As anyone who ever visited my erstwhile shop, The March Hare in East Looe, will know, I am passionate about sustainability and, by extension, proper pay and working conditions for everybody. Just over a year ago, on 24th April 2013, the massive factory collapse at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh killed 1,129 people, injured over 3,000 more, and highlighted to the world just how appalling the conditions are for millions of workers in the garment industry. More than one body has been set up to attempt to ensure that nothing like that ever happens again. Do take the time to visit http://www.bangladeshaccord.org/ and at least read the names of those companies who have actually signed up to the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety. It makes interesting reading.
But it’s just the tip of the iceberg and there are more practical things that we can all do to try and prevent such tragedies and make life fairer. They will also go a long way to put a halt to the way that we as a species are screwing up our planet.
The way I see it, we all – certainly in the so-called First World – have and consume too much. Far too much. We don’t actually need nearly as much in the way of food, mod cons, clothing and, well stuff as we think. And here’s the crux of it – we expect to be able to buy it immediately. All the time. How many people go out every Saturday and buy clothing that they don’t actually need and will probably only wear once – if at all – just because they can? I know plenty of them. One lady I know has wardrobe upon wardrobe absolutely jammed with clothing, much of which she has never worn. This very same lady, who would describe herself as sensible and thrifty with money, considers what I spend on clothing to be ridiculous and profligate. But she is only looking at individual pieces, not the size and cost of our wardrobes as a whole or at cost per wear. When you start looking from that angle, things look very different.
From a moral and ethical viewpoint, consider, say, a top or t-shirt from a major high street retailer at a cost of £2. Two pounds. It’s not a lot of money, is it? Do you put it into your basket with a slightly guilty feeling, knowing that at that price, somebody – almost certainly more than one person – is being shafted? You should do. Two pounds doesn’t go terribly far to pay everybody fairly who was involved with the manufacture and supply of that garment. Who is being shafted? For starters, it’s not the retailer to whom you’ve just handed over your hard-earned cash; they will almost certainly be making a 100% mark-up on their own brand ranges. So that means that it’s cost them at most £1 to buy in. So where does that £1 go? Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the garment industry is all done by machines. I hear a lot of, “Oh, but it’s not hand made like your stuff.” Excuse me? Who on earth do you think operated the sewing machine? The scissors? The iron/presser? The exact same jobs that I do in my workshop are all done in large factories by people. People like you and me. People with homes and families to try to support. The difference is they are hideously exploited in horrendous and unsafe working conditions. I work a lot of hours and take home nowhere near a living wage but I am still way, way better off than the people actually slaving in those hell-holes of factories.
Oh, wait. That £1 isn’t all for them, is it? Because the owner of the factory – who is nowhere near blameless in this – won’t be running his business for the joy of knowing he’s enabling his workers to live and support their families. And he has to pay for the fabrics and/or raw materials to make the fabrics. Did you ever consider that? Who actually grows the cotton? Who picks the cotton? Who gets covered in the hideous chemicals used in the wholesale production of the actual fibre? And how much do they make out of that £1? Yes, I’ll grant you the fact that wages and the ‘cost of living’ differ the world over and £1 sterling buys a lot less here than it does in Bangladesh or India, but, well, it’s still not a lot of money to go around.
And then there’s another aspect to the maths at play. I would be willing to bet that if you tallied up what I spend on clothing per year and what my friend with the five wardrobes spends, there would be a vast difference and she’s the one haemorrhaging the cash. I’ll pay what I consider to be a fair price because I don’t expect to keep forking out, week on week, month on month, season on season, year on year. I have two winter coats. Both are second-hand. One cost me £44 in a dress agency, the other £39 (including postage) on eBay. The first is approximately 50 years old, the second probably nearer 70. They are both still going strong, although one could do with re-lining. I am confident that both garments will still be in my wardrobe years from now, especially the older of the two because the quality is so high. And there’s the thing. Buy the best you can afford and only buy it if you know that you will love it and wear it for years. Not once or twice. You don’t have to wear it every day but in order to be worth buying, you need to actually wear it and enjoy it. Take a look at your very favourite and most worn garment. Did it really cost you £2 in somewhere like Primark? Or did you pay more for it, possibly feeling a bit guilty at the time? Or gleefully swoop on it in a sale at a bargain price? Take the price that you paid and divide it by the approximate number of times you’ve worn it to get your “price per wear” figure. And then do that with the number of times you know you’ll wear it in the future because it isn’t going to be “so last season” or fall apart in a week. Puts a different light on it, doesn’t it? Maybe it wasn’t such an extravagance after all. A good piece of clothing is wearable more than just once and in many different situations. As my mother says, “Quality shows and quality lasts.” Quality and style don’t go out of fashion either.
Before you think I’m advocating only buying boring, middle of the road, beige, ghastliness, I promise you I’m not. I would be really happy if everybody gave a little more thought to just where their money goes when they buy an item of clothing but there is another factor at play here. If it doesn’t make you want to dance, then unless it’s regulation, uniform or safety gear, what’s the point in buying or wearing it? Something about every garment – the look, the feel of the fabric – should make you smile. A pair of cheap, nylon or polyester stretchy trousers isn’t going to flatter your backside or make you feel like dancing while you wait for the photocopier to jam up. Leave them on the rail and start thinking before you buy. And check your wardrobe. Because you probably already have a pair that you saw at a bargain price in a high street store and bought because they’re “sensible” and would be “useful”. Oh, the joy…
Until we all learn to pay a fair price for what we consume – and this applies to everything we consume – the world is going to be selling itself down the Swanee. Buy less but buy better.