Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Let's Celebrate Fashion Revolution Day!

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Monday, April 13 / 15

Zack Gross

It will be two years later this month since the Bangladeshi eight-story Rana Plaza clothing factory collapsed, killing 1,135 people and injuring 2,500 more.  This tragedy is only one of many fires, collapses and other “accidents” that happen around the world in sweatshops where people make clothing for the brands that we buy.

Beneath the headline-grabbing disasters is a system that grinds along every day in which impoverished workers – men, women and children 
with very little choice toil in terrible conditions.

While these dirty, dangerous and undignified working conditions in sweatshops around the world might give us pause to feel some guilt, the modern shopper is still looking for cheap bargains, even if our savings impact very negatively on other people's lives.

We might assume that we are helping to create jobs for poor people.  We might think that its better for a child to work than for their family to starve.  There are alternatives, such as enforcing regulations that ensure a living wage, safe working conditions and at least a half day of schooling for children.  We might pay a bit more for clothing and get better quality too!

Two years after the tragedy, to keep this issue alive, a new campaign has been launched and can be viewed at the website of the Canadian Fair Trade Network, entitled The Label Doesn't Tell the Whole Story.  Working with ReThink Communications, the CFTN – based in Vancouver – has posted a series of photos of a sweater, a hoodie and a suit jacket with very long labels that tell the stories of the people who made them.

The sweater has been made by a nine-year old Cambodian boy who gets up at 5 a.m. and works at the garment factory from dark until dark (not dawn until dusk), wearing light clothing to try to withstand the 30 degree heat in the production room, while his mouth and nose fill with the dust generated around him.  This child is paid $1 per day.  The company doesn't even provide a mask which would cost 10 cents.

The hoodie has been made by a father of two girls who lives in Sierra Leone, West Africa.  From working with cotton, the most pesticide-sprayed commodity on Earth, without any safety considerations, this man has been spitting up blood and now at 34 years of age has been diagnosed with leukemia.  He didn't tell anyone at first about his medical issues as he feared he would lose his job.  After suffering a seizure, he was diagnosed with pesticide poisoning. Now, one of his daughters will take his place at the factory.

The third image, the smart suit jacket, was made by Joya, a 12-year old girl in Bangladesh who went to work for the factory where her father was killed in a fire.  Of course, due to the destruction of the original site, she works across the street.  Joya, if she were aware at all that some people want to change things, would be excited by Fashion Revolution Day.  It is now an annual event on April 24th to highlight factory tragedies and daily oppression in the garment industry. People are invited to wear their clothing with the labels showing, take a selfie and tweet it at #whomademyclothes.

Dara O'Rourke, a California professor, wrote the book Shopping for Good to promote the idea of ethical, green and safe consumption.  He has some tips for buying clothes responsibly.  He suggests that consumers learn about the companies at which they shop and then hold them to account.  You can ask questions and make suggestions, look them up on the Internet, tell them you will be a loyal customer and recommend them to your friends if they bring in fair trade or “no sweat” items.

As it's sometimes harder to get information from larger store chains, consider smaller, local shops.  Think about how to get your message out publicly.  Your favourite clothing shop might like to host a “clean clothing” event!  And, finally, be prepared to spend a little bit more to get good quality, certified apparel.  O'Rourke also has an on-line resource called the Good Guide.

Reaction to the Label campaign, the CFTN tells me, has been overwhelming.  The next challenge is to make Fair Trade Certified clothing more available to Canadian consumers.  At the moment, you can find these clothes online and at a small number of specialty shops.  Ordering in fair trade apparel from the U.S. or U.K. can be quite expensive. 

Work is being done to build a fair trade production pipeline from Asia to Canada.  As we focus more and more on sustainability and social responsibility in schools, government and business, the interest is growing beyond what is now available.  But it won't take long, and there will hopefully then be something of a Fashion Revolution!

Zack Gross is a former Executive Director of the Marquis Project in Brandon.

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