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.