Last weekend Newcastle Emlyn celebrated its annual Vintage Day. A great excuse for us to get our fit and flare frocks out for some Fairtrade fun (of course no actual rats were harmed during the course of thew day – we are an ethical business after all!). But donning 50s fashion also made us think about how fashion has changed over the last few decades, and what that means for workers and the environment.
This week marks Fashion Revolution Week, when we commemorate the 1,138 people killed in the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh on the 24th April 2013. These were garment workers, working for low pay in atrocious conditions so that we can have a seemingly endless supply of cheap clothes – often worn for one night and then thrown away or never worn at all. Is this what we really want in our name and the cause of ‘fast fashion’?
Things were very different in the 40s and 50s. The Make Do and Mend pamphlet, published by the British Ministry of Information in the midst of WWII when clothes rationing was introduced, was intended to provide people with useful tips on how to be both frugal and stylish while doing whatever they could to extend the life of their clothes. It wasn’t all about darning your socks (although that was definitely in there!). Readers were advised to create pretty ‘decorative patches’ to cover holes in warn garments; unpick old jumpers to re-knit chic alternatives and turn men’s clothes into women’s. Reduce, reuse, recycle may be a modern phrase, but it was definitely the ethos of the time.
So do we need another world war to learn the lessons of the past? Lets hope not (although some politicians seem keen on providing us with one). We have already had a return to austerity and belts are being tightened (hopefully by making new holes rather than buying new belts). But when disposable incomes are being squeezed, doesn’t it make sense to buy fewer, high quality items and then make them last? And when we make our buying choices we need to consider where our clothing comes from – are the materials environmentally friendly and ethically sourced? Are the producers paid a fair wage and working in good, safe conditions? Is the garment made to last? How can we extend its useful life? How do we dispose of it responsibly when its life is at an end?
Buying Fairtrade is one sure way of addressing some of those questions. Respect for the Environment is one of the 10 principles of Fairtrade, so damaging chemicals are less likely to have been used in production. Transparency, payment of a fair price and good working conditions are key as well. Also, since 80% of garment workers are women, the commitment to empowering women and ensuring gender equality is important. It is a sad indictment that the commitment to no child labour or forced labour also needs to come into play. Fairtrade garments can be traced back to the people who made them, so you can clearly answer the question #whomademyclothes?
One good example of this is the company Where Does it Come From, whose children’s shirts and adult scarves we stock at Fair and Fabulous. Their clothes and accessories can be traced from the cotton field where they were grown, through spinning, weaving, block printing, dyeing and tailoring.
The children’s clothes range is also designed with features to help them withstand the inevitable growth spurts – including generous sizing. button elastic waists, adjustable straps and dresses that convert to tunic tops. This is a fine example of Make Do and Mend being embedded into the design process from the very start. We are sure our managing director will still be enjoying her shirt, worn at her 6th birthday Hawaiian beach party, for a long time yet!
So often it is easy to feel powerless in the face of the world’s problems. But this is an issue where all of us can make a real impact. Make conscious choices when you are looking for that perfect outfit. If you find yourself asking ‘how can it possibly be that cheap?’ then also ask yourself ‘who is paying the real cost’. Ask your favourite shop or company Who Made My Clothes? and see if they can answer. Look at whether something can be fixed, patched or altered before replacing it. Consider vintage or upcylced clothing. And remember that Fairtrade goes beyond bananas! Without wallowing in nostalgia we can learn the lessons of the past and improve all of our futures!