On April 24, 2013, Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza garment factory building collapsed, killing 1134 people and leaving thousands injured. The world watched in horror as media reports revealed the extent of the human toll. Survivors were trapped under tons of rubble and machinery in some cases for days before they were rescued. The horror of the disaster was retold in 2014, in a documentary called The Deadly Cost of Fashion produced by Nathan Fitch and Ismail Ferdous and posted on YouTube by The New York Times. Ferdous is a photojournalist who covered the collapse of Rana Plaza and the documentary made clear the direct connections between not only this building and the New York fashion labels he found in the rubble, but also between mass produced fashion and exploitation more generally.
The documentary shows Rana Plaza factory workers sitting on benches quietly, with heaps of cheap fabric clothing piling up on either side of them. Sewing machines lined the walls, with their clunking and grinding sounds echoing throughout the large factory, the workers’ hands locked in repetitive patterns of movement as they made the same garments over and over. The images fueled a social media campaign.
In May, 2013, the Clean Clothes Campaign helped to create the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and called for brands to sign on. It was signed by over 200 companies. The Rana Plaza Arrangement was created to provide compensation for the affected families. The difficulty in establishing which brands used Rana Plaza workers sparked a another movement, to create more transparency in the garment industry.
But in recent years, clothes have become cheaper, trend cycles have accelerated, and shopping has become a hobby rather than a necessity. This has led to fast fashion becoming a dominating force in the industry.
Fast fashion can be defined as clothing that borrows ideas from high-end fashion that is trending. These trends are replicated in cheaply-made garments at a lightning speed to meet consumer demand. Consumers can buy these garments at the height of their popularity, and then dispose of them after not many wears.
Fast fashion relies on globalisation and is powered by cheap labour. The fast fashion industry is built on the exploitation of the people who work in its supply chains. According to 2014 documentary, the minimum wage for garment workers in Bangladesh was $68 per month, but many garment factories paid even less.
In addition, fashion is the third most polluting industry in the world, accounting for 8.1 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. A large amount of waste happens at the production stage of clothes being made, as well as the consumer stage, when clothes are thrown away. To counteract these issues, there has been a push to produce ethically and sustainably-made clothing, which has been called the ‘slow fashion’ movement..
Slow fashion examines the processes and resources required to make clothing, while advocating for buying long-lasting, high quality garments. The main values of slow fashion include the fair treatment of people, animals and the planet.
The 2020 Conscious Fashion Report created by Good On You and Lyst shows that over the past year, the term ‘slow fashion’ has been responsible for over 90 million social impressions. There was also a 37 per cent increase in searches for sustainability-related keywords. The average monthly searches increased from 27,000 in 2019 to over 32,000 in 2020. Some of the terms with the most searches included ‘upcycled fashion’, ‘recycled plastic’, and ‘slow fashion’.
Although Perth may be one of the world’s most isolated cities, that doesn’t mean it can’t be a part of the emerging scene of sustainable fashion. Home to a number of sustainable fashion courses at both Curtin University and Edith Cowan University, Perth is nurturing a new generation of designers who value the ethics and sustainability of fashion.
An example of a Perth-based brand working in the sustainable fashion field is RŪPAHAUS. The ethical fashion company operates with a commitment to environmental and social responsibility.
RŪPAHAUS is comprised of three sisters, creative director Stephanie Chandra, commercial director Adeline Chandra, and marketing guru Nathascha Chandra. The company provides naturally and ethically handmade products ranging from clothing to home décor. With their products, they aim to create a link between the modern world and traditional fabric-making methods.
Their journey began in 2016, with a vision to create a sustainable fashion practice that merges the past and future. The project was founded by Stephanie Chandra and started as a collaboration with traditional artisans in rural Indonesia in response to the shift towards a slower lifestyle. Once the other two sisters came into the picture, it became more than just a project. RŪPAHAUS Commercial Director Adeline Chandra says their family upbringing helped.
“The three of us have been very fortunate to grow up in and experience three very different cultures, Indonesian, German and Australian and, as a result, we always seek to integrate the cultures into RŪPAHAUS,” she says.
“We always personally source everything ourselves, and by doing so we create our own chain, where everything is traceable to the detail. And we, personally, know each step in the process and every person involved in the chain.”
She added the process allows them to always be sure that the artisans receive fair payment, are able to create suitable and safe working conditions, that their materials are ethically, environmentally responsible, sustainably sourced and sustainably packaged until its delivered to their customers.
The increased orders created through RŪPAHAUS have provided the artisans with a platform to exhibit their art and craftsmanship, as well as increased job opportunities with living wages. Demand has also led to increased social and environmental sustainability awareness. “It is so important for us to make sure we minimise any potential environmental impact in our operation,” she says. “From design, production, and to the point where our pieces reach your doorstep, we hold this value so close to our hearts.”
There has also been an increase in the ‘slow fashion’ approach within the swimwear market. What women have had available to them for trips to the beach has varied greatly over the decades. Every design and challenge has paved the way for a new era of sustainable swimwear. In Australia, denim, swimwear and sportswear are a few of the top performing categories when it comes to sustainable fashion.
South Beach Boardies is a business that designs, manufactures and sells boardshorts, swimwear and t-shirts, made from recycled plastic bottles. South Beach Boardies owner and founder Kirsten Lopez says she’s spent most of her life in the ocean, or at the beach. As a child on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, she was horrified by the volume of plastic and other ocean trash that routinely washed up on the beaches. She then worked in sustainable travel for years in South East Asia and Europe. Lopez has long been an advocate for cleaner oceans, ethical trade, and sustainable living.
“We’re determined to contribute to a cleaner environment for our kids, and their kids, and their kids, and their kids, and to be part of a world where ordinary people make ethical, sustainable choices.”South Beach Boardies Owner and Founder Kirsten Lopez
Lopez says the company strives to make the best possible choices for environmental sustainability, ethical labour standards, and decision making. They donate 5 per cent of their profits to the Australian Marine Conservation Society. She says that since 2019, the company has recycled over 60,000 plastic bottles into boardies and swimwear. Recycling plastic into appropriate clothing reduces landfill and ocean pollution.
“Despite the challenges of 2020, fast fashion, and so on, we are compelled to keep producing our recycled plastic boardies, and to keep educating West Australians that small changes can make a big difference,” she says. “We want to show our kids, and others, that average people like us can make a difference. We’re determined to contribute to a cleaner environment for our kids, and their kids, and their kids, and their kids, and to be part of a world where ordinary people make ethical, sustainable choices.”
Investing in garments that can stand the test of time can work to combat fast fashion. Vintage clothing can be of a high quality, with heavy duty fabrics such as denim being a durable presence in the industry. Vintage clothing reflects some aspects of fast fashion, as there will be textile wastage, but each garment’s lifespan is likely to be longer than most fast fashion pieces. The resale of vintage clothing doesn’t usually require additional materials, so resource use is still quite minimal.
Tiki Queen Vintage is a clothing company owned by Tiffany Ritcher. She stocks original and quality vintage at affordable prices. Ritcher has been a collector of vintage clothing since 1986, when she was 15. She and her best friend would trudge around Adelaide hitting all the vintage stores and op shops they knew had good vintage at great prices.
“I still boycott them today, even though they may have changed their ways, but it is just in-grained in me to not support that industry.”Tiki Queen Vintage Owner Tiffany Ritcher
“Young people are way more ethical today than we were in the 1980s. The whole recycle, re-use message is commonplace. Younger people do think about this more than we did,” she says. “I guess my friend and I were being environmental pioneers, but we had no idea about that.”
Twenty plus years ago, Ritcher says she watched a documentary about the fashion industry exploiting overseas workers. After watching that, she made a conscious effort to note every label that was part of the fast fashion industry and boycotted them. “I still boycott them today, even though they may have changed their ways, but it is just ingrained in me to not support that industry.”
Op-shopping can be an ethical alternative to fast fashion. Op-shop RSPCA Reloved Fashion has two stores, in Subiaco and Fremantle, and offers a collection of high-quality pre-loved items at low prices. All proceeds from the stores go toward rescuing and rehabilitating animals. RSPCA Reloved Fashion Fremantle manager Claire Taylor says recycling fashion comes with so many benefits.
“We as Australians produce around 800,000 tonnes of fashion waste per year, so it makes so much sense to try to get as much life out of our clothes as we can,” she says. “Op shops like ours offer an easy way to get rid of unwanted items while supporting a fantastic cause. “My own wardrobe is around 90 per cent op shopped or recycled, and it’s my dear wish that more people get on board with op shopping as a way to live more sustainably.”
Taylor says the op-shop has been able to keep a lot of clothing items out of landfill since they have been operating. Wherever possible, they will try to mend, clean and repurpose items before they are further recycled.
For the most part op-shopping can be an ethical choice. However, in recent times it is becoming increasingly hard to find well-made clothing at op shops. A Business Insider report suggests this is because poor quality fast fashion is filling up the shops. Consumers are buying more than ever before, and this has a serious environmental impact.
According to a 2017 ABC News report, Australians buy an average of 27 kilograms of new clothing each year. Fast fashion items often wear out after a few months because they are poorly made, resulting in a huge supply of second-hand clothing that no one wants to buy.
Ultimately, it is hard to say whether there is an end date for fast fashion. There will always be customers wanting clothing that is fast and affordable. However, increased awareness around fast fashion could convert consumers into buying slow fashion. This could potentially bring about a universal change with people buying less, buying smarter and being conscious of how their actions impact the Earth. Hopefully it won’t take another disaster like the collapse Rana Plaza to ignite a worldwide movement.
For more information regarding the upcycling of fashion, read the article The uprise of upcycling by Charlotte Spraggs on the Western Independent.