Sunday, 29 September 2013

Buy Less and Value More


I just watched Panorama’s ‘Dying For A Bargain’ on BBC iPlayer.
Like everyone, I was utterly appalled and devastated by the dreadful images in the newspapers after the catastrophic factory collapse in Bangladesh on April 24th, where over a thousand workers died.
This is the real cost, the human cost of cheap clothing.
I first started to really think about the people who make the clothes for our western high streets when I saw Stacey Dooley in ‘Blood, Sweat and T-shirts’ on BBC 3 in 2008.
It was a year after I launched my bespoke clothing label and I was sewing for up to 80 hours a week.
It was hard work! I was tired, my back hurt, I was seeing a chiropractor twice a week and alternating paracetamol and ibuprofen every 2 hours just to meet deadlines. Despite how hard I was working, I was barely making my rent and having to work lunch times at my local pub to make ends meet.
While working like that in a cramped box room with a sewing machine found in a skip, I was planning my empire. The plan was: Build a brand by making couture quality garments for bespoke clients, hone my skills as a designer by working with all kinds of body shapes, learn about flattering silhouettes, perfect my patterns, and then launch a ready to wear range, get my clothes made in a factory (no more back ache!) and make my fortune!
It honestly never occurred to me that someone else’s back would take the brunt when I was no longer making my own clothes. Of course I knew sweatshops and slave labour existed but, even though I sew myself, I never really thought about the factory made garments I saw in high street shops as being made in the same way as I would make them in my workshop.
My old boss at Special Sauce once told me that a pair of Levi jeans takes 8 minutes to get from denim on a roll to finished garment; pressed, labeled, tagged and packed into a shipping container.
I had images of fantastical machines like laser cutters and automatic sewing machines with robot arms churning out thousands of pairs of jeans a day while smiling factory workers stood around and happily pressed buttons. One day they would be able to make my designs and I could slash my prices and still make a profit and we’d all live happily ever after.
After all, laser cutters do exist. I saw once one on a school trip to a bra factory in Kingswood. Incidentally, soon after my visit, the factory and the laser moved to China where, I assumed, Chinese people would be working in the same conditions as the people in Kingswood. Only they’d be paid less, which was fine because their cost of living was less, so we got cheaper bras and Chinese people got jobs and earned a good living. Winner! Right?
The reality is that there are no magic machines making your cheap clothes!
There are people. 
People whose skilled labour and human rights are grossly undervalued.
It is only our warped perception that makes us think that a lawyer, plumber or builder’s skilled time is worth more than a dressmaker's.
We as a nation have completely lost touch with the reality of the man hours involved in producing almost everything we consume. My whole career I have had my time undervalued because people see cheap garments in shops and make ridiculous assumptions about what is involved in producing them.
I went to an exhibition of 17th Century fashion at the Queen’s Gallery recently and was initially disappointed to discover that it was mostly paintings and only a handful of original garments. Seventeenth century garments are incredibly rare, mostly because they were so, so expensive that they would be used and used and used until they literally disintegrated.
An embroidered jacket in the 1600’s would have been worth as much as a house! And do you know what? Such an intricate garment would probably be worth as much today in terms of man hours.
My Dad buys his jeans for £9 in Asda. So when I told him a jacket I made for a client recently cost £2000 he shouted “HOW MUCH?! I’d plaster a house for that!”
I asked him how long it would take to plaster a house. The answer was about the same time as it took me to make the jacket.
We compared hands, we both have calluses, mine from scissors, his from plastering. We both have backache and wrinkles around our eyes from squinting and laughing. We both worked hard for a fair but modest wage our whole lives and aren’t we the lucky ones!
Make no mistake, that jacket you’re wearing was made by a person, not a machine and it wasn’t an easy job. So if you paid very little for it then you can be sure that the person who made it for you is at best not having a very nice time right now and at worst is in mortal danger.
With this is mind, the very concept of ‘throw away fashion’ is abhorrent.
Do you remember when we all began to realise the implications of our eggs being produced in battery farms? Now we all check the labels and buy free range, don’t we? Don’t most of us buy fair trade coffee now that we understand how terribly the coffee growers were being robbed?
It’s about time we all realise that people are being exploited so we can buy clothes for impossibly low prices.
It’s about time we understand the real cost of cheap fashion.
In the words of a clothing factory manager, “For western buyers, price comes first, quality second and human rights are at the bottom of the pile.”
The closing statement form a Bangladeshi woman on the Panorama programme was, “You need to figure out a crazy way to find cheap clothing which is not killing people.”
I’ve got a better idea. How about we start to rediscover out relationship with how things are actually made, re-evaluate our perception of what things are worth, recognise the human cost of producing cheap things for us to consume and begin to buy less and value more.