Many of us have been there: we’re about to go on holiday (I really wish we were right now!) and unfortunately, our children have outgrown their clothes. A new ski jacket, swimwear for the hotel pool, and some everyday warm clothes are on the list. I check the secondhand Facebook groups and Marketplace, but unfortunately, I can’t find anything suitable. So then what? Where do we buy their new clothes? And, how can we go about finding these clothes consciously? The pandemic has brought many inequalities into sharp focus, including inequalities within the clothing industry.
I’d like to pose a few questions:
- Who makes your clothes?
- Are the workers treated well? Have they been paid during the pandemic?
- Are companies honoring their orders?
- Are the materials sustainable?
In 2013, the Rana Plaza clothing factory collapsed in Bangladesh in just 90 seconds, killing 1,134 people and throwing the conditions of factory workers into the spotlight. While much has improved, there is still a lot to be desired. Children are regularly employed, workers’ rights are minimal, and the remuneration is small. Reportedly, there has only been one pay increase since 2013 and when they protested about this in 2018, the leaders were thrown in jail.
During the pandemic, hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of orders were canceled and there are many companies who are refusing to pay for orders that had already been started and sometimes even finished. In the UK this crosses off a huge number of large store suppliers for me (Traidcraft analysis), including those I previously thought were more ethical employers such as John Lewis and Marks and Spencers.
In December, my dilemma became even more difficult. The BBC did an in-depth investigation on the scale of forced labor by minority groups in Xinjiang, China, based on online documents found by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington. The evidence shows that in 2018 alone, three Uyghur regions mobilized at least 570,000 people into cotton-picking operations through the government’s coercive labor training and transfer scheme. Xinjiang’s total labor transfer of ethnic minorities into cotton-picking likely exceeds that figure by several hundred thousand. And in 2020, over 70% of the labor force was made up of ethnic and religious minority groups, specifically Muslims. To put that into perspective, 20% of the world’s cotton and 80% of the cotton sold in China comes from the Uyghur region.
Is there anything else to consider when looking at inequalities within the clothing industry?
Well, the fashion industry also makes a significant impact on the planet, so personally I will always choose to buy organic. Due to the fact that certified organic cotton cannot use synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, the cotton plantations must be located in areas that are suitable for growing the crop which leads to less deforestation. This also means that less water is used in the production of cotton. The Textile Exchange research shows that an average-sized organic t-shirt uses 1,980 gallons less water to produce than its non-organic counterpart. Another huge part of it for me is that in order to be certified organic, a company has to adhere to a stringent set of rules, including social responsibilities. The criteria includes no child labor, freely chosen employment, fair remuneration, assessment of the living wage gap, no discrimination, and a defined working time.
Fortunately, there are some amazing companies out there including the one that Bébé Voyage has teamed up with to produce their merchandise: work + shelter. There are also companies that repurpose plastic bottles to create waterproof clothing and ski clothes. One of my favorites for children is Frugi. Not only are their clothes sustainably produced, but they are also cut for cloth diapers for the early years and have honored all payment agreements.
For adults, Patagonia is second to none from a sustainability and durability perspective. For something a bit different, Rapanui is a Cornish brand that operates a circular supply chain by accepting clothing back when it is worn out. Bonus: they are really comfortable too!
So while the prospect of finding clothes that you like and fit that are also sustainable might seem daunting, there are brands out there that do not have the same inequalities in the clothing industry that others do. These are the ones we need to be seeking out so that we can help to change the way the industry works.
Do you have a favorite sustainable clothing brand? Tell us about it in the comments!
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