Next week is the two year anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse which killed over 1,100 workers. April 24th 2013 brought into sharp focus the conditions under which our cheap clothes are made. Whilst the industry CAN be a force for good, providing employment and growth for emerging economies, the high street appetite for fast fashion puts pressure on producers to cut corners. The corners are wages, and health and safety precautions, to name but two. Of course there are many more impacts - both human and environmental.
On the day it happened I was giving a keynote talk at the H&M headquarters in Stockholm. I was there to deliver 'Sustainable Design Inspiration' to 350 buying office staff; part of an initiative to educate designers to make the best decisions possible within the remit of their departmental role. We reworked some best selling garments - changing materials and finishes largely - and the team I worked with had no problem understanding how to lower the garments' impact. What became apparent by the end of the project however, was that the distance between the Swedish-based buying office and the Asia-based production office was greater than air miles alone. Any scaleable change in terms of both environmental and social impacts from the company would come from the decisions made by the production office team - and their remit is to get the designs made up for as little as possible.
The Fashion Revolution (FRD) movement was set up in response to the Rana Plaza atrocity, and when I was approached to support it and join the advisory group, I jumped at the chance. Having a way to influence production office staff is important for driving through innovations made by designers, scientists and researchers, at the product level. I felt the movement could ultimately influence the sector, and the act of unifying a network of like-minded experts was a valuable first step to having influence. I know nearly all the members of the advisory group - but this was the first project that brings us together to fight a common cause.
In March 2014 I was off work with anaemia and exhaustion, and being on the campaign trail was going to be tricky. So from the sofa I hatched a plan to make my mark somewhere else. Somewhere closer to home… The sofa is where I sew. What I usually sew there is school name tags into school uniforms, and mend sleeves and other ripped and chewed details. I sew labels in to uniform far more often than I really should - as the kids lose clothes and I have to replace them. It's been bothering me a lot lately. Not that I begrudge the sewing - I find it meditative. It's more that my own offspring couldn't seem to grasp that clothing needs to be looked after. From the sofa I can see into my daughter's bedroom. From the door to the front room I can see into my son's room. Both floors are piled up with clothes. Tried on, worn briefly, discarded… left to mum to pick up, put away, move to the laundry basket. Aged 8 and 6 it's definitely approaching the time when they can get more house trained...
My son loves trainers. He's a football fan and player, and the influence of the Arsenal team and their colorful attire - and what is donned by his group of friends at school and on his team at the local sports centre - is significant to him. He got the trainers he wanted for Christmas - bright orange. They looked amazing with his lime green away kit. Yet within days he starting asking for another pair, in a different colour. I took the opportunity to explain to him again about why 'stuff' is special. The materials, dyes, labour, shipping… all comes at a cost, and not just to the bank of mum and dad. At 8, he knows all this already. We talk about 'stuff' all the time. But he just can't make the leap to applying this knowledge to his insatiable desire to be part of the team - to look the part.
At his school the lost property area is a mess of unlabelled and unloved green, white and navy cotton and polyester. I decided to start here with my research, and look at the way in which primary school children relate to their uniform - their everyday clothes. The deputy head at St Mary's Catholic Primary School in Chiswick and I hatched a plan to run a 'Who Made My Uniform' project, in response to the FRD provocation 'Who Made My Clothes?' Beginning with a carefully prepared school assembly on the actual day, the project consisted of a week-long residency by myself with the help of another mum, and a series of class projects run by the teachers.
The photo story below documents the project. Over the summer term we asked:
- Where was my uniform made?
- Who made my uniform?
- What is it made from?
- How can I make my own clothes?
How can I make my own clothes? Using single domestic tools I showed the students how to overprint a polyester shirt. Each pupil printed a square shape, and a patchworker print design emerged organically.
The shirts were later sold to parents at a fund raising auction.