Responsible fashion, more than a passing trend
Problem 1: Historically, in manufacturing, the value-added activity has been prioritised to the Global North. Hence the wealth gap increases. This leaves individuals and communities in places like Kikambala, Kenya, with very little control over their own economic path.
Problem 2: The textile industry has a responsibility to clean up its act. Enormous swathes of polyester and energy consuming materials are produced to satisfy an increasingly fickle market of consumption in the global north. All this production takes energy, resources and often denatures water and fertile land (let’s not forget recycling clothing takes energy too).
Fashion Revolution Kenya worked with the British Council in 2020 to investigate what materials really are the most efficacious and least environmentally damaging to produce apparel. They looked to establish the pros and cons of each fibre and where improvements still needed to be made. The fibres were nettle, flax, pineapple, banana, hemp, water hyacinth, sisal, cotton, silk and fish leather and wool. A lot of these do not produce suitable fabric for garments but it’s worth having a look at this paper because the options are exciting!
The latest evidence points to the use of cotton but not in its traditional sense of landscape changing vast production that harms environments and livelihoods. However, the Report does highlight, along with other cutting edge non biased research such as the Transformers Foundation’s Cotton Myths Debunked, that a sustainable solution is to overcome the issue of water consumption (an oft-quoted criticism of cotton) by ensuring production is catalysed by rain water rather than mass hectares of irrigated land: ‘A shift to mainly or solely using rain-fed cotton is a tangible solution when looking to create a more sustainable industry.’
When looking to establish our own supply chain from the get-go, it took time. We had to make sure we were making the right choices. This included country of origin, textile of the garment, materials consumed, methods employed, dyes used, pesticide consumption, quality of garments, nature of factory and finally, conditions in which the garment workers worked. Let’s come back to that in a moment.
So, having done our research, we settled on rain-fed cotton, using an absolute minimum of pesticides along with natural water-based dyes that would not denature water, and we would go to establish the ethics of production ourselves as cottage industries in Kenya have yet been unable to establish the expensive ‘Organic’ certification, albeit in planning.
Environmentally satisfied we were doing everything possible to tackle problem 2, back to Problem 1!
We needed to find a way to ensure clothing was being produced in a way that was respectful and even beneficial to those working in the supply chain. This needed to include ensuring basic employment rights such as maternity leave, secure contracts and protection from unlawful loss of employment. It also meant looking at working conditions to make sure that harmful materials were not being used, that working hours were not exploitative and that the factory was at a temperature which was not detrimental to health. Finally we also needed to ensure that workers had the opportunity to progress and develop.
According to a 2019 Oxfam Australia report, 9 out of 10 garment workers felt that their income is not sufficient or partially sufficient to meet their needs and, as a result, 87% of workers take loans from the local shop to fill their income expenditure gap. Fashion companies are forcing this to happen and consumers, all too often, don’t pay attention to the detail enough to see the harm caused in the production of their new garments. In the fiscal year 2021-22, Next Plc (the UK’s largest fast fashion brand) reported a profit of £823 million, up 140% from the previous year.
With some years of experience under our belt, we have come to a certain conclusion in fashion: If an organisation is not talking about the good things they are doing, they aren’t doing them. Basically, as consumers, we should be asking the hard questions. So, in researching our new supply chain, when we approached factories and organisations who could not explain to us their employment methods, their conditions of working or whether their employees were paid above the living wage, it was obvious to us that the organisation does not align with the ethics of Origin. We simply did not work with them.
However, after lengthy research and really at a point when we felt ethical production in Africa may well not be possible for Origin clothing, opportunities began to spring up that offered hope. We began to see this may be possible and may actually happen.
Working with garment factory SOKO Kenya in Kikambala and farm-to-fabric business Tosheka Textiles in Wote (both female-led businesses that emphasise female opportunity every day) one can see the unquestionable opportunity generated by good employment. Women are paid above the living wage, given appropriate training for personal and entrepreneurial development and are respected to pursue their own path for establishing themselves and ensuring a bright future for their families. With such an empowering culture for women, we decided we had to work with them. When profits are generated from this clothing, we share the profits equally with each step of the production process. This means that garment workers and their communities directly benefit from a greater proportion of value-added activity in the production process of the garments they actually made, thus fighting the enormous inequalities that have historically come from large companies keeping the poor down by extracting low-cost goods and adding all that value in the Global North. It is proven that for every woman that is lifted above thefinancial poverty line, she brings 7 people with her.
Well, as Sven Beckert explains in ‘The Empire of Cotton’, it is curious that after millennia of equal development in the Global South and North, what academics refer to as the ‘great divergence’ occurred at a time when cotton’s properties were being fully discovered and utilised to propel clothing into a massive world changing engine. The previously Southern industry of cotton was usurped by an increasingly Europe-centric business class and the seeds were ironically sown for this ‘great divergence’ to create a rich Global North at the cost of the Global South. Our supply chain methods directly combat this damaging skew.
We believe fashion has a responsibility to reverse the deleterious effects it has had on the Global South. The opportunities generated within our ethical and responsible supply chain are the weapon we can use to pursue that change and, as long as brands stick to the principles that make a social enterprise (or truly ethical brand), we can fight that battle together for as long as Origin keeps trading.