Fashion Revolution, with a topic to post about each day: I made my clothes; By Hand; Mending; Upcycled; Second hand first; Skill up; Goals.

I really enjoyed these phrases as jumping-off points for thinking about why and how I make clothing. I posted almost every day with the series of pictures at the top (you can find me on Instagram to see the full posts :)). I love that there is this virtual community of people nodding in agreement about these issues, inspiring one another, swapping ideas, and crowd-sourcing trouble-shooting and transparency.

And yet, between the #makersforfashrev social media conversations and reading lots of Fashion Revolution articles in different news outlets, I kept coming back to how personal choice is situated within systemic change. When we ask brands for transparency, are we really pressuring them into complying with human rights and ethical practices? When we make (or mend) our own clothing, are we truly creating change in the fashion system, or are we small potatoes?

Just a few days into the week, I found myself scanning through #fashrev posts and feeling dismayed by both the vastness of the industry (80 billion garments leave factories each year) and the (self-critical) virtuosity of my own campaign posts (I make/mend my clothes, and therefore abstain from unethical conditions). My mind went back to an essay I once read for an environmental policy class: To Hell with Shorter Showers.

Turns out, the piece, penned by Derick Jensen, is actually called Forget Shorter Showers, but I think the way I’ve mentally catalogued it sums up the position that individual actions will never even approach the impact of industrial resource use and waste:

“I want to be clear. I’m not saying we shouldn’t live simply. I live reasonably simply myself, but I don’t pretend that not buying much (or not driving much, or not having kids) is a powerful political act, or that it’s deeply revolutionary. It’s not. Personal change doesn’t equal social change.”

Last year there was an article focused on the “the myth of the ethical shopper” which made some parallel arguments. Frankly, I hated that article. Not because I think we can solve all the problems of the fashion industry by shopping ethically, but because it lacked nuance, rejecting the idea that people can be engaged citizens who also shop.

I think in addition to asking, we need to demand change and enforcement of standards — from brands, from politicians, from independent certifiers. We need to divest from fast fashion. And we need to shop secondhand, especially if/when we regularly donate to secondhand shops. Which, of course, does come back around to personal choice.

While it’s possible to extend the “ethical shopper” narrative into a “myth of the ethical maker,” I think that would be entirely overlooking the added engagement provided by a tactile understanding of clothing (and perhaps fiber) production. In our digital age, craft and tactile art practices become a hands-on refuge for learning by doing, which, as Nicki Taylor highlighted in a piece on the Fibershed blog, engenders an appreciation for the systems of production and material sources that make clothing ourselves possible. Though not every maker may have that kind of revelation, I think it would be hard to find someone whose choice to make clothing has not affected their assessment of the quality and quantity of clothing produced by the greater fashion system.

My own experience of sewing and knitting has deepened my understanding of the time and effort involved in developing well-fitting, well-made, long-lasting garments. And precisely because I make some of my clothes, I am constantly reminded by threading the needle of my sewing machine or seaming up a sweater that there people around the world making pretty much every other piece of clothing I come across — as their livelihood, not a hobby.

So I think we also need to use that personal choice to invest in alternative systems – in fair trade, in regional manufacturing, in a fibershed. (If I do say so myself). But not just in terms of economic power — the mythical ethical shopper trap looms again — but in non-consumer efforts like building community, sharing skills, and lobbying politicians.

On Fashion Revolution Day, I opted to ask brands #whomademyclothes rather than focusing on my goals (per the #makersforfashrev prompts), but as I’ve been forming this post, it’s become clear to me that my goal is to figure out how to engage more actively in the political side of this movement for transparency. How to “show up” not just in my personal acts of making clothing, but in my civic engagement.

The personal is political, in so much as it is a hands-on way for us to understand systems of power that benefit from unjust politics — but the personal is not a substitution for the political.

p.s. Some resources I’m starting with: Clean Clothes Campaign; Labour Behind the Label; Detox Fashion; American Fashion podcast on TPP; learning more about Fair Trade standards



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making things & asking questions

4 thoughts on “Making a fashion revolution”

  1. For me personally, I need to believe that my own choices, my votes with my wallet matter, if only for my own sanity! Political changes often seem like mountains I cannot move … but ultimately I agree with you that our choices matter more if we share them, if we can encourage others to change too, and build more of a movement. That’s part of why I teach (to me the mindfulness and the joy that come from craft are very intertwined) and I’m making a conscious effort during Me-Made-May this year to at least give strangers an opportunity to notice that I made my clothes (via stitched badges I designed). In other words, I’m starting to think that wearing my heart on my sleeve, being able and willing to engage with people about my choices and why I make them (despite the fact that I’m naturally very shy), can be an important middle ground where I’m doing more than just quietly choosing for myself, but at the same time I don’t feel required to march around with protest signs about every issue I think is vital (which just isn’t for me).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I agree complete! I love the MMM badges too, what a great idea! I do feel self conscious sometimes when I divulge to others that I’ve made what I’m wearing, but that’s another great form of “showing up” more – opening those conversations. Inspired…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think everything we do as individuals is essential. Those who say it doesn’t matter what you do because the industry is so much larger, forgets something essential: in the end, it is individuals who are the industry’s customers. And also, does so to not have to take a stand and realise that your choice matters. Because it’s more fun to be a polluting, mindless consumer, it’s easier to walk the broad road than the narrow path. I am throughly delighted with the fashion revolution movement. Finally!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed! I think fashion is such a unique industry for these reasons – obviously there are consumers on the other end of big oil and agriculture, but fashion is so directly motivated by consumer spending and desires, so personal choice has the potential to make a larger, more direct impact.

      Liked by 2 people

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