by Silvia Irina Berástegui
I arrived in Brighton 5 years ago with the dream of finding a good job and starting an autonomous life of my own. During these years, Brighton has given me lots of great friends, experiences and adventures but, most importantly, it has also changed the way I live my life and the way I look at the world. The influence that this diverse and dynamic city has had on me is noticeable in a lot of aspects of my everyday life. One of the biggest changes I’ve gone through is related to my shopping habits – specifically, how I have come to regard clothes and fashion. Some of the amazing people I have met here started to tell me about the dark and ugly truth behind fast fashion, so I decided to look more into that. Fashion has always been a part of my life and a way to feel good and balanced. Mostly, however, I see fashion as a way of representing my values and lifestyle, which means that getting information about how the fashion industry works was an important step to take and one which was long in the coming.
When I found out about garment workers being exploited and underpaid in other countries; about the devastating environmental impact that this industry is having on our planet; about human rights being violated for the sake of high-street economic agendas and profits; not to mention the billions of pounds of clothing ending up in landfills every year, I decided to stop buying clothes for a while and rethink my relationship with fashion and clothing.
As recently as last May, a global coalition of trade unions and worker and human rights organizations revealed new research into gender-based violence in the garment supply chains of H&M and GAP, two major brands in the fast fashion industry. This report unveiled the harsh conditions that women who work in the industry are constantly subjected to in their workplace – violence, sexual assault, harassment, restrictions of freedoms and loss of autonomy. But those are not the only problems women have to endure in the supply chain; similar reports have shown how women, who represent the majority of garment workers, receive poor wages which are not sufficient to cover basic necessities. However, women have always resisted these conditions, and are raising their voices to demand drastic changes to their work conditions. Yet there is still a lot to do and they need our support.
As I said before, clothes have always been important to me, giving me reason to feel content and empowered and show to others what I do and who I am. I couldn’t give up on them so easily but at the same time I felt like I could no longer be part of its movement, nor support an industry that was doing so much harm to both people and planet. I stood at an ethical crossroads – I couldn’t go back to my old consumerist patterns and yet I wasn’t sure of how to actually move forwards. I was, however, convinced I couldn’t be the only person feeling this way and so I reached out and began to write an ethical fashion blog, which I called Respectfully Beautiful.
I decided to create this blog to show to others the facts I’ve discovered related to the fast fashion industry, its actions and consequences at a humanistic level. I wanted to create a community of support where people could help each other redefine their relationship with clothes and, more generally, their relationship with the world by sharing information about how to shop, wear, and care for clothes in a way that is respectful to the work that went into them and the need to make them last. Because that is what this is all about for me; our shopping habits are unquestionably linked to other peoples’ lives and the way we shop is, for all intents and purposes, the way we choose to interact with them. We have to respect their rights, the work they do, their lives; we have to support them in the same way as we would like to be supported and encouraged. We have to be aware of our position in the world and the role we play in the global economy. Ultimately, we have to show respect towards our planet and try to live in harmony with it, which means living in a more sustainable and ethical way.
In my blog I elaborate on the themes outlined above and offer some thoughts on how we can start to change our shopping patterns and reshape our relationship with clothes. I believe it is paramount that we reflect on the connection we have with clothing, particularly in a world where people are disposing of their clothes faster than ever. For me, there is something very intimate when I talk about clothes (and when I wear them) as they bring to mind moments and emotions and I recognise now that they are part of my life and my past. This realisation, above all others, has been the one to inspire me to re-engage with my consumer identity. Consumerism simply isn’t something we can ignore, reject, brush off or turn away from. We have to engage critically and positively to redefine the consumer force which drives the economies and shapes the realities of our world.
During this journey to change and reshape my lifestyle, I have discovered that respecting the origins of our clothing is indeed possible as there are some brands trying to do things in a better way. These brands, who call themselves ethical brands, pledge to address issues that have come to define common high street methods of production. Issues such as improving the wages of garment workers and their work conditions; stopping child abuse and exploitation; reducing the hazardous chemicals involved in the production of clothes and the environmental impact such procedures have on people and the planet. In my blog I talk about them as an alternative to fast fashion and as a way to support workers’ rights. I know there is no straight and obvious answer to the complex problems in the fashion industry, and the growing number of ethical brands also raises an urgent need to clearly define what the word ‘ethical’ actually means in the context of fashion and consumerism. But one thing is certain: we have to work to improve the systems that define how we shop. In one way or another, all of this makes me wonder whether a new economic system could be possible, one that is not so unbalanced, that is more sustainable and fairer for all involved, where the rights of the consumers, the garment workers and our ecosystems are in equilibrium…secured and respected for the greater good of us all.
Silvia Irina Berástegui is a student on the MA in the Anthropology of Development and Social Transformation at the University of Sussex.