Thursday, 3 August 2017

The Story Behind The Skirt - Who actually made my clothes?

Like most shoppers, it is easy to think that the moment when we rifle through the rails and pick something out is the start of that product's story. I often forget that there are so many things that happen to your clothes before they reach you. It is easy to be detached from the people who made the clothes you buy, distracted by look-books and Ads.  

There are so many lives that your clothes come into contact with. Who grew the cotton in your clothes or spun the fibres into yarn? Was it dyed with toxic chemicals that are emptied into the environment? Was it made in a factory that uses child labour? 

Have you ever wondered - 'who made my clothes?'

As part of the online course I am doing on Future Learn, ( through Fashion Revolution ( and the Uni of Exeter I am looking into the story behind one piece of my clothing. I chose a denim skirt from Free People, which I got in the sale about two years ago. The brand 'Free People' comes under a bigger company URBN, along with Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, BHLDN and Verti.

I particularly wanted to look at a company that I shop at fairly frequently; as a customer, I think it is easy to overlook the brand's ethical faults, if you like its products. 

The skirt that I’m researching is made out of 100% cotton; it has press studs down the front, pockets on the sides and back and rows of decorative stitching. Every one of these features requires an extra process, an extra step that makes it more expensive to make – costs must be cut somewhere - usually the cost of labour.

So, here is the story behind my skirt...

The cotton in my skirt was probably grown in China or India (the first and second largest producers of cotton in the world). The cotton production industries in both of these countries, uses child and forced labour.  If this were the case, it would make the brand name 'Free People' seem ironic. I have written to Free People to find out if they can tell me where the cotton was grown, and I'm waiting for a response.

The cotton in my skirt was likely to have been picked by children, extremely underpaid and unable to go to school - picked or processed by a girl or boy like Anil, a child labourer from India, aged 12.

The cotton was probably then woven and dyed in China where the skirt was made. The denim used to make my skirt is much dirtier than you’d ever expect as it is soaked in chemicals such as cadmium, lead and mercury (ugh!), which is not something you would want against your skin. Luckily, these chemicals won't affect me, unlike the people who dye the denim. I can only imagine the side effects of being exposed to the chemicals and living next to a river filled with excess dyes, that change from blue to pink from one day to the next like a toxic version of a scene from ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’.

Not surprisingly, my skirt was made in China, although when I googled ‘garment workers' stories URBN China’ I found a host of stories from garment workers in factories in Los Angeles. It sounds naive but I was surprised about the fact there are so many sweatshops in Los Angeles, probably because it is in a Western country and I expected regulations would be stricter. Even though I wanted to stick to the countries where my skirt was made, it was interesting to hear directly from people that made clothes in LA – a place, from the name, you’d expect to be wealthy, not with the Urban Outfitters shop just a few blocks away from its sweatshop.

Shima's story was one of the many that I came across. It diverges from the story of my skirt a bit - Shima works in Bangladesh, not China, but with clothes from URBN in my wardrobe made in Bangladesh and similar working conditions in these factories, I still found it relevant, and I really wanted to share it. 

There is a lot of information about Free People on the Project Just website along with many other brands.
Sadly the company doesn’t appear to share any goals regarding how it is trying to improve social and environmental conditions in its supply chain. Good Guide rated Anthropologie and Free People a 4.5 out of 10 for society— ‘their performances, practices and policies place it among the lowest 50% of companies rated by the GoodGuide’.  Anthropologie was the only URBN company on the 'Fashion Transparency Index' - it scored only 10% for it's transparency (how much it discloses about its social and environmental policies). 

In addition to a brand's style, I want ethical approach to be one of the major things which influences my shopping choices - something that Fashion Revolution made me realise. One of the reasons we buy clothes is to make us feel good. Buying a cotton dress, with cotton that was grown in a country that uses child labour does not make me feel good. But it’s not just about me – the customer. It is about the people who made the clothes.

Do you know who made your clothes?

Beccy x

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