To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World? Lucy Siegle An expose on the fashion industry written by the Observer's 'Ethical Living' columnist, examining the inhumane and environmentally devastating story behind the clothes we so casually buy and wear.Coming at a time when the global financial crisis and contracting of consumer spending is ushering in a new epoch for the fashion industry, To Die For offers a very plausible vision of how green could really be the new black.Taking particular issue with our current mania for both big-name labels and cheap fashion, To Die For sets an agenda for the urgent changes that can and need to be made by both the industry and the consumer. Far from outlining a future of drab, ethical clothing, Lucy Siegle believes that it is indeed possible to be an 'ethical fashionista', simply by being aware of how and where (and by whom) clothing is manufactured.The global banking crisis has put the consumer at a crossroads: when money is tight should we embrace cheap fast fashion to prop up an already engorged wardrobe, or should we reject this as the ultimate false economy and advocate a return to real fashion, bolstered by the principles of individualism and style pedigree?In this impassioned book, Siegle analyses the global epidemic of unsustainable fashion, taking stock of our economic health and moral accountabilities to expose the pitfalls of fast fashion. Refocusing the debate squarely back on the importance of basic consumer rights, Siegle reveals the truth behind cut price, bulk fashion and the importance of your purchasing decisions, advocating the case for a new sustainable design era where we are assured of value for money: ethically, morally and in real terms. To Die For Is Fashion Wearing Out the World? Lucy Siegle Copyright Fourth Estate An imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd. 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF www.harpercollins.co.uk (http://www.harpercollins.co.uk/) Copyright © Lucy Siegle 2011 Illustrations by Claire Meharg The right of Lucy Siegle to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Design and Patents Act 1988 A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the nonexclusive, nontransferable right to access and read the text of this ebook on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse-engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins ebooks HarperCollinsPublishers has made every reasonable effort to ensure that any picture content and written content in this ebook has been included or removed in accordance with the contractual and technological constraints in operation at the time of publication Source ISBN: 9780007264094 Ebook Edition © MAY 2011 ISBN: 9780007432530 Version: 2017-05-05 Epigraph Hey Daisy darling Don’t take it all as read Why don’t you ask a few more questions instead? I know you think that everyone should be paid what they’re due But there are people in this world who don’t think like you do They don’t think like you do And some don’t think at all. KARINE POLWART, ‘Daisy’, from the album Scribbled in Chalk (2006) CONTENTS Cover (#ulink_e36afbcf-7fcd-57b1-b6b5-168fd192c83f) Title Page Copyright Epigraph Introduction Chapter 1 - Fat Wardrobes and Shrinking Style Chapter 2 - Faster and Cheaper Chapter 3 - Fashion Crimes and Fashion Victims Chapter 4 - Tea, Sympathy and Auditing Chapter 5 - In the Lap of Luxury Chapter 6 - Fashion’s Footprint Chapter 7 - Picking at Cotton Chapter 8 - Woolly Thinking Chapter 9 - Animal Prints Chapter 10 - Lust for Leather Chapter 11 - Dumped, Trashed and Burned The Perfect Wardrobe Chapter 12 - High-Street Thrills and Spills Chapter 13 - Change Your Knicker Drawer, Save the World? Chapter 14 - Buying Better Clothes Chapter 15 - How Not to Buy Notes Acknowledgements About the Author Also by Lucy Siegle About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo) Introduction Every year, around eighty billion garments are produced worldwide. Incredibly, when we buy one of them, we are able to learn very little about where it was made and assembled, and in what conditions. Consumers, retailers, designers and brands have a responsibility to the workers who make our fashion, but we’ve closed our eyes to a back story of exploitation and dangerous conditions. Every single one of our wardrobes is tainted. Seduced by the alliance of fast fashion with value prices, we’ve failed to notice that international trade rules and laws have their harshest impact on the most vulnerable in the supply chain. Where once cotton production was based on slavery, today’s fast fashion has brought the type of working conditions outlawed in the West at the turn of the twentieth century to every Developing World town with a fabric-processing or sewing facility. I love fashion. But I want it to excite and inspire me, not to make me really, really angry. I have watched and aided and abetted as the fashion industry and consumers have sunk deeper and deeper into a cycle of exploitation of each other, the planet and the millions of workers who toil on the global assembly line in shocking conditions. But when I took a closer look at the true environmental and social impact of the seemingly innocuous and frippery-filled industry, I came to the conclusion that enough was enough. For anyone labouring under the misapprehension that their individual decisions are too small and too insignificant to have any influence over the status quo, I want to set you straight. As the global population swells and the amount of natural capital, particularly untouched wilderness, decreases, the planet is under unprecedented pressure. This means that it has never been more important to take wise individual decisions, as well as collective ones. It has never been more critical for us to consume with care and intelligence. It’s no secret that the present rates of consumption are unsustainable, and it will come as even less of a surprise that fashion’s are wildly out of kilter. Why give fashion the time of day? Why not dress exclusively in old clothes and charity-shop finds? I’ve become pretty familiar with the school of thought that regards fashion as unnecessary and corrupt, the deep-green (and dare I say puritanical) doctrine that finds the very notion of fashion distasteful. But it is simply untrue to say that all fashion is superficial, needless and stupid, and to ignore the semiotics of style. The way we dress is fundamental to our self-expression. But you can see where the distrust of fashion emanates from. We’ve recently shopped our way through a massive wardrobe upheaval, our buying patterns subverted by multinational businesses with the sole aim of making money for their shareholders. Almost overnight we have become used to consuming fashion with reckless, addicted abandon, buying more clothes than ever before, reversing centuries of fashion heritage, knowledge and understanding in the process. This is a revolution, and a largely unwelcome one. Strangely, given the extent to which we have altered our buying habits, there’s a lack of research of this consumerist phenomenon. Which is largely why over the past five years I’ve taken to carrying out my own unofficial surveys. Wherever I am, and whatever story I’m covering professionally, I usually spot a fashion story. For example, sent to Manchester to do an item on women ruining their feet by wearing high heels, I was more struck by the amount young women on limited incomes were spending on ‘it’ bags. Our fashion frenzies over the last decade tend to give away far more than just what is or isn’t on-trend. It is a sign of the times that fashion regularly makes newspapers’ front pages or business pages, even if indirectly. Today’s stories are not just about Kate Moss or the size of Philip Green’s yacht (or both); they are about the more prosaic stuff of fashion, such as cotton. Occasionally this leads to some arresting headlines – ‘Cotton Bras are Rebounding!’ for example – but what it really confirms is that, with the exception of the extractive industries and the food chain, few industries are as connected to the natural world as fashion. At its most simplistic, fashion is dependent on water, on crops such as cotton, and on a whole host of animal species. Yet the fashion industry has barely begun to factor in the consequences of its actions on habitat loss, shrinking biodiversity and climate change. The good news is that there is a small window of opportunity in which to rescue fashion, the queen of all the creative industries. The rules are beginning to change. Garment workers are fighting back (because so many cannot continue to exist on the wages our wardrobes are willing to pay), and the conscientious consumer has the opportunity to fight alongside them. The huge retailers and brands need your custom, and the government wants you to keep shopping – but it is time to change the terms. My fear is this: unless we as fashion-lovers and consumers assert ourselves, the industry will take the path of least resistance. The combination of the global recession and the inevitable price rises of majoringredients of the fashion supply chain, such as oil and cotton, will see the big players, the multinational brands and the giant retailers that control the UK high street, become even more ruthless in grabbing their margin. The victims will be the producers, the garment workers, and eventually you and me, as design and quality are sacrificed. I don’t want that to happen. It is a battle: our weakness has become their stock in trade. Meanwhile, their enemy is the intelligent fashion consumer who asks the right questions and buys more carefully. This book is intended to guide you towards becoming that consumer. It takes you beyond the swing tickets and into the heart of contemporary garment production to reveal the truth about materials, production, and the wardrobe lives of our clothes. It also acknowledges the good as well as the bad, and aims to help you forge a fashion future that matches your aesthetic to your ethics. Ultimately, the intention is to reconnect you with the passion and excitement that turned you into a fashion-lover in the first place. Lucy Siegle, April 2011 Chapter 1 Fat Wardrobes and Shrinking Style How my Fashion Sense and Yours has Lost the Plot This is not my ‘beautiful’ wardrobe. Every morning when I wake up I am directly confronted by my fashion history. Mistakes, corrections, good buys, bad buys, comfort buys, drunk buys: they refuse to go away. This is because my ‘primary’ wardrobe – as distinct from the other two wardrobes I’ve had to take over in the past ten years to accommodate the growing volume of my clothing collection – is opposite my bed, and the door, like a broken zipper, will no longer pull across to hide the tale of excess. If I squint I can even make out a rather nasty polyester pinafore mini-dress I used to wear in the early 1990s. Having failed to embrace at least one fashion – the consumerist purchase-and-purge churn of the day – because I’m a bit of a hoarder, you might expect me to be more upbeat about my large collection of clothes. You could argue that my curatorial instincts should have left me with a style treasure trove that I could one day hand on to another generation of fashion lovers. Sadly, it hasn’t worked out like that. In the cold light of day many of the micro trends I’ve ‘invested in’ – T-shirts with chains, a one-shouldered jump suit, and other designer lookalike items – merge to form a type of sartorial wasteland. However, it is true that my wardrobes (plural) also represent a sort of time capsule: evidence of a revolution in fashion that has changed the way we view and wear clothes forever. They have catalogued the defining macro trends of our generation, and so have a preserved-in-aspic quality about them. My collection is testament to the extraordinary way we now consume clothes. The fact that I tend to hang on to many of my clothes might be atypical, but the type, volume and variety in the depths of my cupboards are predictable. Despite the fact that I’ve spent many years greening up the rest of my life, not to mention urging readers of my newspaper column to try to do the same, for a long time my wardrobe represented a bit of a black hole. I made a few attempts to buy with a keener eye on the ecological fallout – prioritising sustainable fibres, alternative designers and labels that prioritise low environmental footprint or social-justice concepts such as Fairtrade. But I was noticeably still consuming. In fact, I couldn’t quite get the hang of not consuming. The truth was, although I might have been more ‘green’ than most, in that I began to limit my patronage of certain retailers, I was still buying furiously, placing me in a demographic whose spending was increasingly out-of-control. And I don’t have to come around to your house and have a look to make a good guess at what you’ve got in your cupboards, because over the last decade and a half not only have we bought more at increasing speed, but our tastes have become increasingly homogenised. If your clothing journey follows not only fashion trends but consumer trends, you’ll find you have only a small amount of formal wear and a similarly small amount of office wear compared to a decade ago; the whole world appears to have embarked on a permanent Dress Down Friday. Instead, you’ll have hangers and shelves and drawers full of home and leisurewear, and there’s likely to be evidence that you’ve bought into some strange new apparel categories such as luxe loungewear (a kind of daywear/pyjama hybrid made from a similarly hybrid fabric such as a cashmere blend). The most ubiquitous item is likely to be the T-shirt, along with its close relation the skinny-ribbed vest. You’ll also probably find that you’ve accumulated a number of dresses in the last five years, as we’ve indulged an obsession with ever more feminine ‘flirty’ dresses. You’ll have more knickers and bras than women at any other time in history. And thanks to the ubiquity of stretch lace and other fancy textile mixes, not only will they be more numerous, but prettier and more sophisticated, now that we’ve moved on from the tyranny of the thong, more embellished and better adapted to the art of seduction than ever before. The UK market in intimate apparel (the distinctly unsexy trade name for lingerie) had stretched to an amazing £2.8 billion (#litres_trial_promo) by 2009, which meant that it had grown by 16.1 per cent. For reasons that will become obvious, I’m sticking primarily to women’s fashion in these pages, but I will say that if you’re male, or have any boys in your family, you’ll have found that sportswear will have had a ‘profound influence’ on their wardrobe. You yourself will almost certainly have more pairs of jeans than you’d ever have thought necessary to own in a lifetime. By 2006 Europe was consuming 391 million pairs of jeans (#litres_trial_promo) every year. (On this small island we really went for it: in 2007 an incredible three pairs (#litres_trial_promo) were being sold every second.) I can count nineteen pairs in my wardrobe, of which only four are in what I’d term active service. You now demand roughly four times (#litres_trial_promo) the number of clothes you would have in 1980. You will spend at least £625 (#litres_trial_promo) a year on clothes – but remember that’s just the average. And you are getting a lot of bang for your buck (or clothes for your pound). In one year you’ll accumulate in the region of twenty-eight kilograms (#litres_trial_promo) of clothing (again, this is the average) – adding up to an estimated 1.72 million tonnes (#litres_trial_promo) of brand-new fashion being consumed on an annual basis in the UK. But the really arresting thing is – and I’ll keep coming back to this – that almost the same quantity (#litres_trial_promo) of fashion that you buy you will end up dumping prematurely in the rubbish bin. Despite your fat wardrobes and hard-to-shut drawers, philosophically speaking you won’t be very happy with what you’ve got. In the way that I think of the shiny leggings (two pairs) that I bought in an effort to emulate the 2009–10 winter season trend, you will often come across pieces in your own cupboards that make you think, ‘What on earth possessed me [to buy that]?’ We have more clothes than at any other time in history, but have become less and less fulfilled and secure in our purchases, precisely because we have become such passive consumers. We watch, we follow, we pick off the rail – herdlike – and we find ourselves at the cash till. In moments of clarity I wonder, what am I actually holding on to? If I was being generous, I would say that twenty years of investing in high-street fashion has resulted in a mixed bag. If I was being ungenerous, I’d say it was a shambolic ragbag. There’s certainly a jumble of materials – man-made fibres jostle for space with cotton, and a bit of wool. There’s a similar confusion of styles and ideas. Clearly I’ve invested time, money and emotion in my wardrobe, but after two decades avidly consuming fashion, do I have anything to show for it? I’m sorry to say that the real worth of my wardrobe is probably negligible. To put it bluntly, many garments in my possession are destined for landfill rather than posterity. FASHION FRENZIES May 2007 saw the reopening of the former site (#litres_trial_promo) of a sedate London department store near Oxford Circus. It had been converted into a 70,000-square-foot (#litres_trial_promo) fashion empire, with seventy-six fitting rooms and eighteen escalators. Though obviously it wasn’t the shopfittings that the hordes of female shoppers came to admire that opening day, but the unbelievable prices. For the price of a latte and a panini they could pick up a pair of shoes and a dress that gave more than a nod to pieces by big-name designers. The extraordinary fashion economics that Primark was able to achieve – bringing hit fashion buys for the lowest prices in living memory – was already enough to generate column inches aplenty, but the opening of the Oxford Circus store was notable for another reason. You would imagine the prices were already low enough, but somehow a rumour circulated (#litres_trial_promo) among the swollen, near-hysterical and almost exclusively female crowd outside that everything was on sale for £1. The scene descended into chaos as desperate consumers battled to get to the front of the crowd. Young women scrambled over each other, pulling hair and collapsing in heaps on the pavement. Mounted police arrived to control the throng, and two would-be shoppers were carried off in ambulances for medical treatment. We’ll never know the origin of the everything-for-a-pound rumour, but the ridiculous thing was that if the frantic customers had wandered to another Primark store further down the street they could have picked up exactly the same deals without having to fight to get to the rails. ‘Fashions, after all (#litres_trial_promo), are only induced epidemics,’ George Bernard Shaw pronounced loftily sometime around 1906. True, he wasn’t referring directly to the fashion industry – between 1900 and 1938 the market for clothing in the UK was virtually stagnant (#litres_trial_promo), so GBS was spared the vision of young ladies staggering under the weight of multiple store bags while trying to manoeuvre the latest overgrown ‘it’ bag onto public transport. But his observations happen to be unnervingly prescient in the context of present-day fashion, now that we have reached a point at which clothes shopping has more in common with a compulsion than a love or respect for style. ‘A demand, however, can be inculcated,’ the great bearded playwright continued. ‘This is thoroughly understood by fashionable tradesmen, who find no difficulty in persuading their customers to renew articles that are not worn out and to buy things they do not want.’ Finally, ‘the psychology of fashion becomes a pathology’. George, you would not have liked what our wardrobes have become, but in a way you did warn us. We weren’t listening. The heady mix of celebrity and ‘affordable’ fashion has been wafting down British high streets. The launch of any line involving bothingredients is almost guaranteed to trigger more scenes of stampeding women and security cordons. ‘The arrival of Godot bearing the first Playstation 3 and the formula for world peace could not be more eagerly awaited,’ observed columnist Mary Riddell of ‘K-Day’ in 2007, when Kate Moss appeared briefly in the window of Topshop at Oxford Circus to launch Part I of her eponymous collection (this brand endorsement was worth a reputed £3 million (#litres_trial_promo), and raised Topshop’s sales by a mammoth 10 per cent). Despite K-Day being closely followed by L-Day (the launch of singer Lily Allen’s range (#litres_trial_promo) for New Look), I saved myself for C-day, at the hugely successful Swedish retailer Hennes and Mauritz (better known as H&M), when the results of a ‘flash collection’ from ‘designer to the stars’ Roberto Cavalli would be revealed to an appreciative public. By this point H&M was particularly expert at harnessing designers with massive profile and a couture background to produce branded collections of cut-price offerings for mere mortals. It had begun with the launch of a Karl Lagerfeld collection in 2004 that, as revered fashion writer Suzy Menkes put it in the New York Times, kicked off ‘a media phenomenon (#litres_trial_promo), marking a seismic cultural shift and creating lines of eager shoppers in capital cities across the globe’. Of course, this involved a rather different way of operating for some of the couture designers – where they had been making ten to fifty pieces, collaborating with a mainstream label suddenly meant scaling up to runs that were counted in the tens of thousands. Naturally there was a huge trade-off in terms of quality, and some cultural differences to overcome. For example, we learned that Karl Lagerfeld apparently does not think that fat-bottomed girls make the rockin’ world go round. He was reputedly dismayed to discover that H&M wished to stock his creations in size 14 and 16, when he had meant them for ‘slim, slender people (#litres_trial_promo)’ (welcome to planet fashion). But apart from this embarrassment (H&M quickly apologised), overall these types of superstar designer and high-street-store alliances seemed to keep both parties happy. It is easy to see why. The mainstream retailer got to plug into the public’s frenzy for anything with celebrity and luxury cachet, while the A-list designer saw the opportunity to get in front of a huge, mainstream audience. Roberto Cavalli suggested to the press that his H&M collaboration would offer ‘a tasting menu (#litres_trial_promo) of his most appetising signature designs’. Ultimately, I’m afraid, I failed to feast on much of it. As the doors opened, the burly security guards looked rather nervous – and it was obvious that this was going to be a sell-out. I was quickly enveloped in a scrum of high ponytails and flying elbows as frenzied shoppers pushed, grabbed, swore and ran towards the tills. By the time I got near the remnants of the collection the front of the mob had already gorged itself. Every few minutes a set of courageous shop assistants attempted to restock the area, but as they ripped open boxes and shovelled out more bustiers, macs and Capri pants they were unceremoniously ripped from their hands by shoppers who tore open the thin plastic wrappings themselves. When the crowd moved as one entity across the sales floor to where it had spied, with its single mob eye, another hapless salesgirl attempting to find a way onto the shopfloor from an alternative stockroom door, all that was left behind was a flutter of plastic packaging and a scramble of hangers. Then there were the cold, calculating shoppers gathering up seemingly indiscriminate armfuls of clothes, irrespective of size apparently, and without making eye contact as they marched to the cash desk. These, I learned later, were the eBay buyers. Just a couple of hours later, those who had been unable to make the launch themselves could bid for a piece of diffusion Cavalli at prices that had more in common with his mainline collection than an H&M range. In an absent-minded way I picked up a zebra-print piece, hoping to look at the label to analyse the fabric content, like the eco-geek I am. ‘That is mine!’ a young woman screeched, snatching it from me. ‘I had that in my hand!’ Broadly speaking, I’m a lover not a fighter, and I wasn’t committed enough to the project to enter into a catfight. Besides I happen to think shopping and conflict should never go together. The zebra-print bustier slipped from my hands into hers, and I retired from the Cavalli proceedings. Aft erwards I reflected that we were certainly experiencing a new type of fashion-shopping experience. These incidents prompt the question, how did we get to this point, where fashion has more in common with a stampede at a football match than the delicate manners and attention to detail espoused by Coco Chanel? While enthusiastic queues have long been a feature of the January sales, this appeared to be something new: mob shopping. The Primark scuffle was the first such incident involving fashion that I can remember in the UK. In the popular imagination it joined the similarly horrifying spectacle of frenzied consumers, driven mad by the rumour of £50 sofas, battling to get into the opening of a new IKEA superstore in Edmonton, North London, two years previously. It seemed to me to represent a new low, where we lose all critical faculty in a retail space, and move closer to the point where (as eco guru Wendell Berry puts it) we operate in a world in which ‘the histories of (#litres_trial_promo)all products will be lost. The degradation of products and places, producers and consumers is inevitable.’ Berry isn’t over-egging the pudding here. The changing fashion landscape has swiftly led to our degradation as consumers. Actually, you can view this less as an anomaly than as a type of natural progression, inevitable given the increasing fetishisation of cheap clothing, as we rapidly learned to prioritise quantity and variety over quality. The trouble was that being punchdrunk with so many store bags and pairs of shoes, we took a while to notice, and even when we did, an easier response than taking a long, hard look at our new, extremely weighty wardrobes was to say, ‘Where’s the harm?’ SHOPPING JUNKIES Our ways of buying fashion and our relationship with the garments we own started changing in the mid-1980s. By 2005, academic research was picking up on the salient points. Louise R. Morgan and Grete Birtwistle set up eight consumer focus groups, surveying seventy-one women about their purchasing habits and interviewing ‘young fashion consumers’, by which they meant eighteen-to-twenty-five-year-olds, in more depth. Nearly all confessed to spending more than they used to, at rates that varied from £20 to £200 a month. This is hardly surprising, but what’s really notable is that they had absolutely no plan as to how long they intended to keep any of their purchases for. They also admitted that when ‘cheap’ fashion tore or became marked or stained, its likely destination (#litres_trial_promo) was not the washbasket, but the rubbish bin. The old way of buying clothes, in harmony with one’s income and with nature’s changing seasons, the way people wore, washed carefully and darned, has absolutely nothing in common with the way we now consume. I should know: I was a fully-paid-up member of the group of avaricious fashion consumers who ensured that spending on womens-wear in Britain rose by a huge 21 per cent (#litres_trial_promo) in just four years, between 2001 and 2005. I have shoeboxes full of receipts and wardrobes that are full to bursting point to prove my dedication. During the same period prices miraculously dropped by 14 per cent. Instead of buying fewer garments and pocketing the change, we actually bought more, increasing the volume of clothes we welcomed into our homes (often fleetingly) by a third (#litres_trial_promo). And don’t forget accessories: a quick look at my intertwined hill of shoes, pumps, trainers, wellies (a single pair of wellies is apparently not enough: I have four) and heeled boots – a number of pairs of which are in limbo while I try to find one of the last remaining cobblers – demonstrates that I have bought into the extraordinary global fashion trend for them too: in 2003 total expenditure on footwear in Britain surpassed $50 billion for the first time. We now buy an average of 4.1 items (#litres_trial_promo) of clothing each a month. Trying to remember what you bought last month is a bit like trying to remember what you ate. You might deny that you bought anything, but you’ve probably overlooked something – the vest top you picked up when you were walking past a high-street store, or the cute little pyjama short set you spotted in the concession store at the station. Yes, I’m complicit, but isn’t it comforting that there’s always someone who appears to be much, much worse? I breathed one of those rather ungenerous sighs of relief when I interviewed another Lucy, a twenty-one-year-old unemployed graduate, for a TV show. Despite being yet to find a job and carrying a fairly heft y student loan debt, she confessed to spending between £200 and £500 on fashion a month. As she showed me through her wardrobe it was clear that she loved clothes. She planned what she would wear days in advance, she ripped pages from magazines with looks she wanted to emulate – she was serious about fashion. I really admired her sense of style: as a tall, svelte blonde she was a natural clothes horse, but she also knew how to throw a look together. She was one of those people who, reduced to a tiny budget, would almost certainly have had enough style intuition to dress from a car-boot sale and still look great. But she would never take that risk. Her great, expensive downfall in wardrobe terms was that she absolutely refused to wear the same thing twice. With a social life like Lucy’s, which centred on frequent visits to the same two or three West End clubs, she needed a lot of different looks. She claimed that her friends would have ostracised her for the crime of repeat showings. Given that A-listers like Kylie Minogue are frequently picked out in magazine fashion faux pas columns for wearing the same python shoes more than once, I didn’t doubt her. Hardly a day went by without Lucy adding something new to her wardrobe. About 30 per cent of the rail she showed me was occupied by clothes still with their swing tickets, that she hadn’t yet worn. In 2008 Oxfam made a valiant attempt to get buyers like Lucy to donate these unworn but new clothes – a survey for Oxfam and M&S found that one in ten of us admitted to wearing just 10 per cent of our wardrobes, and estimated that there were 2.4 billion garments just hanging there gathering dust. It was the age group just above Lucy, women of twenty-five to thirty-four, who harboured unworn clothes of the most value – reckoned to be an average of £228 (#litres_trial_promo) each. Lucy’s main aspiration when I met her four years ago was to be a WAG. There’s contention over who coined the epithet – the Daily Mail claims it, but Grazia magazine certainly popularised it – but it has always been heavily associated with glamour and fashion. I don’t know if this is still Lucy’s life goal. Perhaps she has even achieved it. In which case her fashion consumption will have graduated to its own Premier League, typified by the fabled Cricket boutique in Liverpool that services the fashion needs of WAGs and soap stars. It stocks a heady mix of labels, from Balenciaga to Marc Jacobs, and has proved an irrepressible fountain of fashion stories, particularly for weekly magazines. When I visited in 2006 I asked the owner, Justine Mills, if negative comments in the style press had any effect – Alex Curran (now Mrs Stephen Gerrard) had, for example, been slated for teaming a canary-yellow Juicy Couture tracksuit with Moon Boots. Yes, there was certainly an effect, she told me: ‘After she’d been (#litres_trial_promo) on every worst-dressed list, we got orders from all over the country.’ THE QUICK DEATH OF SLOW FASHION It’s difficult to remember life before this new model, but that was the time when my style consciousness was really forming. I do recall developing a sort of hunger to dress differently, and a passion for stripy tights and denim cut-offs. And despite the fact that I definitely didn’t live in a hub of fashion experimentation during those years – variously I lived in Devon, Derby and Mullingar in the centre of Ireland (you get the picture: these were not style capitals) – I don’t remember feeling particularly short-changed or lacking in inspiration. When I think of the 1980s I think almost automatically of The Clothes Show. I was a big fan of the original programme, launched in 1986. When it was relaunched in 2006 I watched it still, and appeared in a couple of series when the show broached the subject of ethical fashion. Funnily enough, even though the second run of The Clothes Show was screened well into the era when consumers could recreate any look in the blink of an eye for under £20, I never found it as compelling. Back in the 1980s there was an aspiration to own stylish things, but you usually had to wait, and plan a strategic visit to a limited number of high-street stores – Miss Selfridge, Dorothy Perkins and Tammy Girl, for example. At other times you had to cobble together a look from charity shops, strange independent retailers and markets, or collective fashion spaces showcasing one-off designs or small runs from designer makers. The fabled boutiques of the 1960s and 1970s, Biba and Sex (which incidentally managed to revolutionise design and fashion without having to turn the production model on its head), led to collectives such as Hyper Hyper in South Kensington. (I should be clear here that I’m talking about the real Hyper Hyper, a glorious palace of kooky design that was essentially a market. The equivalent in the North-West was Manchester’s Aflex Palace. They were places where new designers with very small collections could sell in central locations. It had absolutely nothing in common with the Hyper Hyper that sprang up in Oxford Street in 2009, filled with synthetic ‘value’ clothes. So high was the plastic content of most of those garments that you could smell the hydrocarbons as you walked in.) Another major feature of our wardrobes back then was that a large chunk of our clothes would have been manufactured in Britain, from fibre that was even processed or finished here. From leather stitching and sewing in Somerset to the ancient worsted industry (turning wool yarn into textiles for suiting) in Bradford and Huddersfield, to Coats Viyella producing for M&S in Manchester, ‘Made in England’ was not a surprising label to see attached to a piece of clothing. Nor did it mean artisanal one-man-band production, as it often does now, when more often than not courageous designer/makers try to give the concept of home-grown fashion some resonance. Until just over a decade ago M&S, something of a UK clothing behemoth, sourced 90 per cent (#litres_trial_promo) of its own-label clothing in Britain. As you may remember, it was called St Michael, and it was the only clothing that M&S sold. During World War II British clothing production units developed expertise in knocking out uniforms on an assembly line. It wasn’t a big stretch to alter this to menswear, and ultimately to the more profitable womenswear. There was always a degree of outsourcing, i.e. sending cut-and-sew work (the actual sewing part of the assembly) to manufacturers abroad, but this tended to be limited to manufacturers in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea (#litres_trial_promo). In fact it’s fair to say that we had built up a rather impressive peacetime army of tailors, machinists, cutters, finishers, colourists, weavers and of course designers. They were served by the sort of infrastructure, of farmers producing sheep for wool, slaughterhouses producing for the leather trade, cobblers, menders and recyclers (who in those days took the more prosaic form of rag-and-bone men), that today’s sustainable style warriors can only dream about. You know how the story goes. In 1981 the British clothing and footwear retail market imported just 29 per cent (#litres_trial_promo) of all it sold. By 2001 the figure had soared to 90 per cent. Any pretence to style self-sufficiency these shores once had was well and truly kicked into touch. But the main, overarching distinction between then and now is that back then the fashion industry had built-in air vents to ease the pressure, formalities and systems that dictated the pace of consumption and production. The production model was based on a critical distinction between ‘fashion’ and ‘garments’. At the top of the tree was couture. Its USP was the amount of skilled labour inherent in each piece. The look was in the hands of the designer and creator, and the volume of repeated pieces was limited to tens at the most. Final finishings were typically handmade, and the buyer might not see the finished piece until the very end of the process. This meant that shows could only occur twice a year. The fashion weeks that take place today in New York, London, Paris and Milan (and everywhere else from Copenhagen to Tokyo, Toronto and Beijing) are derivative of these couture seasons. The next rung down was the ready-to-wear lines – prêt à porter. Here the process picked up a little bit of speed, and the designer/maker process became less rarefied. Exclusivity was preserved in the level of design and often by the name of the designer, but the manufacturing process was more industrialised. Pieces were repeated in the hundreds and thousands. Next came mid-market fashion, highly industrialised and cut from a standard pattern. These items were essentially basic garments with a fashion twist, and they were designed with a shorter lifespan in mind: it was usually envisaged that they would just last the season that ran for half the year – autumn/winter and spring/summer. And then came the everyday garments: jeans, T-shirts, sweaters – the basic building blocks of a wardrobe. Today we take it as read that everything we buy will have a direct lineage to the runway. Even wardrobe basics are expected to be infused with the aura of big design and big designers. The distinction between ‘garments’ and ‘fashion’ has become ever looser, until now we use those terms interchangeably. In effect, basic garments have become fashion. We expect everything, including knickers, nighties and stuff you wear to the gym to sweat in, to be up-to-the minute and preferably linked to a superstar designer. So, we buy fast and cheap and in huge quantity. Not only is the global wardrobe heaving, its contents are being discarded and refilled at a spectacular rate. A 1998 study (#litres_trial_promo) by Dutch academics put the lifespan of the average piece of clothing in a (Dutch) wardrobe at three years and five months, during which it was on the body on a total of forty-four days. Until more up-to-date research is carried out it is difficult to assess today’s fashion turnover, but there is unanimous agreement that it has become much, much faster. We know by the rate at which we buy and the amounts we chuck into landfill each year that many pieces can expect to have the lifespan of a mayfly. Meanwhile, someone like Lucy is locked in a cycle of sustaining a celebrity look on the non-salary of an unemployed graduate. Cricket, with its Prada and Balenciaga, is well out of reach. You might say it is a miracle that Lucy was able to sustain any type of wardrobe growth at all, but she managed, courtesy of another wardrobe miracle: fast fashion. Chapter 2 Faster and Cheaper How Big Fashion has Taken Style to the Brink By July 2008 Primark’s flagship store in Oxford Circus’s annual turnover reached £200 million (#litres_trial_promo). At Primark prices that’s an awful lot of clothes, but not to worry, because in the first ten days of trading this single store sold one million garments (#litres_trial_promo). Those lowly prices meant that consumers need not even concern themselves with queuing (or elbowing) their way into fitting rooms to try potential buys on. If they took them home and changed their minds, where was the penalty? Perhaps that mindset explains why a fashion industry commentator, working for a trade publication, watched in horror as she saw one satisfied customer emerge with six or seven brown paper Primark bags full of clothes. It was raining heavily, and as the young woman proceeded down Oxford Street one of them broke around the handles and folded cotton flopped onto the pavement. Naturally the journalist expected the girl to bend down and collect the brand new clothes, but no. She just walked on. Fashion was apparently so expendable it had turned into litter. There is little doubt that fashion has become disposable. Researcher Sara Giorgi, looking into what influences consumer change with the goal of finding ways of making our approach more sustainable, has found some breathtaking examples. ‘I don’t wash socks (#litres_trial_promo),’ she was informed by one respondent. ‘They are too cheap to buy. They are, though! It’s dearer to wash them than it is to go and buy them.’ I know things have become cheap, but until there’s a definitive energy crash I’m not entirely (#litres_trial_promo) convinced by the economics here. I suspect it has more to do with convenience. The next respondent chips in, ‘It’s like me. I go on holiday. Go and get like a pack of – underwear, and you just – just throw it away. What are you going to do, bring them back [in your suit]case?’ THE NEW MODEL ARMY By the millennium the UK’s mainstream fashion industry was largely freed from the shackles of actually producing anything. As it cast off manufacturing facilities and disgorged machine operators to the dole queues, it was clear that the British fashion industry was more about the selling of clothes than the making of them. With the exception of a few stubborn outposts, hundreds of years of manufacturing heritage were junked in ten short years (#litres_trial_promo), and some extremely high-profile brands, like Burberry (#litres_trial_promo), moved their manufacturing abroad. The once brisk trade in home-grown apparel was as dead as a dodo, replaced by a clothing market that relied almost entirely on imports (#litres_trial_promo), that was all about shiny shopfronts and the charismatic owners and CEOs behind vast retail empires (#litres_trial_promo). The undisputed king of these was (and arguably remains) Philip Green. Owner of the rather pedestrian high-street staple BHS, Green bought the Arcadia group for £850 million (#litres_trial_promo) in 2002. It was widely agreed that he had pulled off the bargain of the century: netting Arcadia gave him Topshop, Topman, Wallis, Evans, Miss Selfridge and Dorothy Perkins, and therefore a significant slice of the British high street. But while all of those were much-loved brands, they weren’t exactly setting closets on fire. That was about to change. Within a few months Green was rarely mentioned in the media without the attendant cliché that he possessed the Midas touch. Topshop had achieved something extraordinary. In financial terms it accounted for £1 billion of UK clothing sales by the first half of 2005 alone (bear in mind that the entire clothing market was only worth £7 billion). Green’s apparent ability to turn these humdrum stores into cash cows that made the British high street the envy of the world was celebrated by business analysts, the fashion press, and especially consumers. Topshop became a destination point for anybody who was interested in fashion. For us consumers it was a straightforward process. You simply turned to the pages in magazines that prescribed how to ‘get the look’ from international runways, and popped into your nearest Topshop to find affordable pieces that took their cue from the design trends on the rail. Admittedly the cut, the finish and the fabrics would have given a modellista (a handicraft professional working in the luxury industry) a nervous breakdown, but they were immediate and cheap facsimiles. I wouldn’t like to suggest that I was in any way above this. I was as punchdrunk on the formula as everyone else. My allegiance actually predated Green’s transformation, as I shopped pretty religiously in Topshop Oxford Circus from 1992 when I arrived in London as a seventeen-year-old university student. I still have a few things from that era: strange Lycra flared leggings and cropped tops – oh dear. My visits began to tail off from early 2000 as I became increasingly worried about Arcadia’s sourcing policies and its failure to join the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) – at the time of writing, Arcadia is still not a member. There was also the fact that I had begun to feel a bit too old, and instinctively wanted a better cut. By the time I bagged a ticket for the front row at the Topshop show in 2009 I was already researching this book, and the magic bubble had burst for me. But not, it seemed, for the rest of the style press. At London Fashion Week in February 2009, Topshop’s status remained undiminished. By that point, indeed, it had become the most exciting thing about London Fashion Week – a statement that I think would be hotly denied by the British Fashion Council – bolstered by the fact that this spring/summer 2010 season was the sixteenth time Topshop had sponsored New Gen (New Generation, or up-and-coming talent. When you think the alumni of New Gen include Matthew Williamson, Christopher Kane, Erdem, Jonathan Saunders and the late Alexander McQueen, the excitement by association is understandable). Besides, Topshop’s mainline show has a reputation for ‘delivering’. All of which explained why, even on a Sunday, the great and the good of fashion had faithfully traipsed to a warehouse in Kensington. Once I had negotiated the many doormen (there was a high security presence, for reasons that were never entirely clear) I too was quickly transported. The Topshop show was every bit the theatrical masterpiece I had been told about. A runway with a surface like silver ice and a backdrop of neon and glitter strips. A bank of photographers at its end assembled in what looked like a precarious vertical pyramid. The legions of fashion editors and stylists, all clad in black, determinedly flooded the place like stormtroopers, albeit ones with purple Moët et Chandon notebooks and outsized leather bags. It went dark. It went very dark. And then we were off : a relentless stream of neon- and glitter-clad teenagers, like glowing tadpoles on the silver runway. Every three or four girls a new motif or accessory was introduced: a clutch bag, a raft of bangles, a scarf. All bang on trend, all fun and uncomplicated. This was fast fashion on the move, and it was deeply seductive. When the audience showed its appreciation with sustained applause it sounded almost grateful. It was a moment of dazzling frippery at a time when the nation was plunging into a dark recession. I imagine it was even more exciting four years before, when Topshop had its first proper London Fashion Week show, because you can say what you like about this high-street giant, there’s no denying it brought some excitement to a rather dull set-up. Much of that ‘Midas touch’ was actually applied by Jane Shepherdson, who was at the helm of Topshop in 2005, when the flagship Oxford Circus shop’s sales exceeded £100 million (#litres_trial_promo) in a single year in the midst of a consumer downturn, and the chain would sell out of 5,500 sequin vests in half a week. Shepherdson had a fabled way with style, managing to pick the trends that she knew would be lapped up and getting them instore at just the right time. By 2005 she had twenty years’ experience at Topshop, beginning as a buyer who had allegedly earned her sartorial stripes by staking her whole career on a job lot of tank tops (#litres_trial_promo) that became one of the store’s biggest hits. ‘A lot of the time these days I actually feel much happier when I go through my existing wardrobe, wearing some of the clothes I’ve kept for a long time and looking different precisely because I’m not wearing the latest thing,’ says the Jane Shepherdson of 2010. ‘When you slip into wearing the trend of the hour, maybe that’s the easy thing to do.’ She laughs. ‘Even though of course I’m sitting here in a camel cashmere jumper, which is apparently the trend.’ The woman who is credited with engineering Topshop’s supreme reign in fast fashion is now head of Whistles, having engineered a management buyout in 2010. She can also frequently be heard expressing sentiments about fashion that have more in common with the ethical fashion movement than the mainstream. For example, she is on record as saying that rich people buying cheap clothes and bragging about it is ‘very vulgar (#litres_trial_promo)’, a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree. Like me, she appears to have reached saturation point with ‘fast fashion’. She’s had her fill of insubstantial pieces and the endless churn. ‘I know! (#litres_trial_promo)’ she says. ‘And I’m in fashion.’ ‘Jane,’ I venture rather timidly, ‘do you ever feel like you created the monster?’ Her expression is a cross between remorse and bemusement. ‘I do get asked this. On one hand it’s ludicrous, because I didn’t invent fast fashion at all. If I had done, surely I’d be a millionaire by now, and I am definitely not that. Our motives were pretty simple. All we were trying constantly to do was to create the best possible design for the price that we were committed to – one that was affordable to our customer base. We thought at the time, well, we’re selling lots of stuff , but let’s make stuff that at least has some design integrity and make it interesting and exciting. That’s what we did.’ There’s no doubt that that simple aspiration to imbue clothes with ‘some design integrity’ worked. As Shepherdson acknowledges, ‘When I joined Topshop a real fashionista would not have been seen in it. It wasn’t the thing to do. It was a different ethos. You wore designer or you wore high street.’ She certainly changed that. It became de rigueur to shop on the high street again. ‘Every girl admits to shopping at Topshop,’ wrote business journalist Nick Mathiason, profiling Shepherdson in the Observer in 2005. ‘Inevitably you end up creating trends,’ Shepherdson says, ‘and of course people think they have to have them. It becomes quite hard to pinpoint where it all started.’ Following the indisputable success of Jane Shepherdson’s strategy came a raft of retailers who were determined to emulate Topshop’s success, and indeed take it further. Fast fashion became an industry standard, and clothes were produced in smaller production batches and at dizzying rates. High-street fashion was on high alert to every trend and consumer whim, defined by the industry as ‘quick response’. Emulating the Topshop magic meant getting the quickest supply chains possible. In industry terms this meant decreasing production times. Staff responsible for buying and sourcing went into overdrive. To compete they needed to react urgently to any change in trend. Every part of the production cycle was squeezed, concertinaed into days and hours rather than weeks. ‘Time to market’ (the all-important period in which factories sew garments to meet orders and then deliver them to the stores) was halved, then quartered. There was less time to identify future trends and translate them into clothes, as it became commonplace for buyers to fax their Developing World suppliers at all hours of the day and night with tweaks and changes from the UK design team. A few years ago, a factory supplying a major retailer would have expected to manufacture 40,000 garments across four styles for twenty weeks. Today it will be lucky to get commitment from the retailer to manufacture four styles at five hundred garments per week for just five weeks. The remaining 30,000 will be ordered at the last minute, when the design team has worked out whether the mainstream consumer has been inspired by Taylor Swift , Daisy Lowe, Lindsay Lohan or none of the above. While Topshop managed to slim its production period from nine to six weeks, H&M cut its lead times from design to rail to just three weeks. In fact, according to the revered fashion journalist Hilary Alexander, it was H&M that launched fashion that was effectively ‘disposable’, and you don’t get faster than that. Even back in 2003 she had reservations: ‘I’m not entirely convinced that that is such a good thing,’ she said, referring to the fact that some garments were so cheap ‘that literally you’d be lucky to get two to three wears out of it, and then you’d chuck it away’. This new money-spinning way of working the rag trade was based on a rather dry notion of ‘lean retailing’ that subsequently achieved near-doctrinal status in business schools. The new model held everybody’s attention – analysts, economists, the press and of course fashionistas. After all, if you fitted into the latter category, what was there not to like? For starters, there was a surfeit of choice. Topshop for example would bring in 7,000 lines (#litres_trial_promo) each season. If Topshop and H&M were consciously after the youth vote, with cut-for-teen-frame styling and sequined hook-ups with of-the-moment celebrities, they weren’t the ones that brought the ultimate revolution. That was left to what seemed like a slightly staider, more grown-up name on the high street: Zara. On the surface Zara represents a conundrum for me. I remember looking at it early on – the Spanish brand owned by Inditex arrived in the UK in 1998, but has been a fixture in its native Spain since 1975 – and thinking it looked like a range for a generic type of European yummy mummy. It wasn’t long, however, before I found myself visiting with decreasing gaps in between, despite the fact that I didn’t aspire to dress like a Zara woman. It was as if I was being taught to like it. Legend has it that when the first Zara store opened in Britain, on Regent Street in London, shoppers were a little mystified. The prices seemed high, and I’m told (perhaps apocryphally) that if consumers said they would come back when there was a sale, the assistants would tell them that come sale time the pieces would not be there. In fact, even if the tentative shoppers were to come back next week the pieces wouldn’t be there. That was not the Zara way. The Zara way – the one that broke all previous rules – had several defining characteristics, but number one (and sacrosanct) was that the Spanish retailer manufactured only relatively tiny quantities of each style. This sounds a small deal, but effectively it turned fashion retail on its head. Instead of focusing on quantity, Zara’s cadre of around two hundred designers (#litres_trial_promo) in Spain come up with around 40,000 new designs each year, of which 12,000 are actually (#litres_trial_promo) produced (that’s 5,000 more than Topshop). Years ago, when I worked in a shop as a Saturday girl, we were forever phoning up customers when new deliveries came in (or at least we were supposed to). Not any longer, because in Big Fashion stock replenishments are for wimps. How does this affect the consumer? Well, as a shopper, if you hesitate at the point of purchase you’re probably going to miss your chance. This creates a terrible hunger in the consumer, creating what Harvard researchers have referred to as ‘a sense of tantalising exclusivity (#litres_trial_promo)’, a pervasive fear that if you pause for thought, the opportunity to bag that affordable version of a catwalk sensation (Zara is known as ‘interpreting rather than creating afresh’, as retail and fashion analyst Davangshu Dutta sensitively puts it) will be snatched from you forever. Both Zara’s ability to take ‘inspiration’ from hot catwalk pieces and the hunger engendered by small, fast-changing product lines are in evidence from press coverage around the time Zara opened its largest European store in London, ‘a 3,000-square-metre temple to consumption’, as journalist and design expert Caroline Roux described it: ‘Among the bewildering selection of clothes, I spotted a passable interpretation of a Christian Dior embroidered Afghan on the rails (£95), a Pradaesque brocade waistcoat (£45) and a black wool coat (£65) that was enticingly similar to something by superchic Italian label Costume National (£565). An assistant even pointed me in the direction of what he called “the Anna Sui collection”, an up-to-the-minute assortment of patchwork, denim and boho chic (Sui is a veteran New York designer who shows on the catwalk).’ Roux suggested that a reason for Zara’s appeal was the short amount of time each line was given to prove itself (absolutely no longer than four weeks). The only way you could be a Zara groupie was to pop in as often as you could manage. Whereas a typical retailer could expect its customers to visit four times a year, Zara could bank on an average of seventeen visits (#litres_trial_promo). This explained my frequent sorties, equally frequently resolved by exiting the store with the distinctive blue paper bag. ‘The girls in the office (#litres_trial_promo) know that new stock comes in on Tuesday and Thursday, and off they go,’ Julian Vogel, Managing Director of fashion PR company Modus, told Roux. ‘It’s a guilt-free high.’ ‘This business is all about reducing response time. In fashion, stock is like food. It goes bad quick,’ said former Inditex Chairman José Maria Castellano, who many credit with coming up with the Zara blueprint for blink-and-you-miss-it fashion. The whole point was to take the risk out of fashion for the retailer (as we’ll see later, it’s arguable that the risk gets pushed down the supply chain, onto those whose lives are already unbearably uncertain). Zara had no truck with discounting 35 to 40 per cent (#litres_trial_promo) of its merchandise (the normal figure for fashion retailers) because it had ordered skinny jeans in the wrong wash, or a jacket with last week’s lapel size. Instead it set up a system that means it only ever discounts around 18 per cent (#litres_trial_promo) of its products, according to analysts. Rather than trudging along taking nine to twelve months to decide on a style, using forecasters and analysts to advise on upcoming trends a year in advance, then taking a risk on ordering and choosing colours and fabrics, Zara turned the process on its head. Instead of the usual phalanx of style and colour forecasters poring over industry reports, it set up a relatively large production team at Inditex’s Spanish HQ in the distinctly non-fashionable Arteixo-La Coruna, and relied on them to liaise with trendspotters on the ground, constantly emailing and phoning in with suggestions to get a highly reactive consumer-led view of what’s hot and what’s not. If the hipsters suddenly develop a thing for vampires, or swing away from brogues and Victoriana, the Inditex office will know about it. The result was that 163 Zara stores across Europe (sixty in the UK) received new fashion pieces twice every week. There were a number of ways by which this was achieved, including some very technical processes. These included buying semi-processed, uncoloured fabric, known as ‘greige’, that could be finished and dyed at short notice, depending on what hot trends the cool hunters were texting in. There were systems, often enthused over by logistics professionals, of underground tracks that moved finished garments to hundreds of chutes to make sure each store was sent the right packages at the right time. But the big thing Zara did was to produce 50 to 80 per cent (estimates vary) of its lines in Europe, so that it became famous for identifying a trend and having the resulting fashion in store within thirty days (#litres_trial_promo). To be that fast requires the heavy use of air freight, and commentators have described the dizzying pace of twice-weekly air shipments with Air France and KLM cargo, as planes from Zaragoza land in Bahrain laden with stock for Inditex stores in the Middle East, fly on to Asia, and return with raw materials and half-finished clothes. In common with other industries that aren’t exactly addressing sustainability head on, this is predicated on cheap oil. Looking at some conventional timespans for getting hold of garments from far-flung production bases, you can see why Zara’s model is so attractive to its eager customers. One study (#litres_trial_promo) of Egyptian exporters of cotton clothing, for example, estimated the time taken to import yarns from India and Pakistan to a storage facility at thirty days. To this had to be added customs clearance, including waiting time (another two weeks), a few days for the preparation of export documents, four hours to pack a container (in recent years clothes containers have increased in length from twenty feet to forty feet, such is the unprecedented demand), and then sailing time (from Alexandria in this case, to New York, where the cargo must again clear customs and then go to a testing laboratory). The result was a yawn-inducing ninety to 120 days (#litres_trial_promo), far too long for a trend-based sun dress inspired by a Hollywood actress. By the time it arrived she could be well out of favour. Even Philip Green doffed his hat to Zara. ‘Genius (#litres_trial_promo). What the fashion industry is all about,’ he said in an interview with Retail Week magazine. ‘When Madonna gave a series of concerts in Spain,’ noted business expert Robin Dymond on his blog Scrum, Agile and Lean Methods, ‘teenage girls were wearing at her last performance the outfit she wore for her first concert.’ Although I was amazed that looking like Madonna was still a kudos-raising activity for teenagers in Spain, I got the point. He saw another direct translation for an older market: ‘When Spain’s Crown Prince Felipe (#litres_trial_promo) and Letizia Ortiz Rocasolano announced their engagement in 2003, the bride-to-be wore a stylish white pant suit. Within a few weeks, hundreds of European women were wearing something similar.’ Other pretenders to the high-street throne got the message. Esprit and Mango tried the same approach: short lead times and multiple seasons, along with reduced delivery times – these could be as little as forty-eight hours (#litres_trial_promo). What was definitely out of fashion was holding onto lots of stock, or indeed any stock. As consumers we rapidly changed our priorities. Long-standing skills of buying clothing, such as assessing for quality or looking at labels, were junked in favour of getting our hands on what was new as we adjusted to the Zara-like thrill of swapping two wardrobe seasons a year (and the delayed gratification of waiting to embrace those two seasons) for upwards of twenty. While the world’s mainline Fashion Weeks continue the charade of spring/summer and autumn/winter seasons, in real terms they are now about as relevant to contemporary life as learning Gregorian plainsong. Zara’s policy was what we might call a game-changer. While it won plaudits in the financial press and saw its share price rocket – a share offer to the public in 2001 was over-subscribed twenty-six times, raising 2.1 billion euros (#litres_trial_promo) – brands such as M&S, with relatively pedestrian stock turns that were at least twenty days slower (#litres_trial_promo), and often with lead times of six months, found themselves getting a lot of stick for being plodding and dowdy. Inevitably there were casualties as fashion brands that had long been mainstays of the high street were thrown into a do-or-die situation. Many of these represented the middle market – not too cheap, not too fast, but truly affordable clothing where standards of quality and longevity were still in evidence. Those brands scrambled to try either to up their fashionability (Next, for example, attempted to be clearer about its style and direction), or slashed their prices to try to compete. In retrospect, the criticism of previously cherished middle-market brands just before the millennium was exceptionally harsh. Laura Ashley, Next and Monsoon were all accused of misreading ‘the all-important female fashion market’ as they urgently attempted to ‘restructure their offer’. M&S famously came in for years of ridicule, not least at the company’s own AGMs, which took on a theatrical quality. In 1999 Teresa Vanneck-Surplice, a private shareholder, waved a pair of a rival chain’s knickers at then M&S Chairman Brian Baldock. ‘Your underwear’s (#litres_trial_promo) got boring!’ she said, adding, ‘I may be fifty-two but I like my underwear sexy.’ To the delight of the assembled media, Vanneck Surplice proved a similarly dynamic complainant during 2007’s AGM, when she told Stuart Rose (by that time Executive Chairman) that she was still unhappy with M&S’s offerings, which was why she was dressed head to foot in Primark. (‘It won’t last (#litres_trial_promo),’ responded Rose with splendid ambiguity.) To varying degrees the crime of the middle market was that it was no longer deemed fashionable. Next to the neon-lit, sequin-strewn running track that fast fashion streaked up and down, the middle market was frankly an embarrassment. So while the Dutch-owned C&A appeared as one of the top ten UK clothing retailers in 1999, just a year later it announced it was closing all of its British stores. In 2000 you wouldn’t have found me mourning the middle market. I was far too busy adding to my collection of jeans and shoes. But now I’m pausing for a brief moment of regret. Yes, it’s a case of you-don’t-know-what-you’ve-got-till-it’s-gone, but the middle market was, with a great deal of hindsight, the best way to avoid sucking all of the health out of the fashion industry, including a loss of control over the supply chain. It was the most sustainable, mainstream way of ensuring affordable fashion. OUT OF CONTROL: THE RUNAWAY STYLE TRAIN I don’t want to compound the air of regret, but if only it had stopped there. Fast fashion had its merits – it certainly brought excitement. The jury’s out on whether you can have responsible fast fashion (it certainly doesn’t sound very sexy), but what if it had stayed true to Jane Shepherdson’s original idea, to make better, more fashionable clothes at affordable prices? Naturally there would have been some deficit environmentally – every time you make something there’s an impact – but we would have stood a chance of minimising the negative effects. Inevitably the signs of this revolution – the bulging wardrobes and the women staggering around with multiple store bags – attracted attention in non-fashionista circles. By the late 1990s economists and business analysts, alerted by the superleague profits of previously workaday stores, were taking a closer look. What on earth, they wondered, was going on? It was the equivalent of hearing the strains of a prolonged and increasingly wild party until you feel compelled to get out of bed and see the action for yourself. And it was some party: a story of spectacular growth made more captivating to analysts because historically the clothing sector in the UK had always been a bit of a damp squib, but it was now displaying incredible figures. From 1900 to 1938 things were glacially slow, then became even worse with the Second World War, when clothes were subject to rationing (#litres_trial_promo). Only from 1975 did the British public finally begin casting offsome of its make-do-and-mend attitude to fashion, as the UK market swelled to reach an unprecedented size by 1999. The UK Fashion Report for 1998–99 proclaimed the UK clothing and footwear industry to be worth £26 billion (#litres_trial_promo) (up from £11.7 billion in 1983). There was more to come. In 2009 it was worth an amazing £46.05 billion, and accounted for 5.3 per cent of all consumer spending. I call this seismic shift in making, selling and buying fashion the alchemy of fast fashion. Alchemy, the medieval forerunner of chemistry, launched many practitioners on the ultimately fruitless quest to turn base metal into gold. Fast-fashion alchemy has done something similar, turning basic fabrics and a frill-free supply chain into a Balenciaga-alike fashion fix. Just like alchemy, there’s an unquantifiable mystical element to this dark art, because the stellar fiscal achievements of fast fashion took place at a time when clothing prices were actually falling. This is worth spelling out. We were clearly purchasing a lot of wardrobe fodder. In 1990 we cumulatively spent £23 billion on clothes and shoes – the lion’s share, almost £19 billion, on clothes; trends dictated that a large proportion of this will have gone on boot-cut jeans and some on the tyrannical reign of the babydoll dress. We achieved all of this with just 4.5 per cent of our household budget (in the 1960s we spent far less on our wardrobes, but they accounted for 10 per cent of our budget). By 1998 those figures had soared. We were now spending £32.5 billion on clothes and shoes a year, £27.7 billion on clothes alone. But interestingly this still accounted for only 5.7 per cent of our budget. In July 2001 sales of clothing and footwear in the UK were up on the previous year by a huge 12 per cent, the highest annual rate of growth since the mid-1970s. But in real terms the price of clothes had fallen dramatically (and, I might add, chaotically). This is the point at which the dark side of the fast-fashion alchemy kicks in. Between 1996 and 2000 clothing prices fell each year, and in the epoch-defining year of high sales, 2001, they fell by 6 per cent (#litres_trial_promo). The analysts could almost hear a giant balloon deflating. A study by City analyst Mark Hudson from Price waterhouse Coopers, tracking Next Direct’s catalogue between 1995 and 2005, confirms that something very weird happened: prices had actually dropped 40 per cent (#litres_trial_promo) over that time. In the four years from 2003 to 2007 average prices in retail fashion fell by 10 per cent. A 1998 study found that between 1982 and 1995 the amount of time a motor-vehicle worker had to put in to earn enough to purchase a suit fell from twenty-five (#litres_trial_promo) hours to eighteen. Consumers did not require a formula to pinpoint what was happening: we were simply spending less and buying more. ENTER THE DISCOUNTERS Fast fashion taught us to prioritise speed. Its influence in most of our wardrobes is undeniable, but it was not the whole story. The real alchemy – turning base fabrics into golden trends that both the consumer and the financial markets went crazy for – only occurred when fast fashion was allied to the lowest price points in history. While the foreign fast-fashion giants – Gap, H&M and Zara – will doubtless have staked some sort of claim in your closet, in 2002 their total market share was still just under 5 per cent (#litres_trial_promo). The biggest invasion of planet fashion, with the biggest reverberations, belonged to the so-called ‘value’ retailers, also known as ‘discounters’. Those leading the charge – Matalan, Peacock’s and New Look – were known for their ‘aggressive pricing strategies (#litres_trial_promo), selling at 30–50 per cent below’ the prices of the good old mid-market. But none of them had quite the clout of Primark. Primark originated in Ireland, and growing up there I was familiar with it in its other guise as Penneys, the go-to outlet for school socks and vests. I can safely say I would never have believed that twenty years later it would be earning plaudits in glossy magazines for its military jackets and polkadot dresses. The discount retail chain, whose parent company Associated British Foods provides us with cupboard staples such as Ryvita, Kingsmill and Ovaltine, arrived in the UK in 1974, but it has remained something of an enigma. Little is known about its septuagenarian founder, Arthur Ryan (#litres_trial_promo), who stepped down in 2009 after forty years, except that he instilled in the company a belief that all products must make his legendary 12.5 per cent profit margin. According to an article in the Irish newspaper the Sunday Business Post, Ryan was supposedly once approached by a factory owner with a product costing £5 that would sell for £10. Ryan reportedly told him he was not interested unless he came back with a product that cost £3 and could be sold for £7: ‘I don’t care (#litres_trial_promo) how you go about it – just do it,’ he reputedly said. When a journalist (#litres_trial_promo) from the Scotsman tried to verify the story, Primark denied it. ‘His view would (#litres_trial_promo) almost be counter-intuitive,’ a former employee told the Sunday Times in 2007. ‘He would look at a product line that was selling well at £5 and cut the price to £3 because it would sell even more.’ Primark was to the discounters what Zara was to fast-fashion retailers – a trailblazer that showed the profits that could be made, and an organisation to emulate. The opening of its flagship London store in May 2007 was followed by mammoth stores in Manchester and Bristol. The discounters persuaded us to trump all other values with a single myopically focused question: ‘But is it really, really cheap?’ From then on, that was all the consumer wanted to know. By 2006 value retailers represented the fastest-growing part of the retail pie: retail analysts Verdict prophesied (#litres_trial_promo) that by the end of the year, for every £4 spent on fashion, £1 would go to a value retailer. Of course this came true, and just eighteen months later industry bible Drapers breathlessly reported that ‘Primark has moved (#litres_trial_promo) a step closer to toppling Marks & Spencer from the top spot in clothing market share, after its volume share leapt to 10.1 per cent.’ Who wouldn’t want a piece of that? After the high-street retailers adopted this approach, it was only a matter of time before some strange new entrants began to get in on the act. FROM FROZEN PEAS TO FASHION FIXES: HOW THE SUPERMARKETS GOT IN ON THE ACT If I hadn’t anticipated that my friends and colleagues would one day be fawning over products from a subsidiary of Associated British Food, I was even less prepared for the fashion revolution that would see us throwing in cashmere twinsets on top of frozen peas in our supermarket trolleys. But any market doing obscenely well by leveraging pressure down the supply chain will eventually attract the attention of the British supermarkets. In 2003 Tesco began its quest to take a bigger slice of the non-food retail pie, including fashion. It had secured a licensing deal with the phenomenally successful US global brand-management company Cherokee (#litres_trial_promo), that would exclusively supply ‘family apparel’ – a rather strange, catch-all term – to Tesco. Since clothes attract bigger margins than groceries, it’s no surprise that in quick succession three of the Big Four (Tesco, Asda and Sainsburys) entered the fashion arena. By 2005 supermarkets held 19 per cent of the fashion market. In October 2010 Tesco confirmed its intention to become the world’s biggest fashion brand, launching its first standalone fashion store (without the frozen peas) for its clothing brand Florence & Fred. It chose to test the waters for this venture into discount fashion in the historic city of Prague. You can see how it worked. The grocers applied the same ruthless pragmatism to fashion as they had to food, engaging in a series of loss leaders and price wars which changed the landscape of planet fashion beyond recognition. In the great supermarket wars of 2003, when Tesco and Asda were vying to outdo each other (#litres_trial_promo) with 1,000 products, fashion was key: Asda’s George jeans were being sold for £6; tailored women’s trousers plummeted from £9 to £7; skirts from £7 to £5; jackets from £14 to £12. If you pause for a minute, does that remotely add up? Granted, a cheap-as-chips jacket will be a fairly straightforward piece, but consider the detail: the buttons, the seams, the pockets, the level of embellishment. If it was at its true price you’d expect it to be made of cardboard. Ditto the Asda wedding dress, launched in November 2007 at £60. The rewards for the multiples (supermarkets) for leaping out of their comfort zone of food and into our wardrobes proved to be huge: Asda’s George brand is worth £2 billion a year, making it one of the company’s biggest assets. By 2009 Tesco, the undisputed heavyweight of multiple retailing, was making nearly £6,000 a minute (#litres_trial_promo), every single day. PRIMARNI, THE TOAST OF THE FASHIONISTAS The combination of fast and cheap fashion was like catnip to consumers, and we fell completely under its sway. But there wasn’t a lot of critical thinking or engagement going on in the style press or the wider media either. In fact the value retailers were aided and abetted in their quest for domination of the UK fashion market by a compliant fashion media that was as titillated by the conflation of fast and cheap as everyone else. The ‘wow’ prices and directional styling of pieces retailing for £3 to £4 were given reassuring tags, ‘Primarni!’ and ‘Pradamark!’ (the latter works less well, I think). They helped to destigmatise fashion pieces that were as cheap as chips. It became rather cool to trot about in worthless, disposable fashion. A watershed in the British media was the change from the dominance of monthly style titles such as Marie Claire and Glamour to the weekly style bible Grazia in 2005. The emphasis was on refurbishing your look on a weekly rather than a monthly basis, and this tied in perfectly with the emergence of the big value players. Readers could afford to have it all. You could change outfits four times a day, live the wardrobe life of a WAG, pretend you were Lindsay Lohan if you so desired. For a while nothing appeared able to dent the crown of the value players, not even conflicting or troubling undertones. So it did not overly matter that almost at the same time in 2005 that Primark’s Arthur Ryan was named ‘most influential man in high-street fashion’ by fashion industry bible Drapers, his retail empire was named ‘most unethical retailer on the high street’ by Ethical Consumer magazine (a publication with fifteen years of experience in grading companies). If it hurt, it didn’t show. Even so, the discounters can get defensive about cheap, cheap fashion, and sometimes consumers get defensive on their behalf. In common with food, where retailers go misty-eyed and tell us about old ladies on pensions now being able to afford ready-made pasta dishes, the same retailers tell us that this is why they have – in the manner of a caped crusader – wrestled down the price of style, democratising the cost of clothes for families on low incomes so that small children can keep warm. The value retailers like to propagate the idea that they are producing ‘affordable’ clothes for vulnerable consumers who would presumably be reduced to wearing rags if it wasn’t for the service Asda, Tesco, Peacocks, Matalan, New Look, Primark et al. provide with their commitment to ‘family apparel’. But before we give Terry Leahy, Arthur Ryan and the rest of them good citizen awards, it is worth looking at who has really catapulted these retail gods into millionaires’ row. affordability in fashion is a hot potato of an issue. I see no reason why fashion shouldn’t be affordable, but shouldn’t the fast-fashion and value retailers drop the Hovis act? The fact is that they moved aggressively into the fashion market, desperate to claim as big a slice as possible of this retail pie, and more often than not their prime audience is not the low-income family but the well-heeled fashion fan. For starters, it’s interesting to see how quickly value retailers move house, shifting into ever more prestigious retail locations. A flagship store plus all the positive press coverage that comes with it attracts a richly profitable clientèle. As one analyst puts it, these factors seem ‘to have de-stigmatised (#litres_trial_promo) discount shopping for the middle-income groups who were [once] the mainstay of the mid-market’. Another expert, writing on Primark’s ability not only to hold on to the top retailer spot (in terms of the highest-value share of the clothing market) during the recession-plagued year of 2009 but to increase that share of its market by 18.2 per cent, was in no doubt about which audience the retailer should be thanking: ‘[Primark] enjoys (#litres_trial_promo) a relatively young customer base which has been least impacted by the economic downturn because of fewer financial responsibilities.’ Make no mistake, the value retailers are gunning for fashion’s most voracious consumers. That includes the 16 per cent of consumers, innovators and early adopters who can be termed ‘highly fashion aware (#litres_trial_promo)’: who are not just conscious of trends, but likely to act on them. So it’s no surprise that British consumers now buy 40 per cent of our clothes at ‘value retailers’ with just 17 per cent of our clothing budget. The value retailers are clearly as fashion-conscious as everyone else, going out of their way to attract designers and labels with high-fashion overtones. As I write, Asda is just about (#litres_trial_promo) to launch its second collection with Barbara Hulanicki, world-famous as the founder of 1960s brand Biba. You might also discover – and I was alerted to this by an article in the style press – that once a value retailer has its feet under the style table, it might ditch its ‘value’ dogma altogether. In March 2010, for example, Tesco launched F&F Couture, a sixteen-piece collection. Pieces included a puffb all polyester dress at £140. ‘F&F signifies (#litres_trial_promo) a new era for supermarket fashion,’ Jan Marchant, Buying Director of Tesco Clothing, said at the launch of the label. RECESSION CHIC ‘Don’t worry!’ I’m blithely told when I have one of my little turns about levels of consumption and the march of fast, cheap fashion. Ever since the global downturn I have been confidently reassured that the pants and sock discarders, the Primark bargain litterers will change their ways during a recession. By the end of it, they’ll be darning their socks in a wholly sustainable manner. To be fair, it did appear that as the economy nosedived in 2008–09 planet fashion began suggesting that there were choices to be made. These may have been small gestures, or pyrrhic victories, but there was some evidence that fashionistas were tightening their tiny little belts. ‘Gucci or Gas?’ asked Harper’s Bazaar. OK, it was hardly a blueprint for surviving the global downturn, but you get the idea. Meanwhile, experts predicted that there should be an average rise in womenswear prices by 4.7 per cent between 2008 and 2012. We’ll return to this later, but labour costs have increased by 50 per cent in the past four years across provinces in south-eastern China – aka the sewing room of the world. Fast fashion is dependent on cheap fibres, predominantly polyester and cotton – which account for more than 80 per cent of all fibre production worldwide. Both are dogged by sustainability issues. These factors suggest that the fast, cheap party we’ve been experiencing for over a decade should by rights have started to wind up. If I had a pound for every time I’ve been told that the recession would take the heat out of the way we acquire and use fashion, I’d have enough for a real aviator jacket. But rumours of the death of fast, cheap fashion have been greatly exaggerated for two main reasons. Firstly, we’ve adapted to this new style paradigm so enthusiastically that it’s difficult to break the habit. Secondly, value fashion offers us the moon on a stick, and anaesthetises us from the real issues in our wardrobe. In fact the value retailers have never had it so good. They now take a bigger slice of the collective wardrobe than ever before. In January 2009 Primark overtook Asda (#litres_trial_promo), Walmart’s representative on UK earth, as the biggest low-price clothing retailer. There was more to come. Despite reporting ‘challenges’ such as cotton and synthetic fabric costs, the value retailer overtook Asda and M&S to reach the coveted top spot of the largest clothing retailer (#litres_trial_promo) in the UK by volume (i.e. for all clothes sold) by the summer of 2010. In November that year Primark announced that it would be opening six new shops in time for Christmas. Even as times became progressively harder across all sectors, where fashion was concerned the value retailers appeared to have been given a get-out-of-jail-free card. In September 2010, according to the office for National Statistics, while the rest of the retail trade was in a slump, non-food sales for supermarkets were soaring, and clothing and footwear sales rose by 6.1 per cent (#litres_trial_promo) by value and 4.8 per cent by volume compared to the same month the year before. In April 2010 Tesco clothing sales had broken through the £1 billion barrier (#litres_trial_promo) for the first time. The ascendancy of the value retailers might even be boosted by extra customers in a time of recession, as there will inevitably be some flight downmarket by middle-class consumers. Within hours of the announcement in October 2010 that in future child benefits would be means tested, independent fashion retailers and labels at the pricier end of the market were fearing for their own livelihoods. The connection might not be immediately obvious, but in 2013 benefits to many middle-income families will be cut, and according to independent fashion retailers this money was previously additional disposable income for the household that went on bolstering the wardrobe. ‘A middle-class lady (#litres_trial_promo) [with one child] gets about £80 month in benefits, so in three months she has enough to buy one of my dresses. It’s in effect her spending-spree money, and that’s who I sell to,’ Tanya Sarne, owner and founder of premium womenswear brand Handwritten, told Drapers. Let’s leave aside the moral rights and wrongs of using taxpayers’ money to fund premium-dress buying for a minute, and imagine the likely scenario. If she is too addicted to acquiring new pieces to curtail her fashion buying altogether, Sarne’s customer could just take her spending spree down the price chain. Doubtless, value retailers, from Peacocks and Primark to Tesco and Asda and everything in between, will be hoping that this proves to be the case. At the time of writing even more brands are battling to join the value-retailing fashion fray. Argos, the famous catalogue purveyors of toasters and tents, is reportedly intending ‘to stage a land-grab (#litres_trial_promo) in the fashion market in a challenge to established clothing retailers’. Then there’s Japanese fashion chain Uniqlo, that has the fast/cheap alchemy off to a fine art and is currently seeking to ‘strengthen its position (#litres_trial_promo) in the UK market’ by planning huge 20–30,000-square-foot stores across London (double the size of its average existing store). It has the rather scary stated intention of becoming ‘the biggest global (#litres_trial_promo) casual-wear company by 2020’, according to an interview which Daisuke Hase from Fast Retailing, Uniqlo’s parent company, gave to the Japan Times in October 2010. He rather laboured the point by adding, ‘We call ourselves Fast Retailing. We move things very fast. Please keep an eye on us; we will change the world very quickly.’ Yes, Mr Hase, I am watching. And let’s not forget a foray from US fashion giant Forever 21, opening any day in Birmingham’s Bullring and expecting to do well as, according to its Executive Vice-President, ‘Forever 21’s fast-fashion concept (#litres_trial_promo) perfectly suits the European consumer’s appetite for trend-led fast fashion at value prices.’ No doubt. Rather than a return to slower fashion, with its natural blowholes and steam vents to ease the many pressures on the system, so far the downturn in global finances seems merely to have consolidated the alliance between ever faster and ever cheaper fashion. This is Big Fashion (its closest relatives being Big Agriculture and Big Pharma – as in pharmaceuticals), where the power of a whole sector becomes concentrated in the hands of a few major players whose primary aim (arguably to the exclusion of all others) is to make money for shareholders. Unless we do something to break it, we will remain bewitched and in the grip of the alchemy of the cheapest, fastest fashion we’ve ever known, all the while continuing to squeal with delight, ‘How do they get it that cheap?!’ It’s a question that retailers are understandably loath to answer. When they do provide a response, expect smoke and mirrors and the determined obfuscation of big business that isn’t ready to admit a missingingredient. It’s to do, they will say, with purchasing power, efficiency and leverage over the supply chain. Ever hopeful, I decided to ask Big Fashion players again, ‘No, really, how do you make clothes that cheap?’ So I wrote and asked them. Here’s a typical example of my letters. Dear [Chief Executive of a high-street chain], A recent trade magazine’s review of the high-street stores stated categorically that ‘You won’t find a cheaper aviator jacket at £25 or military-style coat for £29, while jumpsuits and winter maxi dresses go for £13 and £15 respectively.’ The researcher in that case was unable to find any item over £30. My own experiences of several of your outlets tallies with this. I would be very grateful if you could give me the definitive answer to how you are able to offer garments at such a low cost. In short, how do you get them so cheap? Many thanks Lucy Siegle Despite repeated requests, some retailers apparently felt no compulsion to share the secrets of their alchemy, and did not reply. Uniqlo, George (Asda) and Tesco, however, all showed the good grace to do so. ‘UNIQLO is a SPA retailer; “Speciality store retailer of Private label Apparel”, meaning our activities are fully integrated from manufacture through sales, including material procurement, design, product development, production, distribution, inventory management and final sales,’ explained Amy Howarth, head of marketing for Uniqlo UK. ‘We control all elements of manufacture, meaning we can pass on the great price to our customer, avoiding the middle man.’ She then outlined the sheer size of Uniqlo, and how its 965 stores in ten different countries globally (as of November 2010) meant that ‘we are able to offer customers excellent value based on scale of manufacture and production’. So far so clear, but towards the end of the letter the reasons for Uniqlo’s ability to retail at super-low prices become more oblique, and frankly more mysterious: ‘Everything UNIQLO does is deeply rooted in our Japanese origin. We always aspire to ensuring the highest excellence in quality, design and technology.’ The accompanying sheet explaining Uniqlo’s ‘Made for All’ philosophy gives few actual clues: ‘We believe that everyone can benefit from simple, well-designed clothes. Because if all people can look and feel better every day, then maybe the world can be a little better too.’ No doubt. But surely there is an omission here? I saw no reference to the people who actually physically make these garments. From Uniqlo’s response, you’d be forgiven for thinking these clothes materialise on the rails by some Japanese design osmosis. The letter I received from Fiona Lambert, brand director of George (the clothing arm of Asda, which is in turn the UK arm of Walmart), is clear on the central purpose of George clothing: ‘George was established by George Davies more than twenty years ago with a simple purpose. He wanted to design and sell clothes that represented Style, Quality and Value. For the past twenty years, we have been working hard to deliver that promise and make fashion affordable for our customers.’ She is quick to correct an apparent assumption: ‘It is often wrongly assumed that George’s low prices are simply a result of how we source our garments. In fact, it is because of a consistent focus on efficient operations, and margins that are considerably less than those of the high-street fashion retailers. Reducing costs is not achieved by one single measure but instead demands a holistic view and rigorous examination of all of our processes, spanning everything from supplier relationships to reducing the size of swing-tag labels.’ There follows a further explanation of Asda’s ability to sell clothes so cheaply: it does not need to spend ‘vast amounts of money advertising its George range in order to attract people into its stores’. And as its stores are predominantly based on the outskirts of towns, they enjoy lower rents. Fine. All plausible stuff. But what about the actual making of the clothes? ‘The largest cost in a garment is fabric,’ Ms Lambert continues. ‘We centrally source high volumes of materials including cotton, fabric, buttons and zips to drive cost savings which are then shared with factory owners. In many instances we leverage our scale with Walmart to globally source. We also centrally source all packaging, hangers and swing tags and have even reduced the size of swing tags to cut costs. We have, through our in-store garment hanger recycling process, recycled over 65.5 million hangers to date. The second largest cost is freight. The ways in which we transport our clothing ranges allow us to reduce costs. So, by planning our ranges well in advance, expensive air freight is used only as a last resort.’ Again, all good logistical planning. But it is disconcerting to read, spelled out in black and white, that fabric and freight are the biggest costs of these clothes. Surely we are missing somebody here? There is no reference to the remuneration of the garment workers who actually make them. Garment workers are not explicitly mentioned in Ms Lambert’s letter at all until near the end, where the fact that Asda has ‘an ongoing relationship with GTZ’, a German NGO working on a pilot productivity scheme focusing on ‘worker skills’, is highlighted. So, high volumes, intricate planning, and at least three mentions of swing tags, but no reference to garment workers as an entity. Tesco’s response comes from commercial director Richard Jones. ‘We work extremely hard to ensure we are more efficient – and more fashionable – than our competitors. We source directly from factories where others go through agents. We leverage our scale and increasing volumes so that suppliers get good-size orders and we get lower unit costs. We employ great staff in the UK and around the world who get to know the suppliers personally, and work out who can offer the best prices with decent technical and working standards. We ensure we give clear specifications so there is little to-ing and fro-ing with suppliers to get the initial design right. Then we have quality and productivity experts regularly visiting factories to ensure efficient production and that there will be few “rejects” among the orders dispatched. We are global leaders in the efficiency (and low carbon) of our transport and logistic systems.’ Mr Jones then introduces the topic of labour rights. He flags up Tesco’s ‘proud’ membership of the Ethical Trading Initiative, and highlights the fact that the company is also working on improving the skills of workers: ‘A broader example of our commitment to support improvement is shown in our current work to establish a Skills Academy for the garment sector in Bangladesh, which will help suppliers to both local and international markets improve production efficiency, raise wages for workers and reduce working hours. The challenges of ensuring decent working conditions, of course, face all clothing suppliers,’ he acknowledges, before ending with a flourish: ‘We’re conscious of how valuable the garment sector is to many developing countries’ economies and believe strongly that the right thing to do is to face challenges in working conditions head on and help improve them – continuing to provide opportunities for jobs and for economic growth – rather than reduce our trade and see those jobs and the opportunities for growth also reduce.’ Chapter 3 Fashion Crimes and Fashion Victims A Dispiriting Journey as Fashion’s Back Story Unravels At the risk of sounding jaded, the responses from the retailers are predictable. Overall, the peculiar alchemy of Big Fashion is explained away through the might of their buying power, thriftiness in marketing and advertising (and in some cases design and their avoidance of expensive, flashy offices), their genius at managing stock, and innovations involving swing tags. In the case of major supermarkets, when a price just seems too ridiculously recession-busting to be true – for example, jeans at £6 (#litres_trial_promo) or T-shirts for £4 – you wonder if there might be another unspoken reason: are these garments being used as ‘loss leaders’, with the retailer taking a hit on margins, covering the basics of production just to entice a new type of buyer into its stores? After all, supermarkets trade in fashion just as they do in bananas and potatoes. I’m not suggesting that this is outrageous because it’s undignified for fashion to be traded as if it were a sack of spuds (although it does make me feel a pang of regret), but because by dropping prices still further and absorbing the hit, the multiples goad everybody else to do the same. Prices that are already deflated spiral ever downwards. The impact of this spiral is felt thousands of miles away by that human element of the Big Fashion jigsaw which is largely absent in the responses from my value-fashion penfriends and from any mention on the label (#litres_trial_promo). A staggering one and a half billion pairs (#litres_trial_promo) of jeans and other cotton trousers are sewn in Bangladesh every year, while India manufactures over seven billion pieces (#litres_trial_promo) of over a hundred varieties of Western-style garments annually. By 2002 China, famously a powerhouse of consumer production, was reckoned to be churning out over twenty billion garments every year. (This means that were the global wardrobe divvied up equitably – we know it’s not! – every man, woman and child on the planet would have four Chinese items (#litres_trial_promo) of clothing.) There are now an estimated 250,000 garment-export factories worldwide – as the name suggests, they produce solely for export. In the UK we are hungry recipients of this fashion bounty. According to industry estimates (#litres_trial_promo), Britain scoops up half of all the apparel (#litres_trial_promo) destined for Europe. Does it all arrive by magic? No, it happens by human endeavour. The Big Fashion engine is powered by an estimated forty million (#litres_trial_promo) garment workers toiling away, thousands of miles from the teams of buyers and designers in the European HQs. You could call them the Cut-Make-and-Trim army. Cut Make and Trim (CMT) is the point in the fashion chain where – the raw fibre having been spun and made into fabric, and the patterns and trends having been decided – the garments are actually made. According to fashion theory there are 101 stages (#litres_trial_promo) in the supply chain, the first being ‘designer attends fabric show’ and the last ‘order ready for shipment’. (After that, of course, it still needs to be flown and/or shipped and trucked before it gets put under your nose.) The CMT stages, where the thing is actually made, account for just a tiny part of this whole flow chart: ‘only twenty-eight days (#litres_trial_promo) and nine operations involve actually making the garment’. But these nine stages involve an extraordinary amount of human effort. Fortunately for the industry, the new fashion model is the poster child of globalisation, and globalisation tends to specialise in sourcing the cheapest (and often the most compliant) labour on the planet. South-East Asia offers much of this labour, which explains why fast fashion’s global assembly line snakes its way through countries such as Cambodia, India, Vietnam and Bangladesh, all of which have become increasingly dependent on the garment trade to bolster their GDP. But the conditions created by globalisation do not breed loyalty. In fact you might say that they allow global fashion brands to play the poorest countries in the world with all the fidelity of the average tomcat. In this massive juggernaut of an industry, always on the lookout for the best deal and the quickest turnaround, brands and retailers will source not from a handful of trusted suppliers, but from forty or fifty garment factories. If there are preferential trade tariffs they may look at sourcing from African nations, and occasionally South American. The choice is vast, and if one producer isn’t supplying you quickly or cheaply enough, you merely look for a more compliant one. Not only is the global assembly line long, it can also be brutal. Working conditions are typically very poor, and oft en dangerous. This leaves our CMT army toiling away in some of the most pitiful conditions in the poorest countries on the planet, in facilities that are most accurately described as sweatshops. There are several ways to define a sweatshop. The original phrase described a system that outsourced or subcontracted labour. This still holds true, but the term is generally extended, applying to any production facility where the house menu includes long hours, unsafe working conditions and low pay, and where workers are not permitted to join unions or form an organisation to represent their interests. On top of this technical description we can add more imagery, gleaned from reports and exposés over recent years, some of which makes uncomfortable reading and viewing. But nothing like the discomfort of spending most of your waking life in these places. When I think of a sweatshop I also think of oppressive temperatures, perhaps the stench of human sweat, the relentless whirr of machines, overflowing toilets, the whole sorry scene policed by a pacing factory manager, possibly with a baton in his hand. Although definitions are imprecise, the number of garment workers who can be considered highly vulnerable, the victims of a lax and at times inhumane industry, is disturbingly large. Potentially they stretch into millions. Who are they? It is likely that most of your wardrobe will have been made by women. They dominate the CMT army. They are considered to be more easily pacified, especially as cultures throughout the Developing World dictate that they are less likely to question middlemen or subcontractors over pay and conditions. Women, with their smaller hands, are also preferred for stitching: they are more nimble, and if they are physically slight they may also be more easily intimidated. In the USA, anti-sweatshop organisations have been unequivocal in drawing connections between the way we consume fashion and the reality of production. ‘Over the past fifteen years (#litres_trial_promo), powerful US clothing retailers such as Walmart, Lord & Taylor and The Gap have created a global sweatshop crisis,’ says a report by Behind the Label.org from January 2001, which goes on to say that in 150 countries around the world over two million people, many of them young women and teenagers, work in garment sweatshops producing for American retailers. Globalisation means that clothes in the UK and across Europe are similarly sourced. We can draw our own conclusions as to how much of our fashion can be attributed to sweated labour. THE HUMAN FACE OF BIG FASHION Retailers, manufacturing brands and consumers have all become fantastically adept at divorcing fashion from the fact that it has been made by an army of living, breathing human beings. As consumers we’ve been completely anaesthetised by the seemingly incredible value of fashion over the last decade. The kick that buying cheap items gives us makes it easy to forget the reality of their production. We tend to make a joke about the fact that deep down we suspect they’ve been made in loathsome conditions, and sometimes we ignore it altogether. Cue Claudia Winkleman, on a jaunt for Vanity Fair at Paris Fashion Week: ‘So what about (#litres_trial_promo) the couture thing – the freakishly expensive skirt that has been hand-sewn? All I’m throwing in is: has anyone here been to Primark? No, really. Their jeans are eight quid, and I reckon a machine sews those seams together in less than thirty seconds.’ I can forgive Claudia Winkleman a lot – she is the funniest presenter on TV – and of course she’s only trying to show divorced haute couture is from reality (more on which later), but uncharitably I’m going to make an example of her. She is not far off the mark with her estimate of thirty seconds for the seams. The forty million garment workers are expected to conform to a standard (known by the industry as the ‘virtual factory standard’ – more on this later) which generously allows fifteen minutes on the global assembly line for a pair of five-pocket jeans. However, bear in mind that that includes fourteen different pieces of sewing, including ‘fly front with zip’ and ‘leg bottom hems’. She has also omitted to say that a living, breathing human being operates that machine. The pressure on that living, breathing human being is intense. It is hard to overstate how brutal the assembly line is for the average garment worker. Sixty first-year fashion students at Northumbria University decided to have a go, spending a day in their own sewing room, set up as a simulated version of a typical production line producing T-shirts. From the outset it was deemed impossible for them to achieve the timings expected from garment workers, so our students were allowed 1 minute 55 seconds to sew each sideseam: in a standard factory for export they would be allowed just 48.5 seconds. The film of their efforts, Been There, Done it – Just Not Sure if I am Entitled to the T-Shirt, shows them working hard. But every slight slip – a dropped pair of scissors, a pause to re-align the seams – costs them dear. The team of students managed to produce ninety-five T-shirts in seven and a half hours. The daily target in an export factory such as in Bangladesh with the same ‘line load’ (the same number of machines and the same type of manufacturing conditions) would be nine hundred. There have been some other notable attempts at conveying the realities of foreign production. The Blood, Sweat and T-shirts TV franchise, broadcast on BBC 3 (and extended to Luxuries and Takeaways), has made a good stab at bringing them home to a young audience, the consumers of the future, in the hope that they’ll have a more engaged and informed understanding from which to make their purchasing decisions. Other stunts to bring the issue to life have included recreating a sweatshop environment in London and staffing it with celebrities (this didn’t make it to transmission, for legal reasons that were never quite clear). Inevitably these programmes adopt a format intended for an audience that, not unreasonably, wants to be entertained. They tend to put either celebrities or teenagers – the most televisually volatile sectors – into uncomfortable positions simulating the reality of production. We watch in part because of the jeopardy. We want to know how long they’ll stick out cotton picking or garment sewing. The answer is, usually, not very long. But ultimately, because you can rightly only traumatise Western celebrities, teenagers and first-year fashion students so far, such programmes don’t come close to the true horrors of sweated labour. As far as I can see these guinea pigs aren’t exposed to conditions that can include being punched in the face for attending meetings, having their documents and permits taken from them, being denied access to a foetid toilet until their bladders are about to burst, being sexually assaulted or forced to have abortions. And they aren’t locked into factories at night that are swept by fires from an electronic fault, and burned alive. In the end, we, with our comfortable Western lives, simply can’t experience the pain of sweated labour. We can be tired, yes, from a day spent hunched over a sewing machine, but we can fall back on basic enshrined principles of human rights, the laws of the land and health and safety. These are all luxuries that the average garment worker on the real global assembly line can only dream of. A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A GARMENT WORKER I don’t tell Sokny that I’ve watched television programmes simulating the life of a garment worker. I suspect she’d think I was off my rocker, though possibly she’d be intrigued to know how I had enough leisure time to sit about watching TV. She works with female garment workers in Cambodia, and has offered to introduce me by phone to two women who she thinks will talk. As with so many workers, they live in fear of having their contracts terminated, and as with all garment workers, particularly those with young children, they have practically no time off. To make matters worse (for them), Sokny can only catch them while they are on a short break between shift s (more about these shift s in a second), and they will need to talk on her phone outside the factory. ‘If we are spotted,’ Sokny tells me, ‘they may want to leave quickly.’ ‘Fine,’ I say, feeling a) extremely guilty at putting them in this position, and b) very privileged to get to speak to them at all. I call them from London as agreed, and the women answer from outside a large garment operation in Phnom Penh, known for completing subcontracted orders. This is evidently not a show factory. For nine long years Yong Li (not her real name), who is thirty, has worked in the garment trade, sewing jeans, T-shirts and other basics. At the moment she thinks they are working on an order just for one factory, but she doesn’t know the brand (as Sokny, who translates, explains, she isn’t able to tell me which brands she produces for because she doesn’t recognise the logos or tags). ‘I have lots of feelings about where I work,’ she says. ‘Lots of bad feelings, really. I feel like we suffer a lot, particularly if we can’t meet the targets we are set.’ At the moment she has to finish two hundred pieces a day. ‘It’s really hard to do that, although I think I am a quick worker.’ And what’s the penalty if she doesn’t achieve it? ‘It is very bad,’ she says. ‘This factory has very low standards, and supervisors think nothing of abusing you with very rude words.’ But Yong Li’s overriding fear is always that her contract will be terminated without notice, leaving her totally penniless. Ke Ling (again, not her real name), also thirty, has just found a job after months on a blacklist. What did she do to get on the list? ‘I joined a union,’ she explains quietly, ‘but it was very difficult because I have a three-year-old daughter and my husband does not work.’ She will shortly begin her next shift at her new factory on the other side of the compound, working from 7 p.m. until 6 o’clock the next morning. Ordinarily I’d call this the night shift , but in her case it’s more of a continuation: ‘I already worked from seven this morning until 6 p.m.,’ she says. ‘We have been told we must do this to get the orders finished, because we’ve just received a big subcontracted order.’ For a month’s work Ke Ling receives the equivalent of $US92. ‘We just don’t have enough to eat, and it’s very hard because we live in a building behind the factory, but they want rent money every two weeks. If I cannot find it, we will have to leave. That’s just how it is.’ ‘If I want to buy clothes for my own children,’ says Yong Li, ‘I have to borrow money from anywhere I can.’ I ask how they feel about the future, these Cambodian women who spend day after day sewing clothes for such little money. I’m expecting non-committal answers. Instead I get emotional responses. ‘I feel like I cannot cope at all,’ says Ke Ling. ‘I have no choice. Nobody here wants to work in a garment factory like this. It is too hard, and I cannot work out how to feed my daughter. Sometimes I feel as if I just want to cry, cry and run away. Leave everything behind.’ Then, straight away, ‘We must leave now as we have to go back to work.’ It’s a measure of how desperate their situation is that women like this will give up any time to talk to someone they don’t know, thousands of miles away. They are constantly hoping against hope that something will change. RUNNING ON EMPTY We know that global food prices are under pressure. In developing countries, where 60 to 80 per cent of a family’s income goes on food, the stress caused by this is intense. Research suggests (#litres_trial_promo) that for every 20 per cent increase in food prices, a hundred million more people are pushed into the category of ‘the poorest of the poor’, living on less than $US1 a day. Having a job in the garment trade doesn’t keep you safe. Because clothing companies by and large continue to dodge the issue of paying them anything approaching a living wage (i.e. a wage that is sufficient and regular enough to provide a basic standard of living), garment workers have very little security against debt and disaster. It’s no coincidence that hikes in food prices, including staples like flour and rice, have been met with food riots in Asia, notably in Bangladesh and Cambodia. It is even less of a surprise that at the front of many of these riots have been garment workers. As M.K. Shefali, Executive Director of the NGO Nari Uddug Kendra (the Centre for Women’s Initiatives), based in Bangladesh, puts it to Labour Behind the Label: ‘For an adult (#litres_trial_promo) living in Dhaka city the minimum nutrition requirement for basic living is 1,805 calories per day. At today’s cost of living this means Tk1,400 [just over £12] per person per month for food alone. Many garment workers (particularly female) do not earn this amount, which is severely affecting their health as well as productivity.’ Forget the morality of this for a minute: how sustainable is it to run an industry with a starving workforce? The rag trade demands the type of physical labour that we – or certainly I, as a soft -skinned desk devotee – can only guess at. From ginning cotton in India or Mali, using a scythe to separate the cotton balls, gathering and feeding them into the pipes that suck them into the processing mill, to carrying the bales, to hunching over a machine sewing, checking, rechecking, folding and aligning, the repetitive work in many factories requires workers to stand or sit in one place for seven to eight hours at a time. Meanwhile the lowest, most menial workers crawl on their hands and knees scooping up errant fibre, waste material or cotton balls from underneath machines. They are nimble-fingered human dustpans and brushes, able to fold themselves under the machines as the blades and pipes whirl above their heads. This is dangerous work for tired, malnourished people: the slightest error of judgement can result in a severed finger. It also requires a phenomenal amount of calories. These garment workers have the opposite dilemma to us. We struggle to expend enough calories and to control our consumption – hence our expanding waistlines (and more, bigger clothes). They struggle to acquire enough energy on a ‘minimum’ wage from low-calorie staples: maize, rice, vegetables and fruit – all of which are subject to the vagaries of global food prices. That’s surely the definition of insecurity. The garment worker is short-changed at every turn, so don’t be too soothed by a retailer’s promise that it adheres to a minimum wage. Naturally it will be referring to the minimum wage of the host country; and just because the government there has a minimum-wage law, that doesn’t mean workers are being paid enough to live on. In the case of Bangladesh, the minimum wage level was set in 1994 at around Tk930, and stubbornly remained unchanged for over a decade. After a series of protests prompted by a swathe of fires in factories it was upped (#litres_trial_promo) to Tk1,662.50 a month, and then to Tk3,000 in July 2010. This looks like a big increase – until you work out that Tk3,000 is £27. Labour-rights campaigners were certainly not appeased: ‘The increase isn’t sufficient to support the basic needs of the garment workers and their families, and doesn’t cover the huge increase in living costs of the recent years,’ said Amin Amirul Haque of the National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF). ‘Most of these workers are the sole source of income for their families, and £1 a day is far below what a family of three, four or five need to survive.’ It remains one of the lowest minimum wages in the world. We should also remember that just because a minimum wage is recommended by a government wage board, there is absolutely no guarantee that factory owners will observe it. Incredibly, retailers often manage to duck this issue. Professor Doug Miller, Chair in Ethical Fashion at Northumbria University (a post funded by Inditex, Zara’s owner), set his first-year students on the simulated assembly line that we saw earlier. After thirty years working around industrial labour issues and specialising in fashion, he is all too aware that ‘the labour cost (#litres_trial_promo) by and large is embarrassingly low’. He explains that in his experience, retailers tend to avoid the issue of ‘CMT costs’ in their overall plan of how a line of garments will be produced. Instead of independently ensuring that garment workers receive a wage that might cover their living expenses, and are paid for overtime, the industry euphemistically uses a ‘Freight on Board’ (FOB) price which covers every cost connected with the garment leaving the factory: fabric, trim, packaging and manufacturing. Very rarely is the labour cost (sometimes called the ‘make element’) quoted as a separate item. By bundling everything together and outsourcing all responsibility to the supplier, the retailer distances the brand from the low wage paid to the workers. Meanwhile the buyer negotiates aggressively on the FOB price. An estimated 60 per cent (#litres_trial_promo) of it is usually accounted for by the fabric. There is not much the supplier can do about the price of cotton or polyester, so the only thing left to squeeze is the wage of the garment worker. The buyer might not have the garment worker at the forefront of his or her mind, but every time he or she squeezes the price there’s a huge chance that the worker is the person down the chain who it will impact on. And it’s not as if there’s much slack in the system. According to Actionaid (#litres_trial_promo), out of the £4 Asda charges for a T-shirt, it pays the supplier £1.18.5p, retains £2.80 for itself, and the garment worker receives just 1.5p. Is that a fair slice of the pie? As has been noted, through a partnership with GTZ, a German NGO, Asda is working to increase workers’ pay. RISKY BUSINESS Risk, in today’s fashion scene, means anything that might wind up costing extra. Cardinal sin number one is missing the window on a must-have garment or accessory, so it will have to be discounted. From the outset retailers will place pressure on manufacturers to underbid other suppliers, and as part of the package will demand ‘just-in-time delivery’, often air freighting to make sure the knits or trousers hit the stores at the precise moment they are in fashion. For most manufacturing facilities that means accommodating every desire of the retailer, or of the agents working on its behalf. If the retailer says ‘Jump,’ the supplier says, ‘How high?’ For the actual garment workers, risk means a very different thing. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that ramshackle production facilities with faulty electrical wirings and boilers under pressure, plus piles of inventory and fabric and yarn, add up to a tinderbox. Sweatshops have been associated with fires for generations. As a sobering reminder of that fact, 2011 is the centenary of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory (#litres_trial_promo) fire in New York, which killed 146 young female garment workers and remains one of the city’s biggest industrial disasters. It was the beginning of the end for New York’s sweatshop district (though not sadly for the New York sweatshop), as it proved to be a catalyst for campaign and reform – the birth of the labour rights movement, in fact. The Triangle Shirtwaist disaster is commemorated in a museum and several books, and is recalled on its anniversary each year in news packages, with accounts of panic, grief, burned bodies and piles of charred clothing. Those 146 lives would not have been lost in vain if the fire had heralded the end of dangerous sweatshop production in fashion as a whole. But no. One hundred years on, there are more fires in garment factories than ever before. The danger has merely been outsourced to countries where casualties are reported in numbers rather than by name, and often not at all. Fires continue to sweep through the rag trade, and are not confined to Asia. Time and time again retrospective inspections (surely the ultimate example of shutting the stable door far too late) reveal the same depressing reality. Young female garment workers without unions to represent them or the confidence to raise safety issues are locked into factories to fulfil Western orders. In 2007 the Argentine government shut down seven hundred illegal textile mills, described as ‘clandestine factories’, in Buenos Aires. Illegal trade accounted for around $700 million in the Buenos Aires province in 2007. The clandestine trade had been benefiting from thousands of illegal workers from neighbouring Bolivia (#litres_trial_promo). In April 2006 the conditions of illegal Bolivian workers trapped in an estimated 1,600 illegal sweatshops were brought sharply into focus when six Bolivians were killed by a fire in an unregulated mill. In Bangladesh, garment-factory fires cause so many deaths that the country’s Daily Star newspaper published a helpful list (#litres_trial_promo) of the most significant, entitled ‘Major RMG Fires Since ’90’. It runs: ‘62 killed at KTS Garments, Chittagong 2006; 32 killed at Saraka Garments, Dhaka 1990; 24 killed (#litres_trial_promo) at Shanghai Apparels, Dhaka 1997; 23 killed at Macro Sweater, Dhaka 2000; 23 killed at Chowdhury Knitwear, Narsingdi 2004; 23 killed at Shan Knitting, Narayanganj 2005; 22 killed at Lusaka Garments, Dhaka 1996; 20 killed at Jahanara Fashion, Narayanganj 1997; 12 killed at Globe Knitting, Dhaka 2000.’ The list is sadly not exhaustive. On the morning of 8 August 2001 in Mirpur, a worker on the sixth floor of the building that housed Mico Sweater sounded the alarm after seeing flames from an electric circuit board. The building was home to several different units, and workers from all of them ran down the stairs, only to find the fire escape locked. In the stampede twenty-four were killed, and a hundred injured. You could easily put together a similar list for many of India’s garment districts. I’ve chosen just one example. In October 2007 eleven workers were killed when a short circuit caused a fire at RR Textiles (#litres_trial_promo) in Panipat, forty miles north of Delhi. They were reportedly trapped in the main spinning room. Local trade unions claimed that their escape route had been blocked by locked gates. Laws – unchanged since colonial times – penalise such breaches with a fine of around $3: the price of a garment worker’s life. Since visiting Bangladesh and meeting journalists there while researching this book, I have started reading Bangladeshi newspapers online. Frequently there are reports of fires, and impassioned articles asking when they will end. A recent image that I almost wish I had never seen is a photograph accompanying one of these. It shows a dozen young women lying on the floor of a room. They died in a stampede from a fire in a Dhaka garment factory. They look like a collection of china dolls lying next to each other. They died facilitating fast fashion. It is probably impossible to tally all such workers and to memorialise them. Even for those we do hear about, it’s highly unlikely there will be any museums commemorating their lives and untimely deaths, or the contribution they may have made to labour rights. The only tribute we can pay them is to insist that things are done differently in future. OPPORTUNITY COSTS ‘Listen, love,’ a middle-aged man said to me on a Sunday-morning TV discussion programme on which the ‘sweatshop’ issue came up, ‘they’re glad of the work.’ I’m not unfamiliar with this sentiment; I must hear it at least ten times a week. It is second only to the classic ‘They’re just having their industrial revolution now.’ Cheap fast fashion is so often still presented as a wealth-creation scheme for poor brown people that it is frankly a wonder Primark hasn’t been given a Social Justice Award. It’s not an attractive line of argument. First, there’s the crude division between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Second, it just seems too convenient to rebrand our unsustainable, exploitative habits of consumption into a beneficent means of assisting unfortunates in the Developing World. Garment workers are, after all, individuals with aspirations, just like non-garment workers. For their jobs to offer genuine opportunity would require them to be trained and to have a chance to become better-skilled. The reality isn’t like that. Yet again, the pressurised nature of the global assembly line all but rules out the investment, time and training needed for a worker to build a genuine career path. In fact, when the journalist Akshai Jain (#litres_trial_promo) took a walk around the garment units of Gurgaon in Delhi in 2010, it seemed that skills in garment production were actually being downgraded. His resulting article centred on the heartrending story of Santosh Kumar Kaushal, who had come to Delhi from Allahabad twenty years before to work as a tailor. Initially he found employment at a small ‘fabricator’ shop (a thirty-person unit where tailors both live and work) earning enough to lead a modest life because he was paid according to the number of pieces he produced. ‘We worked to our own schedules,’ he told Jain wistfully. ‘The atmosphere was friendly, and newcomers learnt on the job.’ But when Jain discovered him in the Nali Wali Gali (the aptly unpromising translation is ‘the street by the drain’ – an area Jain describes as being ‘infamous for its filth’), working in the garment factories of Udyog Vihar, the tailor was an employee rather than a craft sman, and was close to despair because his skills had become virtually useless. The fabricator shop where he had once worked had long shut down as manufacturing shift ed to factories. Kaushal described his existence as a robotic stream of monitored productivity. No longer did he work on a single garment from source to completion (a source of professional satisfaction for him as a tailor), but on a production line where, he said, ‘An army of thirty to forty workers would work on a single garment. One would do just the hem, the other the zip and the third the collar.’ And so on. He also spoke of the lifestyle of himself and his fellow workers, preyed on by ruthless landowners who rented them matchbox-sized fleapit rooms: ‘Four to five workers are crammed into a windowless room, for which they pay Rs1,000 [about £14] a month. Their wages are around Rs3,600 [£50] if they are lucky. But the work hours stretch at times to fifteen hours. If they get overtime it’s just their average hourly pay.’ Whereas it would take a year on the job to learn to stitch a full piece as a tailor, newcomers to the modern assembly lines were given a two-hour tailoring course that taught them little more than how to sew a straight line. It cost Rs300 (£4.20). To train a checker or a garment inspector was reckoned to cost Rs800 (£11.25). ‘The tuition is brutal. [The teacher] Siddiqui paces between the machines shouting at the students, rapping them occasionally on the knuckles. “I need to train them with a stick,” he says, loud enough for all the students to hear. “If I train a student in fifteen days I make a profit of Rs100 [£1.40]; if they take a month to learn, I make a loss.”’ The piece ends with Santosh Kumar Kaushal giving up after twenty years, deciding that the industry has deteriorated to such a point that he really can’t take it any more. ‘Gurgaon,’ he tells Jain, ‘is no place for tailors.’ The sprawl of garment factories housing millions of workers on production lines is by no means confined to inner cities. EPZs (export processing zones) are part of the architecture of globalisation. Their use is not confined to the garment industry – medical supplies, toys and computers are also produced in them. But they are a model that lends itself well to the international garment industry. At thousands of square metres, and growing in scale every year, it won’t be long before these vast factories and workshops are visible from space in the same way that Fresh Kills Landfill outside New York apparently is. They dominate entire cities, and represent the cornerstone of what we have come to call globalisation. The International Labour office (ILO) has been monitoring them now for twenty years, and defines them as ‘industrial zones with special incentives set up to attract foreign investors, in which imported materials undergo some degree of processing before being (re-)exported again’. They are also often called free trade zones, special economic zones, bonded warehouses, free ports and, in Central America, maquiladoras. They are the powerhouses of contemporary high-street fashion, the link between transnational global fashion corporations and some of the poorest workers on earth. An investigation into just why transnational corporations are attracted to set up shop in these zones isn’t really necessary. Multinationals, the brands that you and I know, are kept sweet by EPZs, which anaesthetise them from the shock of doing business in political tinderboxes while ensuring the maximisation of profits through a series of tax and duty breaks. Plonked in an EPZ, a transnational can lead something of a charmed existence. Most are subjected to only 15 per cent corporation tax, and benefit from greater autonomy from the host country, which is useful in places like China. From Hungary to Bangladesh, countries are desperate to attract foreign investment, so all a transnational fashion company needs to do is shop around to get all sorts of concessions. EPZs are everywhere. And you can expect more of them, bigger and better, with bigger and better tax incentives, as they come up to their twenty-year anniversary. Another big advantage for a multinational company is that it can up and leave without notice. After all, what is there to keep them in a particular EPZ or city when every other developing country is waiting to shower them with tax breaks and preferential access to markets? Depending on the vagaries of international free trade, inter-country hookups and tariff quotas, all sorts of global alliances guarantee countries with access to cheap workers a temporary market in big economies such as the US or Europe. Of course these agreements are as solid as a dust cloud, and as likely to be blown elsewhere. But that’s OK: factories can be set up as informally as you like, low-cost workers need no contracts or guarantees, and if preferential rates evaporate, the whole operation can be shut down. Fast fashion doesn’t require permanence, which is why it fits today’s globalised economy like a glove. So, for example, Levi Strauss & Co. closed its factory in Manila in July 2008, at a cost of 257 jobs. ‘We have examined (#litres_trial_promo) comprehensively all other options, including cost containment and improving the efficiency and productivity of this plant as first options,’ Ramon Martelino, Country Manager of Levi Strauss Philippines, said comfortingly to industry magazine Clothesource in March 2008, when the decision was taken. ‘Unfortunately,’ he continued less comfortingly, ‘such measures cannot overcome the significantly lower costs of outsourcing.’ And if you can pick and choose your ‘host’ country, why not pick and choose a cheap but skilled workforce and bring them with you? In 2007, 832,000 Bangladeshi workers left the country for jobs overseas in the garment trade. This serves as a reminder that most garment workers are migrants. Of these, eight hundred were recruited by agents for four textile factories in Batu Pahat district in Malaysia’s Johor state. After just a few weeks, thirty-four of them returned to Bangladesh with claims of horrifying torture and ill-treatment. Among the catalogue of abuses they endured were electric shocks at the hands of the Malaysian immigration police. According to their testimonies they were paid $60 a month in Malaysia, a percentage of which had to go to the recruiting agent, and were not given a proper place to stay. One of the workers told reporters he had paid over $3,000 (#litres_trial_promo) to an agent in Bangladesh, and was promised a salary of $400 and accommodation. He ended up camping in Kuala Lumpur airport car park. An extensive New York Times investigation (#litres_trial_promo) exposed the lot of Bangladeshi workers who had been ‘supplied’ to Jordan, where garment manufacturing was booming thanks to a trade agreement with the US. Jordan was able to produce low-cost garments for some of the biggest fashion retailers on earth. Conditions for the Bangladeshi nationals – this time predominantly men – who had paid between $1,000 and $3,000 to work in Jordan, and were taken to the Paramount Garment factory, near Amman, were described as ‘dismal’, and indeed they were. Their passports were confiscated on arrival, and they were forced to work from 8 a.m. to one or two in the morning, seven days a week. Some of these ‘guest workers’ were placed ten to twenty people in a dormitory, but others had to sleep on the floor in between shift s. When the men objected they were physically assaulted by managers. At 4 p.m. the Jordanian nationals who worked on the production floor left for home. It was clear that the immigrant workforce was being ruthlessly exploited. ‘These are the worst conditions I’ve ever seen,’ said Charles Kernaghan, Executive Director of the US National Labor Committee, who travelled to Jordan to investigate Paramount and other garment facilities. ‘You have people working forty-eight hours straight. You have workers who were stripped of their passports, who don’t have ID cards that allow them to go out on the street. If they’re stopped, they can be imprisoned or deported, so they’re trapped, often held under conditions of involuntary servitude.’ ‘Involuntary servitude’ sounds a lot like slavery to me. HOME-MADE OPPRESSION Looking for something to wear one day, I idly pick out from my wardrobe a garment I can’t even remember buying: a black embroidered top with an intricate textured pattern. It strikes me suddenly that I have no idea who made it, where it came from, or in what conditions it was produced. It was cheap – under £20 – and yet I wonder if it was handmade. If so, shouldn’t that have made it more expensive? When I hold it up to the light I can see the way the black beads fall not quite symmetrically down each shoulder, delicately sewn in so that they lend the fabric a careful sheen. What sort of machine could do that? Was all this embellishment added by human hands? If so, whose hands were they? ‘It’s handmade, isn’t it?’ This is a question I often find myself asking shop assistants, friends and colleagues. How do you know if embellishments have been added by machine or by hand? There are machines that can apply and attach sequins and other decorations in seemingly random patterns that look like handiwork, but they require a considerable capital investment by a garment factory. Ask yourself this: is it likely that the piece you are buying has been sourced from a production facility that has invested in that scale of equipment? If it’s from a fast-fashion label, particularly from the value end, that is highly unlikely. Industry estimates suggest that 20 to 60 per cent of garment production (particularly children’s and women’s clothing) is produced at home by informal workers. They are most likely to be adding beading, embroidery and general embellishment. In the absence of any clues on the label, by and large we’re left guessing. It’s very likely that my top was embellished by human hands. That connects me to the legions of hidden home-workers also operating in some of the poorest regions on earth. In fact for real invisibility it’s hard to beat these millions of workers, hunched over, stitching and embroidering the contents of the global wardrobe in their own living spaces in slums where a whole family can live in a single room. They are responsible for sewing, beading and embellishing many thousands of garments every month, the clothes that become everyday stock in our high-street stores. They work as fast as they can and as long and as daylight allows, and then into the night using oil lamps. Some have access to old sewing machines and sporadic electricity, but they must absorb the cost. They are at the bottom of the pile when it comes to rights and remuneration. Such home-workers represent the unseen, isolated, bottom rung of the global fast-fashion industry. They live hand to mouth, presided over by middlemen, tyrannical go-betweens who hand over some of the lowest wages in the garment industry (and that is really saying something). They’re proof that gross exploitation doesn’t just exist in factory sweatshops. SEWA, or the All India Federation of Self-Employed Women’s Associations, battles for rights for these most marginalised workers in the fashion economy. ‘The wages paid to homeworkers are nowhere near even close to the minimum wage,’ organiser Sanjay Kumar, one of the few male faces at SEWA, explained to me, ‘and that is a direct result of layers of middlemen.’ Strangely, as I don’t often hang out with supermodels, it’s the British model Erin O’Connor who crystallised the issue of home-workers for me. I interviewed her in 2010 after she had come back from seeing a SEWA initiative in India. The purpose of her trip was to fact-find and then publicise the lot of home-workers, who just hadn’t been on the radar. She went to their houses, saw where and how they worked, and had a go at making some products herself. Admittedly the latter is a standard NGO photo op (I remember pictures of Chris Martin pulling a plough in Mexico on an Oxfam trip to highlight endemic problems in trade tariffs), but it did give her huge respect for their skills. ‘I have previously been a very enthusiastic consumer, and I didn’t assume the origins of garments enough,’ she says. ‘The thing is, when you see an article – whether it be a bejewelled pen from Monsoon, or a top in Gap that requires embroidery – you almost don’t believe that it is made with a pair of very determined hands, and that it is time-consuming and that each garment in a sense is bespoke, because the way in which they do it – the chalk is their guideline, like a tailor. There’s not much to make us aware of women using their hands and their heritage, is there?’ No, there isn’t. Instead I think, scanning my wardrobe and flicking through the hangers, looking up close at a bag or a shoe, there is a huge effort to distance us from the people who make our clothes, and their skills. Branding, labelling and trends tend to remove those people’s heritage and their history. We’d prefer to believe that our clothes were produced by a fully automated industry. SMALL HANDS AND THE INEXORABLE SLIDE OF GARMENT PRODUCTION From unseen workers we turn to what many consider the least acceptable side of a chaotic supply chain, and the one from which companies will do most to dissociate themselves: child labour. Many people’s perception of sweatshops will automatically include child workers, based in part on the historical imagery of children toiling in the cotton mills of Lancashire and Yorkshire at the time of the Industrial Revolution. I was seventeen, and on a trip to northern India with a friend, when our hosts thought it would be interesting for us to visit a small carpet factory. I think they were hoping we’d also buy some carpets. But the only thing I remember is that it was the first time I saw child labour: a small boy propped up at a loom, where he lurched from side to side weaving a carpet, as his feet tried to reach for the pedals. We were told he was eight, but he looked younger, and he was obviously blind. My friend started crying, and we were unceremoniously thrown out, thus failing even to be proper eyewitnesses. We talked about mounting some kind of rescue (this would have been idiotic, obviously), of confronting the carpet factory owner, which I think we tried to do, but he refused to look at us. In the end of course we achieved nothing. This was not an unusual experience in India in the early 1990s, when child labour was not as sensitive an issue as it was to become. I can only say that it’s an image that has continued to motivate me. Child labour in garment production remains the emotive issue. How could it not be? The pathos is almost too much to bear. Children have small, nimble fingers, cannot resist violence and intimidation easily, and are bought from desperate parents in rural areas all over the world. Their expendability made them a mainstay of the nascent sports apparel factories that have popped up all over Sialcot in Pakistan in the past twenty years. The major brands are adamant that they have applied so much pressure on the child labour issue that it is in decline in the garment industry. It is true that big brands act very swiftly if they are connected to child labour. When campaigners are able to demonstrate that a brand is using children the news is flashed all over the world by a rapacious media. (This is not always motivated by altruism: there is no denying that brand-slaying is a good story.) In turn this acts like a touchpaper to consumer outrage. There’s no ethical story like a child labour story. Despite the industry’s keenness to sort out child labour, it is still rife. In the decade from 1997 to 2007, India gained the ignominious title of the world capital of child labour: it contributes an estimated 20 per cent of the country’s gross national product. In effect we are pretty powerless to know whether a child gets home from school and then has to crack on with a needlework project that might make the difference between whether or not the family eats that week. But I don’t have to go far to see footage of Indian children doing precisely that: sewing beading onto fashion tops that look rather like the one in my wardrobe. The garment-worker mother was up against a deadline, so the children were expected to pitch in. The five-year-old worked so deft ly with a needle that it was clear that this wasn’t a rare occurrence by any means. There is no room for sentiment at their end. The supervisor might be a neighbour and possibly a friend (although the one I observed was pretty severe), but he won’t allow ‘lazy’ children to jeopardise an outsource contract: the livelihoods of several hundred villagers rely on a group of five-year-olds pulling their weight with the adults, sitting cross-legged in poor light for four to five hours an evening. Just as the old show-business maxim dictates that the show must go on, these orders must go out. In December 2007 the journalist Dan McDougall, working with German broadcasting company WDR (Westdeutscher Rundfunk), uncovered ten- and eleven-year-olds working in horrific conditions in the back streets of New Delhi. He met Amitosh, a ten-year-old who along with forty other boys had been sold into the garment trade to men who visited his village in Bihar (a thirty-hour train journey away). His life in a derelict industrial unit was a vision of hell. The corridors flowed with raw sewage from a flooded toilet, food was scarce, and Amitosh and the other boys were forced to work day and night, their tiny needles puncturing the fabric of clothes that could be found on any British high-street rail. Jivaj, a boy from West Bengal who looked about twelve, burst into tears and whispered, ‘Last week, we spent four days working from dawn until about one o’clock in the morning the following day. I was so tired I felt sick … If any of us cried we were hit with a rubber pipe. Some of the boys had oily cloths stuffed in our mouths as punishment.’ As the boys sewed the labels into these unremarkable clothes, it became clear which unremarkable stores they were going to end up in: those of Gap Inc. When this was brought to the company’s attention Gap ‘admitted the problem, sought to fix it and promised to radically re-examine the working practices of its Indian contractors’, according to McDougall. The company’s policy and ‘rigorous’ social audit systems launched in 2004 mean that if it discovers children being used by contractors the contractor must remove the child from the sweatshop, and the child must be provided with access to schooling and a wage. In 2008 Primark was ‘let down’ by three Indian factories in Tirupur (soubriquet: T-Shirt City), that apparently contravened the company’s ‘strict ethical standards’ by outsourcing the embroidery (#litres_trial_promo) of 20,000 pieces to small children (again the story was broken by McDougall, this time with the BBC’s Panorama). Primark moved swiftly over the allegations about the Tirupur Three (as we’ll call the factories in question) that were due to be broadcast and exposed in the Observer, pulling out of the factories. This was despite signing up in the previous year to UK trade magazine Retail Week’s ‘A Source for Good’ campaign, which pledged to work with ‘failing factories rather than abandon them’. The company was at pains to point out that this unfortunate use of child labour was not in any way connected to the low price of the fashion it sells. This is not a view shared by the whole garment and accessory industry. There are people who have worked extensively on the ground who think that the continued use of child labour and low-priced fashion are indelibly linked. Lawrence Warren, for example, who spent twenty years sourcing shoes for major labels, is very much of the opinion that ‘Retailers who sell clothes at particularly low prices tend to use a lot of middlemen and not have much contact with their suppliers.’ This, he says, makes the use of child labour more likely, and heightens the odds that it will go undetected. I’m not saying that globalised companies go out looking for children to employ. In fact they actively try to avoid it. Some even work hard to try to eliminate child labour. Certainly they are very keen to keep their hands free of it. But economic cycles, styles, volume of orders – these are all variables that affect the fast-fashion cycle. Sometimes they’re unpredictable. Sometimes not so much. Take Tirupur, for example. According to research (#litres_trial_promo) this area alone is the source of 40 per cent of all ready-made garment production in India. The garment industry here has increased by twenty-two times since 1985. It is huge. You have to wonder whether part of the attraction is that it is just so cheap. And then you need to ask why that should be. Following the Panorama Primark exposé and the local government’s and textile exporting associations’ subsequent rebuttals and disclaimers, including a statement that there was absolutely no child labour in Tirupur, Indian journalist N. Madhavan (#litres_trial_promo) went to have a look at the garment district himself. He found plenty of children to talk to, busy working away in the international fashion industry. It’s all very well for governments, manufacturers and retailers to make big noises about getting rid of child labour altogether, but doing it is quite another thing. This is especially true if you refuse to change a system that always wants more for less. It will become even more so as prices climb and buyers continue battling to squeeze that Freight on Board price. That will mean even more pressure on a system that is already at breaking point, even more orders being accepted by suppliers who will subcontract, and even more pressure being applied from European HQs. Any claims about the death of child labour are likely to be premature. DOLE-CHEAT COUTURE I imagine that, like me, you’re pretty used to the cycle of fashion exposés by now. For every step forward there are a dozen steps back into the type of squalid, clandestine operations you’d have very much hoped would have been consigned to history. In January 2009 it was once again the turn of Primark to step into the interrogation zone – thanks yet again (#litres_trial_promo) to Dan McDougall, a prolific thorn in the side of retailers that didn’t appear to have control of their supply chains. Hot on the heels of the Tirupur Three example, the company had once again been caught using a contractor that was in turn using illegal immigrants, paid just over half the minimum wage to fulfil knitwear orders. Workers were found in cold and cramped conditions, working twelve-hour days, seven days a week. I still have the Kimball tag details of the pieces they were producing (given to me at the time by Dan): ‘petrol-coloured cardigan 80646’ and ‘black sleeveless atmosphere cardi 81742’. By the time I got down to Primark they’d either sold out of the off ending items or removed them from sale. Again, the retailer said it had been badly ‘let down’ by a supplier. A spokesperson added, ‘We are extremely concerned about the very serious allegations made against our supplier TNS Knitwear and against TNS’s unauthorised subcontractor, Fashion Waves,’ and vowed to launch its own internal investigation. TNS Knitwear denied the allegations. Unfortunately (for Primark), the post-exposé vernacular seems to play better when the subcontractor is thousands of miles away in downtown Dhaka or southern India, not a stone’s throw from your flagship store in Manchester. At TNS Knitwear, Pakistani, Afghan and Indian garment workers were toiling on Primark’s bargain fashion for £3 an hour. Since they were paid cash in hand, some were also signing on. The tabloids dubbed this ‘dole-cheat couture’. It seemed that, nearly two hundred years after the Industrial Revolution, the British sweatshop had not been consigned to history. Chapter 4 Tea, Sympathy and Auditing How Superficial Checks and Balances have Failed to Clean up Fashion Five men in short-sleeved shirts stand around me. A fan whirrs above my head. I am leaning over a common or garden exercise book, an impromptu visitors’ book, clutching a pen and desperately thinking of something neutral to write that cannot later be construed as in any way condoning what I have seen in the factory I have just been shown around. My main aim is for myself and my colleagues, including the Dhaka native who has brought us here as a huge favour on the condition that we don’t cause an almighty ruckus, to leave as soon as possible. My mind is completely blank. ‘Write something about your experience and how you have enjoyed the tour of our facilities,’ suggests the General Manager of the Epoch Garment Factory, Shantinagar, Dhaka, helpfully. ‘Say how we gave you a nice tour.’ ‘Hmm,’ I say, pretending to consider this advice, but thinking that it really depends on your definition of ‘nice’. Apart from rather vigorously turning out our handbags to make sure we had no ‘surveillance equipment’, the many masters of the Epoch Garment Factory have been perfectly accommodating. Our visit was unscheduled, and they were clearly under pressure to finish a giant order; this constituted privileged access. I am in Bangladesh, the country that produces an increasingly large chunk of the UK wardrobe. By 2006 the Bangladeshi ready-made garment (RMG) industry was thought to be the source of nearly 8 per cent (#litres_trial_promo) of all the clothes sold into Europe, the USA and Japan. But on this trip, my first, I’m not officially here to analyse the garment trade: I’m the guest of an NGO that is showing me climate-change projects. Bangladesh, already in a hapless geographical position as the biggest rivers in India’s north swell, pick up speed and converge within its borders, leaving thousands of people homeless each year through flooding, will in future also have to deal with rising sea levels further threatening its lowest-lying areas. I’m also taking in a national project focusing on women’s welfare and eradicating domestic violence – 60 per cent of Bangladeshi women (#litres_trial_promo) live with daily violent abuse in their own homes. Other NGO workers tell me that following the country’s latest round of flooding, which eradicated much livestock, women in the south were being used to pull ploughs. But it isn’t long before we come across the garment industry. In my first few hours in Dhaka, meeting women who are for the first time forming groups to resist domestic violence and oppression, I come across dozens of garment workers. Of course, 80 per cent of garment workers (#litres_trial_promo) in Bangladesh are female. I met them late at night in a downtown district, on a precious break from their shift s. It was easy to understand what my friends who work for NGOs meant when they said they felt guilty gathering evidence out of hours from garment workers about pay and conditions when these women cannot speak freely at work, and hardly have an abundance of what we in the West know as ‘downtime’. Lesson number one for me in Bangladesh was that we should be extraordinarily grateful that these workers sacrifice any of their time to give first-hand testimonies about their working lives. It’s a big sacrifice, and one that in itself illustrates just how desperate the majority of workers are to have us understand the truth about garment production, and to help them in their battle against inequality. I knew I would only get lesson number two by actually experiencing a garment factory in Dhaka. I wanted this to be as authentic an experience as possible, not a carefully monitored tour of a showcase facility that’s kept running for the benefit of Western visitors, particularly the leagues of auditors who troop in and out of them ticking boxes on behalf of Western retailers. But I knew that this would be somewhere between highly unlikely and impossible. A contact had phoned me a few days before I left Britain. ‘You’ve got no chance of getting into a garment factory,’ she told me. The major NGO fixer, a Dhaka native and activist for change among garment workers, had been imprisoned again on account of his ‘campaigning’. This is par for the course in many CMT producing countries: in 2010 three trade union officials working on behalf of garment workers were murdered in Cambodia. Nevertheless, for four days I am acutely aware that in and around Dhaka there are thousands of whirring machines, operated by the lion’s share of the estimated nearly four million women – many of them very young – who have turned Bangladesh into an RMG superpower. This morning, as on all others, they’re facing at least a ten-hour stretch hunched over their tables producing low-quality fast-fashion merchandise, much of it destined for the UK. Then, just before we’re about to leave Bangladesh we get a lucky break. Ellora, a young woman working for the NGO I am visiting Bangladesh with, has a contact who can get us into a workplace she describes as ‘a good factory’. Naturally I don’t expect to see anything but a flagship advertisement for globalisation, well ventilated, safety aware, with smiling staff who in all probability will be whistling while they work. And so we set off in our little bus, heading slowly (all travel in Dhaka is painfully slow) into the centre of town. This surprises me, because I thought bright, shiny new production facilities would be based in the surrounding areas. It is at this point I realise this visit is not going to be to a cosmetically perfect working environment, of the type that would leave an external auditor from a multinational sleeping happily, but to something slightly more haphazard, more real. When the bus finally pulls up, the striking thing is that this is not a purpose-built garment factory. The most accurate description would be that it looks like an office block. There are thousands of similarly impromptu garment factories dotted around the city. Ostensibly Dhaka is booming. The real-estate price has hit the proverbial roof, and there is constant pressure to provide readymade garments for export. Factories will therefore set up anywhere they can. If no premises can be found, new ones are thrown up in weeks, or new storeys added to existing buildings. This explains how one infamous Bangladesh factory catastrophe took place. In 2002 the owner of the Spectrum factory, built on swampland just outside Dhaka, added five new storeys on top of a four-storey factory. In her book Clean Clothes, labour-rights activist Liesbeth Sluiter chillingly makes the link between what happened next and our wardrobes: ‘1 a.m. of 11 April 2005 (#litres_trial_promo). To add injustice to injury, they should all have been lying in bed at home, because their shift had officially ended at 6 p.m. the day before. The urgency of meeting orders had prevailed. The accident killed sixty-four workers and injured more than seventy – some for life. They were found between the red children’s pullovers the factory had been making for Inditex-Zara, and under the purple-stripe women’s tops ordered by the German Bluhm fashion group.’ It’s into a similar, seemingly improvised facility that I troop with two friends of mine from the UK, two of our NGO hosts, and a local female communist politician who has worked with local garment factories on the issue of conditions and pay. We are very lucky to get access to any part of Bangladesh’s garment trade for export, and she has been instrumental in getting us through the doors today. The General Manager meets us, his assistant searches our bags for cameras, and we follow him up a narrow stairwell to the sewing floor, where about 250 women, mainly young, in bright saris are hunched over their machines, running pieces of dark denim through them while male supervisors – there look to be one to every fifty or sixty women – in yellow vests stand over them. When I say ‘stand over’ I am actually shocked at how physically close the supervisors stand, their necks arched so they can watch every single stitch appear from the machines. Incongruously it reminds me of playing netball, in which you’re not allowed to touch an opponent with the ball, but as long as your feet are a metre away from her you can crane your face over until you are invading her space. I cannot imagine how it would feel to work under that sort of pressure. Our hosts are magnanimous. ‘You can ask any questions, to anyone! Any one of them!’ says the factory-floor manager, waving his hands to include a generous section of the assembly line. But truth be told these girls look terrified, and the pace they are working at, plus the volume of the machines, are not conducive to an exploratory chat. I pick on a poor girl with a bright yellow headscarf. She is momentarily petrified, and stops her machine. ‘How old are you?’ ‘I am nineteen,’ she replies. ‘How do you find working here?’ ‘It is good to have a job.’ ‘What kind of wages do you earn here every week?’ ‘It is good to have a job.’ Clearly I am not going to get anything but the party line under these conditions. One of the friends who are accompanying me is clearly shocked. ‘Everyone is so close together,’ she says. ‘When do they get breaks?’ ‘I’ll show you the cutting floor,’ says the factory manager. ‘It is nice.’ On the way to the staircase that leads to the cutting floor I notice hundreds of boxes marked for Carrefour, a huge European multiple that after Walmart is the world’s second-largest retailer, with an extraordinary 12,500 stores (#litres_trial_promo) across the world. The boxes are stacked up along the side of the assembly floor, masking the fire regulations and the yellow signs pointing to the exits. But then, given that the staircases are almost completely blocked by more boxes, presumably waiting to be picked up to start their long journey to the stores, the exits might not be all that much use. ‘These boxes,’ I say, pointing out the bleeding obvious, ‘they’re blocking the stairs. The fire escape! The fire risk!’ My voice is becoming increasingly shrill. As you’ll know from the catalogue of fires in the previous chapter, my paranoia is hardly without foundation. The factory manager is unmoved by my persistent heckling, and continues to clatter down the staircase. ‘I can show you the cutting floor,’ he says brightly. I persist, and to my surprise it is our communist leader of garment workers’ rights who fixes me with one of those smiles the subtext of which is clearly ‘Stop this nonsense.’ ‘There will be no fire today,’ she says, the smile still in place. Our host wasn’t overstating the comparative merits of the cutting floor. A large, well-air-conditioned space, with computerised, high-definition cutting machines, it is indeed much nicer than the sewing floor. It is also, I notice, exclusively staffed by men. As I learned subsequently, in the RMG trade women predominantly do the basic stitching, which is why it is correctly (if you’re going on numbers alone) perceived as a ‘women’s industry’. But the higher-skilled tasks such as cutting are done by men. It’s notable that if technology is upgraded in factories or across the industry, women will be replaced (#litres_trial_promo) by men. We end up for tea and biscuits in the factory manager’s office, where again we are told we can ask about anything we like – cue more arm- waving. And so I bang on about the boxes and the fire escape again. ‘Big order,’ he says. ‘Huge order!’ Yes, I say, but the 500,000-piece order for men’s, women’s and children’s jeans is currently blocking the fire escapes. ‘This is not,’ he admits, ‘a perfect factory. This is just a B-rated factory.’ Who has rated it ‘B’, I ask. ‘It is rated B,’ he says, and we continue in this vein for thirty minutes. The ‘B’ rating, I’m finally led to believe, is a Bangladesh trade standard, meaning that the factory is not perfect. Then suddenly the manager turns, his tone becoming increasingly impassioned and accusatory. ‘How can I get a good factory when you [in the West] pay so little? It is not possible to be perfect.’ I can only agree that what I have seen falls somewhat short of perfection. Which is how I end up writing in the visitors’ book in a somewhat shaky hand, ‘A very INTERESTING visit. Highly interesting.’ My foray into factory life didn’t uncover what might be termed a classic sweatshop environment, but it did bring me face to face with a huge order for a European value chain being made in a supplier facility in which there was clearly a flagrant violation of any self-respecting European retailer’s code of conduct. Surely this is something that should have been picked up by the audits that we are assured are carried out on the Developing World suppliers of our clothes. After all, the Carrefour Group has apparently performed 2,067 social audits (#litres_trial_promo) in seven years, working in Bangladesh with local NGO Karmojibi Nari. Audits are the checks that are supposed to reassure us that the horrors sketched out in the previous chapter are being consigned to history. Indeed, fleets of inspectors are employed by Western fashion retailers and manufacturers to visit factories and make sure fire escapes are clear and working, children aren’t employed, workers have freedom of association and are wearing proper safety equipment when they are carrying out potentially health-ruining activities such as sandblasting our jeans. Go to the website of any of the multifarious brands that make up the fashion jigsaw and you’ll be accosted by a Code of Conduct, or Social Responsibility. While some retailers and manufacturers would like us just to take their word for it (I’m loath to do this), most have employed auditors to tick the boxes for them, and happily display their credentials somewhere on their websites, and occasionally and more showily in-store. This is the sort of practice that allows the British Retail Consortium (the trade association for UK retail, and as such the high priest of shopkeeping and the flogging of all consumer goods, including fashion) to assert at number two in an online section on ‘retail myths’ – just under the bit about UK retailers not being responsible for binge drinking – that there is no connection between Big Fashion’s offerings and backstreet factories. The rebuttal is what I would call unequivocal: It’s a myth (#litres_trial_promo) that UK retailers source from exploitative, badly run sweat-shops. That would be unethical and unworkable. For example, China is producing shoes for the world on an unprecedented scale. That requires safe, modern attractive factories, not the backstreets. Standards in factories located in developing countries often surpass those in Europe and America. To provide goods in the quantities, of the quality and to the timescales UK retailers require, they have to … Any factory which cannot compete on this level will simply not be able to meet the standards demanded by BRC members and their customers. Retailers work with the ETI (Ethical Trading Initiative) to ensure that high standards are adhered to. Suppliers are systematically inspected. If they are not able to meet these standards contracts are ended and business is taken elsewhere. And, broadly speaking, we all want to believe that all supply-chain problems have been attended to. Even I have better things to do than suspiciously check every label and website. We’d like to buy with confidence, and I would love to believe the consumerist comfort offered by the BRC, but there is a huge discrepancy here. While audits might be carried out and codes of conduct published, circulated and publicised, it’s debatable how much effect they actually have. Some twenty years after the first exposés of sweated labour, and despite teams of auditors and countless reports, we are still flooded by clothes made under the type of miserable conditions we saw in the previous chapter. Critics suggest that this is because the only thing an audit ever taught anybody was how to pull the wool over an auditor’s eyes. A BRIEF HISTORY OF ANTI-SWEATSHOP CAMPAIGNING The first big modern-day ‘sweated labour’ stories broke in the early 1990s, beginning with the Washington Post’s examination of Levi-Strauss jeans’ – at the time (and arguably still) one of the most revered and sought-after brands on the planet – use of prison labour (#litres_trial_promo) in Chinese jails to make jeans for a few cents each. In what has become the standard practice in mass globalised fashion, they were then marked up by hundreds of times their cost price and sold to worldwide, fashion-hungry consumers. Few could have imagined how resonant that page-six story would become. While presumably somewhere along the supply chain someone thought they had hit on aningenious way of producing this all-American classic garment, a significant chunk of the public was appalled. The story touched a nerve in the burgeoning anti-globalisation movement, and chimed with the international NGOs which had already tracked down super brands to child-labour sweatshops in the Far East. Denims were cast in a new light. Over the next eighteen months Nike, The Gap and Reebok were all shown to be in violation of basic human rights, never mind labour laws. One by one the major fashion brands were implicated in troubling sourcing chains that involved allegations of violations and exploitation. Twenty years on, the situation appears little improved. In 2008 alone the international alliance against sweatshops, Sweatfree, inducted six major garment brands into its Sweatshop Hall of Shame: American Eagle, Carrefour, Disney, GUESS, Speedo and Tommy Hilfiger. A number are repeat off enders. Allegations were made and substantiated by investigative reporters, sometimes in alliance with campaigners on the ground. With every piece of smuggled footage or testimony another discomforting aspect of the international fashion chain was uncovered. One particularly seismic piece of video footage from 1995 shows Charles Kernaghan (an American NGO worker who became known ‘the Sweat Detective’ for his dogged pursuit of evidence of worker abuse in the garment trade) and his colleagues, who have dressed as business executives in order to gain access to a Central American factory in a free-trade zone producing for major US brands. A fifteen-year-old worker tells them that she is routinely hit and forced to take birth-control pills in front of supervisors – enforced contraception is apparently routine. Aft erwards, a fourteen-year-old worker takes the investigators to a dump outside the factory, where the camera zooms in on hundreds of empty blister packs (#litres_trial_promo) that had held the contraceptive pills prescribed to the entire workforce. Obtaining stories like this is no mean feat. ‘We have lost a number of activists, murdered in the course of their duties. Others have been dragged in chains behind cars and had threats made against their families,’ said Bhuwan Ribhu of the New Delhi-based Global March against Child Labour when he was confronted with yet another sweat-shop scandal involving a UK high-street giant in 2008. ‘A lot of money (#litres_trial_promo) is at stake here, and life becomes cheap in such a desperate and greed-filled environment. Remember, above all, the money that is creating this desperation comes directly from the wallets of Western consumers.’ The onus is entirely on the campaigners to prove allegations of the abuses suffered by desperate workers. The smallest flaw in their investigations inevitably leads to aggressive lawsuits by multinational brands. David and Goliath doesn’t quite do this situation justice. Cam paigns are run on a shoestring, and investigators put their own lives at risk. Many I know have at the very least been subjected to beatings by the goons who watch out for trouble in sweatshop areas. If cameras are discovered on them they are at huge personal risk. When a story can be supported by footage, and the painstaking checking of inventories against retailers’ codes and lists, there is a receptive mainstream global audience. Fury and disgust at sweatshops has become the stuff of front-page headlines, editorial leaders and television documentaries. The decade up to 2000 was an intense period of allegations by campaigners and NGOs, invariably followed by the corporations trotting out the same excuse: they outsourced their supply line, and therefore they could not be blamed if some unscrupulous Developing World factory owner chose not to follow their code of conduct. Unfortunately, the brands argued, their hands were tied, and while they would love to do something about such unfortunate conditions, it was out of their control. To a great extent it was this ‘Out of our control’ defence that stoked the fires of anti-sweatshop campaigners for an entire decade. The Clean Clothes Campaign, No Sweat, Labour Behind the Label and other groups refused to allow the corporations any wriggle room. Millions of consumers worldwide were incensed by the hypocrisy of brands making money hand over fist from aspirational products while the reality of the physical production of the brands was far from the ideals they espoused publicly. By contrast with their slogans like ‘Just do it’, which were all about freedom, at times the super brands looked at best hypocritical and at worst downright evil – as activist artists realised to their delight, this was an anagram of Levi, which made for some provocative guerrilla campaigning. Many enlightened consumers found the branded posturing unbearable. Typical of them was the American campaigner Marc Kasky, who found himself unable to stomach any more of Nike’s denials of allegations that it profited from sweatshop labour, including the full-page newspaper advertisements the company issued in 1997, such as the following: Workers who make (#litres_trial_promo) Nike products are protected from physical and sexual abuse, they are paid in accordance with applicable local laws and regulations governing wages and hours, they are paid on average double the applicable local minimum wage, they receive a ‘living wage’, they receive free meals and health care, and their working conditions are in accordance with applicable local laws and regulations regarding occupational health and safety. Kasky sued Nike on the grounds of false advertising. The case trundled on for a number of years before being rejected by the US Supreme Court in 2003, and the sides eventually settled out of court. In fact, as we’ll see, Nike has become one of the more transparent brands, in common with Gap, another company that has had its hands publicly burned. Meanwhile, a global anti-sweatshop campaign had surged into action. The genie would not be returned to the bottle. The more strategic campaigners didn’t just bleat about injustice, they very quickly understood that for the super brands image was everything. They didn’t just care about the style of a shoe or the slick direction of an ad campaign, they also held their corporate reputations very dear. And they were not as self-assured and impenetrable as they could appear. For all their posturing about giving us choice and delivering dreams, they were vast corporations set up to deliver profit for shareholders and to maintain their value on the global stock exchanges. But the pesky alliance of investigative reporters and do-gooder campaign groups kept unveiling new stories of enforced labour, criminal wages and physical violence. The backdrop to these ultra-glamorous brands was a horror show of human suffering and exploitation. Shareholders and investors began to get twitchy. The anti-sweatshop movement had found globalisation’s Achilles heel: the big brands simply could not afford to lose their corporate reputations. A GAME OF CAT AND MOUSE At the end of this book I’ll return to campaigning – and what those early campaigners taught us – but mainly this period will be remembered as the era of the boycott. As in, if you didn’t like what a brand was doing, you were encouraged to boycott it. And not only were you encouraged not to buy its products, but to write letters, tell all your friends, campaign on campus and stage sit-ins. By the end of the 1990s significant numbers of consumers were starting (#litres_trial_promo) to boycott brands connected to exploitation. There is of course a big problem with boycotts, which the brands used in their defence: even the mere threat of one can encourage companies to cut and run. They still had little control over the supply chain – it could be argued that they didn’t want any – but each time there was another revelation of sweatshop conditions a CEO would just come out and express disappointment at how the brand had been let down by a subcontractor, and announce that it would now pull out of the off ending factory/country. In a giant game of cat and mouse that traversed the poorest economies, mighty corporations abandoned ‘bad’ factories and took production elsewhere (often to a similarly awful production facility). The effect on local communities was likely to be devastating. Eventually the big brands changed tack. After years of stonewalling and denying responsibility, a 2003 exposé of Gap’s connection to child labour in India prompted the company to issue an extraordinary statement: ‘We do have problems in our global supply chain, but we’re working to put them right.’ For once the brand wasn’t just talking about a new marketing campaign, although there did follow a series of star-studded advertisements featuring Missy Elliot, Madonna, Sarah Jessica Parker and Joss Stone. The new buzzword among the biggest brands and retailers was ‘transparency’. It was out with the old subterfuge and bucking of responsibility, and in with working with suppliers in a conciliatory fashion while communicating to consumers and media that the brand was trying its best. Big-fashion names are keen to represent themselves as more sinned against than sinning, and as unwilling partners in the global jaunt to find the most compliant country that can best keep up with cheap, fast fashion. For that reason they have implemented an extensive programme of audits. In the years since 2003, audits have become (#litres_trial_promo) big business. In essence, sweatshops spawned an industry to monitor them. Auditing programmes work in so many different ways that frankly as a consumer it can be difficult to know what’s going on. Some offer independent approval, others offer to work with a company on self-assessment and then give final assurances. Any brand worth its salt boasts big teams of inspectors: in 2009 Nike boasted eighty in-house employees (#litres_trial_promo) working on what is termed Corporate Social Responsibility (known by its acronym, CSR), while by 2001 Gap had 115 compliance officers keeping a beady collective eye on 4,000 factories. You won’t find many companies that are shy about telling you exactly how many audits they have, and the numbers seem reassuringly large. So, Walmart conducts 16,000 social audits across its supply chain every year, and Carrefour audited 609 factories (#litres_trial_promo) in 2007. Factories that are found to be slipping or below standard can expect extra scrutiny. Tesco increased (#litres_trial_promo) the number of ‘high-risk’ sites audited from 87 per cent in 2008 to 94.7 per cent in 2010. The fleets of inspectors and social compliance teams borrow their phraseology and zero-tolerance sentiments from the anti-sweatshop campaigners. But although they may sound alike, there are important distinctions. The auditing offices and businesses are, in the main, commercial organisations with beating corporate hearts, and have in common with their clients a need to generate and maximise shareholder return. Most retailers, and certainly the huge agents they use to facilitate production overseas, consider their operation private business, and information about it commercially sensitive. ‘It is very difficult to know what to do with some retailers, particularly at the value end of the chain,’ admits a contact who works in drafting legislation relating to fashion’s supply chain, ‘because they are not interested in discussion.’ There are only so many cancelled meetings that can be rearranged, only so many approaches that can be made. As all offers to monitor human rights within the fashion industry appear to be voluntary, there is nothing to compel an errant brand to the discussion table. With such a huge range of audits on offer, there are enormous variations in standards and practices. Some inspectors are trained for weeks, some for hours, and some, alarmingly, not at all. Similarly, levels of abuses and violations vary. Inspectors essentially need eyes in the back of their heads. There are health and safety factors to consider – as we have seen, the characteristics of a badly run or makeshift CMT enterprise can include fire hazards, fumes (sandblasting jeans, for example, produces toxic particulates) in the presence of which masks and goggles should be worn – underage workers, a lack of records and payroll evidence, intimidation and the absence of basic sanitation facilities. Writing down a list of measures that need to be undertaken is easier than actually carrying them out. Many audits rely on interviews with workers. And many interviewees are likely to be the opposite of forthcoming. In an unusually frank account, ‘Confessions of a Sweatshop Inspector’, former American inspector T.A. Frank remembers entering a supplier’s facility to see a sign reading: ‘If you don’t work (#litres_trial_promo) hard today, look hard for work tomorrow’. It is, he concedes, motivation of a kind, but he wonders how open employees working in such an environment are likely to be, and how likely they are to raise problems with an inspector. Interviews are often tortuous. It is clear that they need to be in private, rather than elements of a staged and accompanied walkabout of the type I was granted at Epoch in Dhaka. But even then inspectors can be at the mercy of a translator, and as interviews are carried out in work time there’s always likely to be a manager breathing down the inspector’s and the interviewee’s necks. ‘I don’t know’ is often the staple response to questions about how many hours a week an employee is expected to work, or whether he or she has freedom of association (one of the tenets of an ethical working policy). Interviewees are coached, proffered for interview (rather than being randomly selected), and in fear of being fired for saying the wrong thing. Where once brands used the excuse that they had outsourced their production (let’s call it the ‘Not my problem’ defence), they have now adopted a more nuanced strategy. To paraphrase: ‘The factories that supply us are fully audited by independent auditors, but on this occasion the auditors failed to spot the particular problem.’ The auditors claim they were hoodwinked, and very often this is indeed the case. It is hard to overestimate the level of duplicity to which some factory owners will go in order to trick them: there is evidence in many export zones of entire units being created for an auditor’s visit, to give the impression of a perfect production environment. Of course these have extravagantly labelled fire escapes, a generous provision of toilets, charts advising mandatory rest periods, and smiling managers. They are the show houses for the RMG industry, and their purpose is to make Westerners feel that all is well in the fast-fashion bubble, that we can have our cake and eat it. I read of one incident where an auditor was unduly impressed by the ‘high quality’ toilet paper in a staff lavatory. I say unduly because by the time of the next, unannounced, inspection the toilet paper had gone. As indeed had the toilet itself. Just for show, it wasn’t even plumbed in. Other inspectors tell of pushing through a door hidden by boxes to find pregnant employees hiding out on the roof, or a room full of sacks in which child garment makers were hiding. Even when the subterfuge hasn’t been so carefully craft ed, auditors are missing things, and sometimes you have to deduce that they are turning a blind eye. Pressures of time and a lack of power mean they don’t tend to force the issue if they are told payment records aren’t available. One former inspector (#litres_trial_promo) tells of incompetent or feckless colleagues: one man would habitually dash past obvious serious violations and make straight for the medical kit. On his tick-box form he would make a note that it was devoid of ‘eyewash’, his only recommendation being that the factory must remedy this as fast as possible. His nickname became ‘Eyewash’. Another could clock up five inspections per day thanks to their slapdash nature. Rather than a cause for concern, this made him the star of his auditing firm. But then, time is money, and there’s plenty of money in auditing. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39756281&lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. 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