It all started with a coat hanger.
I burrowed furiously through my bulging wardrobe in search of one. That seemingly elusive piece of looped, silver wire was required to hang my newest fashion purchase (a gorgeous red Tigerlily jacket with rainbow paisley detailing) and I swore under my breath as I came up empty handed. “We need to buy more coat hangers!” I sang out, to my husband. He looked up from his desk, his brow furrowed in a look that signified both forbearance and mild frustration, a look that I had become quite accustomed to in the last five years of our relationship. “What?” I spat back, in response to ‘the look’, my tone defensive. “I don’t think we need to buy any more coat hangers”, he sighed. “I think you just have too many clothes”.
Of course, he was right.
But I wasn’t alone. And it isn’t just other twenty-something women, like me: it’s all of us. On average, we now buy 400% more clothes today than we did 20 years ago. Clothing used to be celebrated, it used to hold meaning. To buy a new dress for an event was a big deal and now it’s the social norm. I kept buying clothes. It was a habit, a compulsion.
A famous line from HBO’s early naughties TV drama Sex and the City had Carrie Bradshaw exclaim “I like my money right where I can see it: hanging in my closet”. What a ridiculous sentiment. Yet for many of us, it rings quite true. This had to stop. I devised a plan. The New Year was approaching, so I thought I would take this opportunity of fresh starts and resolutions to create a commitment to myself, for the benefit of my wardrobe (and my sanity). For the entire calendar year, I would not purchase any more brand new clothes.
On January 1st I felt excited and motivated, as almost all New Year’s resolutions tend to make one feel. Temporarily. But unlike last year when I vowed to quit sugar, or the year before that when I’d paid for swing dance classes and stopped showing up a few weeks in, I seemed to only grow more resolute in my convictions as the year went on. It became so much more than just a fun way to save money and revive the clothes I already owned. It became a learning experience that would open my eyes to the global fashion industry and change the way I think about shopping, forever.
It was a conversation over coffee with a former retail hotshot that first got my brain whirring. “The thing about retail is,” he began, “you’re just selling landfill.” This friend, once a king of the global fashion world (previously Executive Director and CEO of some pretty major Australian and international labels), has moved into the realm of hospitality, as founder of a now thriving food outlet chain, but his memories of retail are clear. His blue eyes, that seem to just sparkle with a mixture of passion and determination, locked onto mine and his expression was serious. “I caught up with a good mate of mine before I started in food,” he said, “and at the time he was the head of Urban Outfitters and we just had this big, sad, light-bulb moment where we admitted, that’s what we do. We make something that’s going to end up as rubbish. And we make people believe they need it. Not just to want it – but to need it – that bit’s important. Then they buy it, and then we tell them they need the next new thing and so on. Until eventually it’s just more trash. It’s all just a huge, depressing game”. A somber thought.
In March, a friend begged me to come with her to find a new dress. It’s a very surreal experience, to visit a huge shopping centre with no intention of purchasing. Not the old ‘window shopping’ scenario, where you wander around lusting over item after item but without the money to spend. This was different. This was a rare chance to view this buzzing retail hub with fresh and objective eyes. An outsider looking in. And I’ve got to tell you, what I saw was pretty intense.
The colours, the noise and the clutter all contributed to the frenzied energy of almost every shop we entered. Every inch of space was covered – walls, floors and even ceilings – in advertising and banners advertising some sort of sale. For that matter, all of these stores were advertising sales. All of them. You have to wonder, is there ever a time when a store has no prices that are reduced? Music blared in every store (mostly house or mainstream pop, with heavy bass that made it hard to hear your own thoughts). Racks overflowing with clothes filled the floor, so bunch in that there was barely room for the amount of manic shoppers trying to make their way around, injudiciously cramming bargains into their plastic baskets. They, like I had been, were probably picking up more of the stuff they didn’t need to put into their bulging wardrobes and maybe never even wear. But you can’t miss out on that dress when it’s only $14.95, can you?
This is what they call ‘fast fashion’. The term was derived over the last 20 years as we started seeing big brands, such as H&M, Zara and Topshop bringing out new collections every week. It used to be the case that a new season collection was a cause for celebration, with customers snapping up the last items in a retailer’s summer look, whilst eagerly awaiting the unveiling of the new Autumn collection. This seems almost nostalgic now, as fast fashion means there are no seasons. There’s just new. And plenty of it. The high stock rotation and extremely low prices of garments in these stores actually trick us into buying more than we should. It’s clever marketing and highly profitable. Co-founder of Zara, Amancio Ortega, is the second richest person in the world.
Sadly, though, these profits do not usually extend to the people who are making the clothes we buy. The term ‘sweatshops’ gained popularity in the nineties, and some highly reputable brands had their names sullied through their association to child labour and appalling working conditions. You may remember the focus being on brands like Nike.
During this hype, Nike was shown to be paying factory workers as little as 14cents per hour and in horrible conditions, working shifts up to 18 hours in length. Inevitably, the news cycle passes and so with it our attention to it. We go back to buying Nike trainers. But did anything change? The short (and sad) answer is, a little bit, but not really. The popular sports brand, according to data by ad agency Moosylvania last year, is the most popular and recognized brand among generations Y and Z and is worth US$28billion.
And it’s no wonder why. In December of last year, Nike re-signed American basketball star Lebron James in a sponsorship contract which, according to Forbes, is rumoured to be worth over US$500million, among many other expensive celebrity endorsements. And they’ve been working on their image, slowly but surely managing to shed their ‘sweatshop’ synonymy. They have a whole website dedicated to their supposed focus on ‘sustainable innovation’ and every year – since 2001 – have released their ‘sustainable business report’, which gives transparency on their business and supply chains, and which is accessible to the public. They indirectly employ roughly one million contracted factory workers, in nearly 800 factories throughout the world. Despite this, Oxfam Australia says Nike could still do much more by increasing minimum wages to basic living wages, giving workers the right to form trade unions and banning short-term contracts, which gives Nike the power to threaten taking their business elsewhere, and hence the power to further drive down the already low prices paid to workers. It paints a startling picture of capitalism, drawing to mind those classic Midnight Oil lyrics, “the rich get richer, the poor get the picture”.
Although an obvious target, Nike are not the only offenders, and almost every brand of clothing you wear is tied up in this seemingly unethical world. These brands are constantly asking the impossible of people in developing countries and, scared of losing their business and their jobs, they have to comply. But at what cost?
There have been dozens of fires, accidents, injuries and deaths caused in developing countries, where the clothes and associated deadlines are valued more than a human life and occupational health and safety is nonexistent. In 2013, a factory called Rana Plaza, in the outskirts of a suburb called Dhaka in Bangladesh, collapsed and killed more than 1100 people.
The workers in this factory were producing garments for up-market Western brands, and had quelled all concerns regarding the building’s safety. Their targets (the number of clothing items produced) needed to be met to appease these brands. Rana Plaza had gone, illegally, from a five story building to eight just a few years earlier, in an attempt to meet the demands of these brands. The structural foundations were unsound. An engineer from the local council deemed the building unsafe, but the workers were told this was not true and urged to keep working. There were obvious cracks in the walls and the workers were scared.
One such worker, Mahmuda, told The Guardian (UK) “We didn’t want to go inside. We said we wouldn’t. But the supervisors said ‘It’s the 24th, nearly the end of the month. How will you pay your rent if you don’t get a salary?’ I don’t blame them. I know they didn’t want to go inside either. But were answerable to the management.” Mahmuda’s husband was killed in the collapse, leaving her as a single mother with a two-month old baby. She, like the others, relied on this minimum wage 8000 Bangladesh Taka (under $140 Australian) a month to support her family and new baby and had to continue working in the factory despite the death of her husband and her “world being turned upside down”. There are many people, like Mahmuda, in similar situations.
To say more than 1100 people died in what was one of the biggest industrial tragedies the world has ever seen, is purely shocking. To see the faces of individuals affected is distressing. But for the brands associated – those whose clothes were being made at the time – it seemed easy to detach. They held themselves unaccountable and some claimed to have completely lost control of their supply chains, and their clothes had been sub-contracted and passed on to Rana Plaza to share the load. These were American and European brands, for the most part. However, statistics from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade tell us that in 2012, we imported $353 million in clothes from Bangladesh, the second biggest number of imports, after China. This number has likely grown considerably in the last four years. We are making clothes there and we are responsible. Regardless of this detachment; this apparent lack of accountability and of passing- the-buck, the industry was rocked by this tragedy.
Since the Rana Plaza disaster, Baptist World Aid has funded their ‘Behind the Barcode’ (BTB) project: a school-style report card that rates and compares the ethical performance of major fashion labels and bundles in into a comprehensive annual compendium. Human Rights researcher and activist Ethical Sourcing expert, Laura McManus, says BTB is a crucial tool for empowering both consumers and workers making clothes. “The key words are transparency and traceability. That’s what BTB wants to see and the brands who receive A and A+ marks in this report all have a very solid understanding of their supply chains, even as far back as where their raw materials come from. They are open and honest about who makes their clothes and what they are paid, or the conditions they are working in. Sadly, they are only a small few. Only 5% of the brands examined knew where their materials came from. And even less brands are able to publish details about the wages that are paid within factories undertaking work for them. The goal is for brands to be knowledgeable about their products throughout all stages of production, not just the final stages”.
Laura has had some firsthand experience in the industry, as the co-creator of ‘Banners to Bags’, a project she started in Nepal that took old banners and advertising signs and converted them into cute, reusable shopping bags. The project empowers local women with meaningful work and also aims to reduce the environmental concerns surrounding plastic bag waste, which is significantly bad in Nepal. Laura is also the co-author of several articles on the subject, including one for The Walk Free Foundation titled ‘Tackling Modern Slavery in Supply Chains: A Guide outlines step-by-step what companies can and must do to identify, remedy and prevent modern slavery in their business and supply chains’, and she is passionate about making change.
She’s every bit the modern activist: fervently energetic and erudite. Not crazy. She’s not storming the gates of fashion shows to throw fake blood on fur-clad models. There’s a smarter and more effective way to get the attention of the fashion industry’s big players and keep them in line, and that’s through excellent initiatives such as BTB. “Some brands are really conscious of their report score [in BTB] and the public perception that comes from that. A really good example of this is David Jones. They previously received fail grades and they wanted to do better, they have worked really hard at improving their transparency, policies and processes across the board and created the role of an Ethical Sourcing Manager to oversee it all. On this year’s report, they scored a B-, which is such an amazing improvement and really proves what brands can achieve just by focusing on it,” says Laura.
You don’t have to download or read the full 65 page Behind the Barcode report to see how your favourite brands are performing, either. Good On You have created a very simple to use and informative app, available on iPhone and Android, that gives you all of this data any time you need. It also has a feature that allows you to contact your favourite brands at the click of a button and give them feedback on your thoughts, and it’s free. Laura explains, “The amazing power of Good On You is it means consumers are being given the opportunity to be educated about brands before they purchase. What we need to do is to encourage people make more mindful choices. Because when you’re shopping mindfully, you’re empowering yourself to do better and sending a strong message to corporations. We forget, that as consumers, we really have the power. Corporations will only make and sell us what they think we will buy. If we stop buying, they stop making it that way. And if we get educated, we have the power to change the industry and turn fast-fashion on its head.”
Social media platforms also give more power to the consumer. The hashtag #WhoMadeMyClothes, is making rumbles, with people sharing photos of the tags on their clothes (or even turning their entire outfit inside out) on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter and tagging the brand. In a trend started by The Fashion Revolution, an online collective celebrating transparency in the industry and ethical fashion, the movement has really taken off, and it’s causing a stir amongst major brands. This included many of my favourite fashion labels. Melbourne-based trendsetter Gorman, in response to the hashtag movement, released a series of posts on their Instagram account with factory workers holding signs up that say ‘I made your clothes’ and a brief interview with the individual. Although, according to the research made available by Good On You, Gorman still has a way to go before attaining the credentials attributed to a reputable brand, this development shows that they see that blind consumerism is fading; customers want to know more about where and how their clothes were made. Green is the new black, and no label with any serious street cred will want to be left behind.
Of course, ethical and mindful clothing purchasing does not necessarily mean you have to buy new. Throughout my year without new clothes, I became a semi-professional at scouring second-hand stores for unique finds at bargain prices. Friends and family members cleaning out their closets gave me garbage bags full of their hand-me-downs, which I rummaged through like a small child ripping presents open on Christmas morning as their bleary-eyed parents watch on. I searched on gumtree and found people selling whole wardrobes for almost nothing. ‘Moving overseas, everything must go!’ and ‘having a baby, please buy my old clothes!’ were popular sentiments of women, my size, offloading items on the online sale site for very reasonable prices. I found the more I did it, the easier it became.
One morning I went for a jog, and about a block away from my apartment I saw a woman throwing bags of clothes into a pile of hard rubbish sitting in the gutter, ready for the routine council collection. I stopped her, and asked if I could have the clothes, and she was more than happy to give them to me. I dragged the bags home and found some beautiful pieces of clothing that I washed, dried and ironed. I kept some, gave some to friends and donated the rest. I shared this story with some colleagues, who were horrified. But I had no shame. In fact, I felt pride. I didn’t need something brand new to be created in a sweatshop for me to wear just once, and in fact, I was prolonging the life of a garment that otherwise may have ended up in the bin. It was fulfilling.
It seems this stigma surrounding second-hand is not exaggerated. “Some ladies come in and look both ways over their shoulders to make sure nobody sees them shopping here. Often they buy a really nice piece of clothing and tell me that they will save it for an out-of-town event or a trip, because they are too scared to wear it locally; they’re too scared that the person who donated it will see them wearing it and then know that they bought it second hand. It’s crazy,” Lisa Stuart-Jones tells me. Lisa is from Goodwill Australia, a charity organization based in Sydney’s Lower North Shore with retail stores that allow locals to donate used items and purchase pre-loved treasures, with the proceeds going towards worthy charities, such as the Starlight Children’s foundation and Royal Far West.
“Part of making our stores successful is making them really visually appealing and easy to navigate. You don’t see bargain bins here where people are just burrowing through piles of clothes like dirty laundry. You see colour-coordinated racks and you see mannequins in beautiful outfits with lovely accessories. It makes people feel more comfortable shopping here. We also ask for people to donate only items that they would buy, so we get a lot of good quality stock. A lot of the clothes we get are really excellent quality, they don’t really make clothes like that anymore. Clothes bought at K-mart often fall apart and fade after a few wears, whereas we sell dresses that are 25 years old and still in impeccable condition. The manufacturing just isn’t what it used to be. Plus, you really can get a bargain. We have clothes starting at $2 and generally, people get a whole bag full of clothes – nice clothes – for about $20. You just don’t see that anywhere else”.
I didn’t bring less clothes into my wardrobe. However, I learnt to be much more fluid with clothes. If I hadn’t worn it in a year or more, then it was folded neatly and donated. Clothes that you acquire second hand you don’t seem to come with the pressure to keep them forever with the belief that ‘I’ll wear it someday’ or ‘I’ll fit into that when I just lose a bit more weight’.
Most importantly though, I organized.
Most of what makes up the overwhelming frustration of too many clothes can be solved with a little tidying. I pulled everything out my mess of a wardrobe and sorted it. Piece by piece. I hung belts neatly. I arranged shoes into a rack. I sorted dresses and blouses into colours and styles and folded jeans and skirts. I made an easy system that meant I could see all of my clothes and therefore wear them more. I labelled draws and glued hooks to my wall to hang scarves and jewellery. It felt fresh and exciting. Ironically, a similar feeling to that which you get coming home from the mall with a bag of new clothes. Previously I had ripped clothes out of my wardrobe and strewn them across my bedroom; spending hours trying to choose an outfit and proclaiming ‘I can’t possibly go out; I’ve nothing to wear!’ whilst almost drowning in a sea of colorful cotton, polyester and nylon. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famously quoted in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, I had ‘water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink’. It was exhausting. But not anymore.
Check your labels and think about who made your clothes. Shop mindfully and with purpose. Reduce, reuse and recycle clothes and outfits. Through small actions, such as these, we have the power to change the world. And one thing is absolutely certain: we do not need to buy any more coat hangers.