What’s the human cost of your £10 catwalk-copy cocktail dress? As reports accuse high street retailers of exploiting poor working conditions in developing countries, Diana Kiernander explores the concept of ‘value’ clothing.
The backlash against cut-price clothing starts here. Bin your £2 T-shirts and call off the search for the low-budget version of Kate Moss’ latest tote, because fashion just got serious.
A recent, headline-hitting report from poverty-fighting charity War on Want accused Tesco, Asda and Primark, current touchstones of credible supermarket chic and founder members of the Ethical Trading Initiative, of exploiting the cheap labour of textile workers abroad to cut their costs. Workers in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, whose national economies rely heavily on textile trade, are said to be the worst affected, thanks to 80-hour weeks, low pay, harassment and unregulated working conditions.
Chain stores are no strangers to the sweatshop monster tag, of course, but this latest surge of mass production is fuelled in part by the bargain-hungry behaviour of British shoppers.
Two years ago, when the global Multi Fibre Agreement expired, low-cost ‘fast fashion’ sparked a retail revolution as cut-price copies of catwalk creations became almost instantly available on the high street. The MFA was a quota system, limiting the export of clothing products to Europe, Canada and the US from developing, non-industrialised countries. Poorer states like Bangladesh, with vested textile interests in the West, were now forced to compete with richer, more business-savvy rivals like China, and had little choice but to step up their production turnover in order to survive.
This impacted on the garment workers, forced into ever-longer hours for less money, on the fashion houses, who benefited from the unprecedented upsurge in cheaper production, and on consumers, kitted out in cheap throwaway trends. It certainly revolutionised our shopping habits. At H&M, Marc Jacobs-esque dresses went down to a tenner, and all self-respecting new breed fashionistas know to pick up shoes for under £5 at New Look. Cheap fashion is great news for cash-strapped shopaholics, but the telltale Made in Bangladesh labels should have perhaps been cause for questions.
Bangladeshi garment workers, amongst the lowest paid in the world, can expect to take home the equivalent of just £7.40 per month, a minimum wage which hasn’t been altered for 12 years. A campaign by the organisation Labour Behind the Label is currently calling for it to be increased to £25.76 a month ?" the minimum monthly cost of living there is generally estimated at £22. In this context, the idea of ‘good value’ clothing is certainly thrown into relief.
There are more superfluous concerns for fashion as an institution, too. Plagiarism of ideas is rife within the style industry and now that catwalk looks can be copied at ever-increasing speed, even the cheapest of clothing now bears the stamp of designers’ avant-garde imaginings ?" couture house Chloé recently sued Kookai for copying the design of a £1086 Silverado bag.
Historically, fashion has always offered a highly accessible way of engaging with visual culture, but the ‘cheap chic’ phenomenon means that individualism is seeping out of the style silhouette. In an era of mass-produced design, the fashion playground of colours, fabrics and shapes is now saturated with similarity.
Interestingly, as consumer pressure groups force design houses to consider ethics, we may see high street fashion at least flirt with ecologically sound style, which could slow down trend turnover and encourage us all to experiment again. Topshop and Marks & Spencer have both recently launched fair trade lines, and increased consumer demand for fair trade fabrics will push up production costs for shops. Prices may soar, but value can only truly be measured by a collective vision that treats everyone, from garment workers to style slaves, with respect.
www.labourbehindthelabel.org has a full breakdown on levels of commitment to living wages of each of the high street members of the Ethical Trade Initiative. Read the report at www.waronwant.org.
Fair trade on the high street
It’s still difficult to find clothing companies that have completely committed themselves to sustainable employment and living wages for their workers. At the top end of the price range, Mrs Bono’s Edun line is available at Harvey Nichols, while online retailer Clerk & Teller has launched organic shirts for the boys. However, fair trade fashion is emerging as the smart high street style for dressed-up urban activists ?" the People Tree accessories line is all over Topshop. Go glam and still feel good about yourself.
Dress by Celia Birtwell at Topshop. Gloves and scarf by People Tree at Topshop
Chloé and Chanel plucked the pinafore dress from sweet, schoolgirl obscurity this season. Give it a grown-up twist by choosing a vintage original. Every year the UK wastes around 9,000,000 tonnes of textiles, so buying back vintage or second hand goods is a real ethical option. Urban Outfitters’ Urban Renewal range does your customising for you.
Dress, Urban Renewal @ Urban Outfitters. Original Biba blouse, stylist’s own (bought second hand). Wedges, stylist’s own (bought second hand).
Make clothes not war! Mix up recycled textiles with vintage cast-offs and worn out yarn for the perfect winter wardrobe update. Visit Glasgow’s Cloud Cuckoo shop, the Miso Funky market or take a wander round Che Camille for inspiration and ideas. North Star Café in Glasgow’s West End hosts regular knitting evenings and classes. The creative revolution can be a peaceful one.
Felted knit top by Kristi Cumming (handmade from found objects and recycled wool). Skirt, Armstrongs of Edinburgh. Belt, Shelter. Shoes, model’s own.
Where to get the best ethical value
88 Grassmarket, Edinburgh 0131 220 5557
The granddaddy of Edinburgh vintage can be pricey, but is well worth a good day’s exploring.
Elaine’s Second-Hand Shops, 55 St Stephen’s Street, Edinburgh 0131 225 5783 An impressive collection of quality seconds. Some pieces can stretch the budget but rummage through to find the best deals.
Herman Brown, 151 West Port, Edinburgh 0131 228 2589 Nothing is ever overpriced here, and helpful, interested staff make you want
to go back again and again.
King’s Court, King Street, Glasgow 0141 553 1936
Ghosts of the 1970s and 1980s loom large around this dim-lit vintage haven, where persistence always pays off.
The Glory Hole
39-41 Ruthven Lane, West End, Glasgow. 0141 357 5662
Absolute treasure chest of a second-hand boutique, with a well-stocked rainbow of reasonably priced shelves.
603 Great Western Road, Glasgow 0141 334 3900
A wide array of charity shop cast-offs and even vintage C&A at budget prices.
People Tree fairly-traded accessories at Top Shop are available at the Argyle Street branch in Glasgow (0141 221 4164) and also at the Princes Street branch in Edinburgh (0131 556 0151). Marks & Spencer’s fair trade line is available in all stores.
Ethical working conditions
Behind the Label’s recent survey revealed that Gap and Next, while still having some way to go, are engaging with the
issues of sustainable wages for Third World garment workers ingreater depth than other high street stores. Well done, but keep going, we say.
143 Oxford Street, Glasgow, www.checamille.com
Individual, handmade, tailored collections from young Scottish designers. Watch the website for Clothing Swap evenings ?" every-one brings a bag of unwanted garments.
Cloud Cuckoo Land @Mono
Kings Court, Glasgow, 0141 553 2400
Glasgow-based artists Jenny Bell & Sapna Agarwell offer whimsical handmade products from vegan materials.
Godiva, 9 West Port, Edinburgh, www.godivaboutique.co.uk
Customised, recycled, vintage and handmade.
Miso Funky Market
Hillhead Library, Glasgow www.misofunky.com
If you’ve missed the bi-monthly Glasgow fair, you can still pick up a huge assortment of handmade accessories on the website.
Urban Renewal is at Urban Outfitters, 157 Buchanan Street, Glasgow (0141 248 9203)
Do it yourself
Pub craft groups are cropping up everywhere and it’s a great way to keep your hands busy post-smoking ban. Check out Edinburgh’s City Knitty at www.cityknitty.net or contact K1 Yarn’s Knitting Boutique in Glasgow (0141 576 0113). All of the handmade accessories on these pages were knitted by Elfieloves, unless otherwise stated.
Clerk & Teller
Gentleman’s outfitter venturing into organic waters.
High-range fashion collections approved by Make Poverty History and designed by Bono’s wife Ali Hewson.
Individually customised, organic baby clothes by young Glasgow designers. Guaranteed not to have been made in sweatshops.
Words and styling Diana Kiernander
Editing and additional research Kirstin Innes
Photography Jannica Honey
Make-Up David Farquhar, Glasgow
Models Zoe & Katie
Thanks to Dalriada Bar & Restaurant, Portobello, Edinburgh