Can I criticize fast fashion without sounding ‘out of touch’?

Ethical and political dilemmas abound these days. Seems like we’re all in need of a New Internationalist perspective. Enter stage: Agony Uncle.

Illustration by Emma Peer

Q: Shops have recently begun to reopen in my town and the first day saw hundreds of people queueing from the early hours for fast-fashion bargains. The fashion industry is responsible for 10 per cent of humanity’s carbon emission output but, amid the devastation brought on by the pandemic, the impending ecological collapse is falling off the agenda. Consumerism is still eroding our planet and exploiting workers in the Global South, but we’ve become collectively desensitized to it. Having said this, I’m torn over how to advocate against consumerism. News about cancelled retail orders, due to the Covid-19-related slump in sales, suggests that buying Primark could save jobs in Bangladesh. And when families still have growing children to clothe during a recession, how can I continue to campaign on this without sounding so out of touch?

Concerned eco-socialist

A: Your dilemma contains multitudes. There is the moral disapprobation directed at consumers in the Global North who blithely buy fast-fashion commodities which are cheap precisely because the lives of the people who made them are too. There is the immense supply-chain that spans continents, accelerated by technological developments like containerization. And there are the political decisions of those who built this iniquitous global division of labour, from the Europeans who de-industrialized South Asia under colonialism to the neoliberals who told them the best cure for poverty was to let foreign capital in.

If I knew how to solve this, I wouldn’t be a mere freelance Agony Uncle. But perhaps I can help clarify a few things. First, as you’ve recognized, moral outrage isn’t very useful. For example, in Britain, 16 million people have less than £1000 ($125) in savings. If people need to buy super-cheap clothes, we mustn’t wag the finger at them for doing so.

There’s often misogyny at play here. In Britain it seemed to be mainly images of women (and young black and minority ethnic people) that were plastered over the newspapers, queuing for shops on the day those Covid-19 restrictions ended, as if they were morally deficient for doing what was allowed and even encouraged. Hundreds of years ago it was also women who were condemned by liberal moralists for buying luxuries like tea and fine china from exploited colonies. Yes, people are playing a role in an awful system, but what is behind this type of shaming? 

As for the economics, it’s fair to admit that the globalized system which underwrites your dilemma is pretty unassailable. Embarrassing the fashion industry might only really lead to two outcomes: the emergence of a boutique industry of ‘ethical consumerist’ clothing, allowing a small demographic with more disposable income to feel better about itself, or fashion giants engaging in cosmetic changes (‘recycled clothing’!), which provide the illusion of change. This brings us to politics.

Politics, at its root, is about who counts as human. Who we recognize as legitimate agents endowed with the capacity to change the world. So the question we should be asking ourselves is: how can we act in solidarity with garment workers? How can we support trade unions in Bangladesh, many of which were created in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster but have been chilled by anti-union intimidation? How can we support workers in Vietnam who produce garments for markets like Russia and Turkey, where the scrutiny of working conditions is even more paltry that those exporting for Western brands?

In Britain, Labour Behind The Label are all about em­powering garment workers. There’s also the Asia Floor Wage Alliance which is building regional networks of garment workers and the US-based International Labor Rights Forum who’ve done work on cotton production in Uzbekistan and apparel workers’ rights in Bangladesh. In other words, let’s direct our attention to those usually rendered invisible or as victims at the bottom of the supply chain, and let their actions set the terms for a better consumerist order.

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