#whomademyclothes: an aid worker's perspective.
by Sandie Walton-Ellery
My childhood absorbed all of the 1970s. In the eastern suburbs of Perth, I grew up in a mostly one income, very working class home. My clothes were made by my Nanna, my Granny and my mum. Gran left school at 11 and worked as a seamstress in a factory in the city making pyjamas, she was an amazing sewer, designer, and creative. She knitted and crocheted as well. I still remember many of the clothes she made me, a pink and green paisley seersucker sundress with wide shoulder straps and a sheared bodice perfect for summer days, a bright yellow dress with covered buttons and puffy sleeves and the equally bright cardigan that followed to see that the dress could be worn well into spring. I remember selecting buttons and fabric shopping and deciding on what to patch garments with when they were torn from climbing trees. I even remember Grandpa with big pots of dye on the stove when perfectly good clothes became faded and I wanted them refreshed and transformed into different colours. And in those days, I had no doubt who made my clothes.
I was living in Dhaka in 2013 when the Rana Plaza factory collapsed. I am a professional aid worker and the work I had been doing was assisting the government’s Department of Disaster Management and its Non-Government partners be better prepared for disasters. We were preparing for floods and cyclones, sometimes we talked of earthquakes. We were not getting ready for this. In 2013, floods in Bangladesh resulted in the deaths of 9 people while the Rana Plaza incident killed 1138 alerting us to a different kind of disaster. The Fashion Revolution movement was born, imploring people all over the world to ask themselves, “who made my clothes?”
Asking ourselves this question forces us to think about the actual journey taken for something to start from nothing, come into our lives and become something we wear. As a child, I had a pretty good idea how a garment was constructed, I saw it all the time on the kitchen table, the scissors, the patterns the sewing machine. How many children today have even seen that? How does that differ from the manufacture of the garments we wear today? The kind produced by rows and rows of workers in massive factories. Before Rana Plaza how many people stopped to think that concern for the conditions under which our clothes were being made needed to include the physical integrity of the buildings they were in? I thought I was pretty clued in to understanding workers' rights and conditions, I thought about fair wages, working hours, health care, child care; areas where export oriented garment production in Bangladesh had made significant headway. Concerns were still high over the fire hazards in these buildings and the challenges in getting out in a hurry if needed and we talked about that, the papers wrote about that, but as I drove through the streets of Dhaka past buildings that housed factories, it never occurred to me that the greatest risk to the workers inside could be that the buildings were never designed to hold so many people and such heavy equipment.
Unintended consequences and the challenges of unravelling a complex industry
Asking who made my clothes is important to me, but maybe it doesn’t convey the complexity of the issues around what we wear. The positive implications of the garment industry in Bangladesh for women entering the workforce have been significant.
We know when women earn; they marry later, have greater decision-making power and are more likely than men to spend their earnings on educating their children. We need to be aware that anything that jeopardizes the industry in Bangladesh will impact the many thousands of women working in it. How do we ensure that positive change in one area doesn’t have negative consequences in another?
In the 90s I researched child labour in the garment industry in Bangladesh and found that while it was rapidly cleaned up in terms of employing children, there was no real evidence to suggest the lives of poor children improved as a result and, in fact, many of the children who had been working in clean, well lit factories producing high quality garments for export probably ended up in dark, dingy factories, which were never inspected, producing local products or in even more precarious situations such as domestic labour. Poverty doesn’t go away just because we remove it from our sight. Arguably the chance to buy-child labour free clothes is only helpful to the consciences of the buyers not to poor children and families in the developing world. This could also be true with current movements encouraging us to be more conscious of who made our clothes; a more ethically produced garment made in Australia will cost me more, its production should be easier to track and I can feel good about my purchase because I can be pretty sure no one was exploited while making it. I am kidding myself however if I think this act is doing any good for the poor around the world. We need to be careful that any efforts we make to change things for the better do not have negative consequences somewhere down the line.
Other questions are also important to me when I think about my clothes then, how are they made? What are they made from? How did they get here? Who is selling them? The questions can go on and on to consider how fabrics are grown, woven, dyed, how fixtures are made, how durable the end products are so they last, what are the conditions not just of the makers but the packers, the sellers? What is the environmental as well as the social impact of the stuff I clothe myself with?
The swirling list of questions I feel I am supposed to be asking myself if I really want to feel OK about what I wear is long and would take some really serious investigative research to adequately address, something that, in my life, I honestly don’t have time to do justice to. I try and take small steps where I can, buying pre-loved clothing, sticking to a few labels I know and trust and trying to buy well, truly loving what I buy so that I know I will really use it. Even these things are easier said than done because all the messaging around me tells me, even me, a mature aged aid worker who spends a large proportion of her time in developing countries, that I need to look good and that to look good I need to keep shopping and every time I step inside a shop there is an eager sales person waiting to tell me how good I will look in whatever I try on! Because, and here comes yet another dimension to this complex issue, we are not just talking about clothes are we? We are talking about fashion; we are talking about something linked to culture, to technology, to sales and to how we present ourselves to the world and how those around us understand us. We want our clothes to do more than meet our basic needs for protection against the elements and maintenance of our dignity, they need to show who we are and what we value.
I am not sure how it became like this within my lifetime. How did a girl who grew up in the 70s wearing hand made cotton frocks become a person who cared about trying to appear stylish, ethical and appropriate all while being incredibly comfortable? How did I become a person who wants to look both effortless and careful while ticking so many boxes and navigating so many choices? Who made my clothes is not the only question I should be asking, but as a starting point, it’s a pretty good one.