Uncomfortable Coats & Truths

Woman in Coat, Source: Khachik Simonian (Unsplash)

The year was 2016, I was online shopping and I had just bought a new coat from a fast-fashion brand. It looked like it would give me a certain kind of Olivia Pope, get-out-of-my-way bounce to my step. It looked great in person, and even on a hanger, until I wore it. Fun fact, one of the reasons coats have linings on the inside is so it’s easy to slip the coat on and off, along with warmth and durability. This coat did not have any lining and without it, I found it incredibly difficult to put the coat on. I would find lint all over my clothes, I wouldn’t be able to get my hands through the sleeves and I would feel itchy whenever it was directly touching my skin. The coat looked good online but in reality, it was so uncomfortable to be in.

The same can be said for the fashion industry. Uncomfortable would be putting it lightly. For fashion enthusiasts, the shiny veneer of red carpets, fashion shows and photography of our favourite brands often make us unaware of important ethical and environmental problems.

One of the ethical issues rife in the fashion industry is cheap labour. In order to offer clothing at cheap prices, companies have to cut down on labour costs. Hence, workers are paid low wages whilst working very long hours. For example, in Bangladesh, the legal minimum wage for garment workers is 8,000 taka (about £73) per month [1]. However, campaigners say that the living wage is about double (16,000 taka) [2]. In the UK, it has been reported by the Guardian that some garment workers in Leicester are paid as little as £3–4 an hour which is less than half of the legal minimum wage for people over age 21. These employees work about 40 hour weeks even though their payslips state that they only work 16 hours and are paid £7.50 [3]. This shows that regardless of location, companies try to get away with low wages whenever possible.

Factory in Leicester, United Kingdom. Source: The Financial Times

Working for little to no pay is slavery. In fact, the fashion industry is one of the largest contributors to modern-day slavery, according to the Global Slavery Index produced by the Walk Free Foundation. [5] Modern slavery can include forced labour, debt bondage labour, human trafficking and child slavery. There are currently 40 million people trapped in modern-day slavery around the world today [6].

Unfortunately, unethical practices usually come hand in hand with unsustainable practices. It is no secret that climate change is a real and urgent problem. So how does fashion play a part? Well, the fashion industry accounts for around 10% of greenhouse gas emissions from human activity [7]. It is also one of the worst polluters, second only to the oil industry [8]. If that’s not enough, the fashion industry also consumes more energy than the aviation and shipping industry combined [9].

For brands to produce the clothing we love, fossil fuels are converted into textiles which release large amounts of greenhouse gasses [10]. About 63% of our clothes are made from synthetic fibres, such as acrylic, nylon and polyester which are all plastics, made from fossil fuels [11]. These fibres are often non-biodegradable, so they can take as long as 200 years to decompose [12]. Apart from chemicals, the fashion industry also has its hand in deforestation and a loss of biodiversity.

It would be misleading to imply that fashion companies are the sole cause of all unethical and unsustainable problems. There are other factors involved such as globalisation, culture, government and policy etc. However, that does not mean we cannot hold the industry accountable for their role. It should also be said that those at the helm of fashion corporations are not inherently evil monsters, it’s that they often make profit the most important thing and thus are willing to allow or overlook many problems. It cannot be disputed that profit is important in business, however, social and environmental consequences should be considered along with profit as part of a triple bottom line.

Unfortunately, we as consumers are also complicit in some of fashion’s evils. Though we would like to shift the blame towards fast-fashion companies, they only exist because of our demand for cheap clothing. Psychologically, we associate cheap prices with a lack of value so it’s easy to throw clothes away or leave them unused. According to WRAP, we have about £30 billion worth of unused clothes in our wardrobes. We also have around £140 million worth of clothing going into landfills every year [13].

Clothes in Landfill, Source: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

Going back to my coat situation. I wondered if there was anything I could do in the future to prevent myself from buying a coat with no underlining. I realised I would have to be able to see inside the coat to be sure. Likewise, one way the fashion industry can become more ethical and sustainable is if they show us the inside of their coats. We need transparency. Since 2013, fashion revolution has been encouraging fashion companies to be more transparent about their suppliers. Exploitation tends to thrive in spaces without accountability or transparency. By revealing suppliers, activists, human and labour rights officials can be more aware of which factories are dangerous for workers and can work to enforce change.

What could I have done to fix the coat? Well, I could have added lining by deconstructing the coat then reconstructing it with lining. In the same way, for fashion companies to adequately tackle the problems stated above, they have to be willing to deconstruct by reviewing their structure and practices. Then they can reconstruct and implement long-lasting changes. For example, on an ethical level, companies can be more diligent in screening their suppliers and ensure that their employees are paid fairly. On a sustainable level, they can switch to more sustainable fabrics like organic cotton, recycled polyester and limit the use of plastics. Thankfully some of this is starting to happen with brands like Stella McCartney offering products that have been sustainably made.

Alternatively, instead of fixing the coat, I could have returned it and gotten a new one with lining! In the same way, new fashion companies are reimagining what it means to run a company where there is little environmental damage and people throughout the supply chain are treated with respect and dignity. Some companies are even exploring how to divert clothing away from landfills and create other products with them.

On a consumer level, we can contribute to positive change by being more conscious about the clothes we buy. Conscious consumption isn’t about buying less, instead, it’s about buying what we will love and use. When we do buy, we should consider buying from ethical and sustainable brands. Even when we stop using some items, platforms like Depop can help us to resell them and make extra income.

We must also be careful about the brands we support and ensure that we agree with their values. Fashion companies typically like go where the consumers are. So if consumers start to engage and shift their habits to buying more ethical and sustainable brands, then the companies will follow. Of course, we’ll have to make sure that real change occurs and not performative action but that’s a whole other article.

I hope this piece will get you to look more closely at the linings of your potential coats. But more importantly, I hope this will get you to think more deeply about your habits, the fashion companies you support and what they stand for. In our capitalist society, we vote with our money, so we must spend it wisely.

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At this point, I’m just writing about anything

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Timmy Amoo

Timmy Amoo

At this point, I’m just writing about anything

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