If I search for Zara on Instagram, I can see well over 22m posts of people wearing clothing that was bought from the retailer, everywhere from Dublin to Dubrovnik, New York to Newport. If you’re reading this in an office, I’d bet you a tenner that someone, somewhere in the building is wearing a Zara shirt or jacket. In the UK, Zara has been a high street fixture since 1998, and has a growing number of stores. Millions of us have brought the brand into our homes – and so millions of us should be shocked and infuriated by reports that factory workers in Istanbul have been hiding notes in the clothes that they have been producing for one of Zara’s suppliers, pleading for help. One note apparently read: “I made this item you are going to buy, but I didn’t get paid for it.” The workers were reportedly left unpaid after their factory shut down overnight.
Inditex, Zara’s parent company, has since promised to reimburse its sub contractor’s workers as soon as possible. But the rise in rampant consumerism remains a worry. The value of the UK fashion industry has jumped to ￡26bn (up from ￡21bn in 2009) and fashion bucks broader growth trends – to put it simply, our appetite for new shoes and accessories is growing more quickly than our appetite for food. We know that our love of fast fashion is terrible for the environment. It was estimated that this spring Britons would send 235m pieces of clothing to landfill. Consumer debt levels are reaching an all time high, and as retailers such as Asos are starting to offer credit options to their young customers, it’s scarily easy to spend money we don’t have on clothes we don’t need.
I wonder whether our failure to address the fast fashion problem is because it affects more women than men, at every level. Even though research conducted earlier this year found that British men typically spend more on their clothes than women, fashion and clothes are routinely dismissed as trivial, feminine interests. Women are exploited and mocked, disproportionately targeted by advertisers and then accused of being frivolous and fluffy for spending their hard earned money on a shopping trip. That’s just at the consumer end. More seriously, it’s estimated that, of the 750 million garment workers who are employed to make our clothes, 80 are women, working in dangerous conditions and not being paid a living wage, if they’re being paid at all. Globally, poverty affects women first. More than 70 of the world’s poorest people are women.
In 2013, Rana Plaza, a building in Bangladesh that housed five garment factories, collapsed, killing more than 1,100 people and injuring thousands more. At the time, the tragedy was believed to be a wake up call, one that would permanently change the way that the goods we consume are produced. Yet just 17 brands have signed the Apparel and Footwear Supply Chain Transparency Pledge, and there has been a spate of fires in garment factories.
It’s too easy to dismiss the complaints of underpaid workers as a women’s problem. When we do this, we don’t acknowledge that every one of us is part of the solution, regardless of gender. I know many men and women who are horrified by the way so many of our clothes are produced, and are doing their best to consume more carefully, by introducing no spend months or ensuring that they only ever buy second hand clothes. However, we need a much more effective solution, and something that can be implemented at a higher level.
A globally agreed, industry wide minimum wage and safety standards for all workers is imperative. It’s important that manufacturers would face serious, punitive consequences for failing to meet these standards. Ultimately the brands must take responsibility for making these changes – but even if consumers can’t lead this revolution, we can agitate for it.
The 2015 ethical sexy clothes online consumer report shows that the ethical market in the UK has grown to ￡38bn, meaning the it is now worth twice as much as the tobacco market. The evidence suggests that we care about where our clothes come from, and we don’t necessarily want them to be produced as cheaply as possible – not when lives are at stake.
I’m not sure that the best way to support these workers is to stop shopping altogether. This action does not address the fact that the fashion industry could potentially be a positive space for women, and provide opportunities for them as skilled workers and consumers. It’s vital that we recognise the industry’s wider value. Paying the predominantly female workers properly might cut into profit margins, or force us to pay more for our jeans – but it gives workers the chance to lead happier, safer lives, to live in better conditions and to educate their children, which is ultimately going to provide an enormous boost to the global economy.
Analysts at Euromonitor predict that global demand for menswear will outstrip womenswear by 2020, a clear indicator that this isn’t simply a concern of just one half of the population. It’s time for every one of us to start taking fashion and its provenance seriously.