On Ethics: 1

Molly and Sunita

So, one of the reasons I am so enthused about starting sewing is that it provides an antidote to the cruelty of the high street fashion industry which results in abuse, exploitation, and increased poverty for the poorest members of society, and in the worst cases,  such awful tragedies as the Karachi garment factory fire of 2012. I confess I’ve been wilfully and shamefully turning a blind eye to the awful working conditions that mean we can buy £4.99 vest tops on a whim, or £9.99 shoes. I have had  the occasional pang that has resulted in brief moment of, ahem, ‘activism’ i.e. I walked out of the newly opened Primark on Oxford Street in protest at the labour conditions necessary to produce so many clothes at cheap prices and then walked straight into another high street shop and bought clothes there. I am entirely convinced that these would have been produced under similar conditions, and all I achieved was paying more for clothes that the workers who made them got paid next to nothing for.  Pointless, depressing, and made no difference whatsoever.

I have also occasionally bought from Fair Trade or ethical clothes stores online, but our culture of entitlement has left me thinking that they are expensive. I know rationally that they are being the sold at the actual price they should cost if workers are paid well and non-environment destroying production processes have been used, but after years of buying things at knock- down prices, everything seems a rip off. I think that if I liked the styles more, I might feel more content with my purchasing, but they are often in frumpy fabrics or small sizes and do not provide the instant gratification that cheap and nasty unethical but fashionable high street or online shopping can  give you. As much as people are trying to modernise ethical fashion, often the ‘modernising’ only happens in ‘chic’ brands with a very small size range, and the few options for anyone over a size 16 are quite frankly, dull. If I put ethics aside, which is far too easy to do faced with a really really cool sequin playsuit (or maybe that’s just me), why buy one not really very interesting dress for £80 in a cut and fabric you don’t really like, when you can buy 6 different ones from a less ethical supplier that are MUCH more exciting?

I don’t think the ethical shopping offer at present is enough to undo my hardwired delight in having shiny new clothes. One new shirt I don’t really like every month is just not the same as all the fun things from ASOS Curve. But what is enough to undo it the drastic change of perspective that sewing gives me.

I have been needing a shock to the system, and that is what sewing my own clothes has given me. It has given me a deeper understanding of what exactly I am under-paying people to do. I can’t believe how much work goes into making one item of clothing. Granted, I am a beginner, and granted I don’t have the industrial sewing machines and sergers and fabric cutters used in factories like the one in Karachi. But the fact is, clothes take time to make. They take concentration and skill. There is absolutely no way that pricing a t-shirt at £3.99 is reasonable. Especially when you factor in the cost of fabric, the cost of shipping these items from far way to the UK,  and the cost of displaying them in a shop. The only way that these prices are possible and profitable  is by cutting corners every possible way that one can: by under paying staff, giving them long hours with no breaks, offering no benefits and providing appalling working conditions with old machines, cheap fabric, poor sanitary facilities and no thought paid to health and safety.

I know you are now shaking your head in despair at me, thinking ‘I knew that already, it’s been known FOREVER, how come it has taken you so long to work this all out?’. But the fact is I have had all this knowledge in my head for years, but until I started doing what men, women and children in the garment industry do every day, for no thanks, little reward and a lot of back ache, I didn’t really understand it. I needed to feel the fabric running through my fingers from the comfort of my own home to even be able to understand a tenth of what it must feel like for people who do this, not for a hobby, but for 15 hour shifts, day in day out, to appease an ever changing and fickle disposable fashion industry. I’m disappointed at myself for lacking the interest or imagination to really understand this before, but I am glad I am beginning to now. Quite often, when I am fretting over a difficult pleat section, or inserting a tricky sleeve, my husband will say to me ‘they are clever, those children in factories in China, eh?’

Note 1: I am aware that there are many problems in buying the cheap fabrics that I have been snapping up to practice on. I will write about this in a later post. But for now, I am grateful, that for the forseeable future, I will be the only one leaning over a sewing machine to make any new clothes I wear.

Note 2: I am very aware that for many people buying cheap clothing is the only option. I understand  that buying ‘ethical’ fabric, expensive sewing machines and thread is not possible for many people. I understand that the space to sew is a luxury. This is not meant as a post to criticise people on low incomes. It was meant purely as a slap on the wrist for me for being so ignorant, and buying so many cheap clothes that I didn’t need, and which have continued to boost the demand for sweatshop made clothing.

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18 thoughts on “On Ethics: 1

  1. I’m glad you (re)posted this; I think you articulated both the ethical dilemma that many people face when shopping for needed items (clothes) and the desire and need for those items in the first place. I’m really looking forward to your eventual post on the fabrics aspect of the industry, because even though I am glad not to buy much RTW (apart from underpants, I can count only 1 item that I’ve bought in the past 12 months), I still have to buy fabric to make my own clothing and I’m sure there are unsavory aspects to be found there, as well.

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  2. It’s a tough issue. I want to do the right thing, but here in the U.S. basically our whole economy relies on exploitation of foreign labor. And I’m unemployed right now, so buying so-called ethical clothing or fabric is a luxury I can’t afford. What I can do to live a bit more ethically is to wear out the clothes that I already have and sew from the stash of fabrics I’ve been collecting for years. I can alter things to fit me in order to prolong their lives and donate to others the things I can’t alter. So that’s my plan for right now.

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    • That sounds like an excellent plan. I am am well aware that good ethics can come at a price, and I certainly don’t live particularly ‘puritanically’, I just want to try a bit harder.I think actually wearing out the clothes you own is probably the most ethical thing you can do.

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  3. What a great and thoughtful article. Thank you for reposting it. I think that sewing does make your realise the effort that goes into garment manufacture. I have given up buying RTW too, it was too depressing in every way, from how it is produced to the rubbish that they make in limited size ranges. I do buy lots of cool things from charity shops and am trying to either donate or recycle everything that I don’t want any more.
    Also, I once worked as a sewing machinist for a big company that made things for the High Street and can assure you that slave labour is not confined to the Third World. We worked on a very, very basic salary (-£2.50 an hour) which was terrible even for then and were paid a piece rate if we got above a certain level of productivity, which was duly raised by the factory time and motion men if anyone dared to reach it. We got into serious trouble for going to the toilet outside breaks and had compulsory overtime at a moment’s notice, including Saturdays and Sundays. I only worked there to get some industrial machining experience before I went to Uni. It was awful. Still I got very fast at sewing and a lot neater than I woud have been otherwise. 😉

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    • Hello Mother! Thanks for your thoughtful reply. It’s really interesting to hear from someone who has ‘been there and done that’. I was folding my clothes this morning and absent mindedly looking at all the seam finishes and wondered who had made them. They are so interesting and there is so much detail on apparently simple clothes when you look closely, and it’s so easy to forget someone put that little extra fill or trim in. I was thinking how rare it is to hear from the people who make stuff, so it is super timely and interesting to hear from you. I am also trying to donate my RTW clothes, and my new years resolution will be to only buy fabrics from charity shops.

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  4. I think these are very interesting issues, for sure. What I often struggle with though is it really right to deprive people working in all these clothing factories of their jobs? I absolutely agree that conditions should improve, but if you simply don’t buy RTW you are reducing the number of jobs available in countries where people desperately need employment. It’s similar to when people say buy local – firstly, there’s a lot of evidence (my day job!) that the environmental footprint of goods can actually be lower when they’re grown/built far away but in a place where the environment is optimal for it (for instance, lamb from NZ which is flown to the UK has a lower carbon footprint than British lamb); secondly, is it more important (and this is a really tricky question!) to be economically supporting workers say in Kent where there are lots of job alternatives, or say Kenya where this might be the main source of a job. It’s super complicated…

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    • Yes you are quite right, mine is a somewhat over simplified view: I wrote it in the initial rush of love I felt for sewing. Your points are really well made, I didn’t know that about lamb! I definitely struggle with what ‘ethical’ means, and I often do things that are seen as unethical, for ‘ethical’ reasons: for instance I will happily shop in a big chain supermarket, partly because they are a great employer of local young people and learning disabled people, partly because I would rather support these people than middle class deli owners, but also I will admit I do so because it’s much more convenient. I am also spending a lot of the money that I previously spent on ready to wear clothes on fabric now, and I’m sure a lot of it may be produced in conditions similar to those of the RTW garment industry. It’s hard. But what I do stand by is the utter respect I have for people who make clothes and a desire for them to be paid and treated properly. And I don’t want to buy into an industry that completely fails to respect their skills. Do you know of any good charities from your day job that campaign for better working conditions in clothes factories?

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      • I’m not so much on the apparel side of things, but the Sustainable Apparel Coalition is a good place to start. The surprising thing to many people is thay it’s often really large brands that are doing the most because they can afford to invest in it and they have huge economies of scale. As you mention most people aren’t willing to pay a lot more…

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      • That’s so true! After all, I don’t spend my time examining other people’s clothes to see if a) they made them, and b) they have little errors in their construction. I didn’t match the pattern on my skirt… so what? I’m the only one who’ll ever really know!

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  5. This has been one of my motivations for making my own clothes, too. I used to buy quite a lot of clothes; then I restricted myself to buying (much fewer!) higher quality clothes by companies with better reputations. This year, though, I’ve barely bought anything unless it either came from an op shop or was in the form of a length of material.

    Unfortunately, it seems that clothing retailers know how to manipulate us into wanting their garments and it’s much easier at times to give in instead of taking the harder option. On the up side, it becomes much easier with practice! That’s what I’m finding, anyway.

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  6. I made a really cool VW camper van tote bag for my niece and told my co-worker that I spent over 8 hours making it and she was shocked. My niece was shocked too when I told her.
    You’re right – stuff you make takes up time. Until you make things or repair things, you can’t possibly comprehend the price.

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