When a clothes factory in Bangladesh collapsed in 2013, killing over a thousand workers, the fashion industry needed solutions fast. Three years on, the Fashion Revolution movement is harnessing the power of social media and academic institutions to change things from the inside. Platea spoke to its creators, Carry Somers and Orsola de Castro.
Like the food industry 20 years ago, fashion has reached the point of revolt. The convenience of “fast fashion” has created a hegemony of cheap mass-produced clothes in high street shops and online stores and turned the industry into the second most polluting in the world. Only oil is responsible for more environmental damage and industrial waste; the clothes we wear come from murky supply lines that allow the exploitation of millions of workers in the world’s poorest countries.
Years of cost cutting and the artificial stimulation of gigantic consumer demand reached its nadir on 24 April 2013, when 1,135 Bangladeshi workers were killed and 2,500 injured in the Rana Plaza garment factory disaster. While shops and apartments on the lower floors of the building were evacuated when cracks appeared in the building, garment workers were told to come to workon the day of the collapse. Thirty-eight people in Bangladesh have been charged with murder for the Rana Plaza disaster, but the fashion industry as a whole is complicit in what happened. Our insatiable appetite for affordable clothes, and companies’ determination to supply us with them, led to the dangerous conditions that caused the deaths. It wasn’t the first time clothes workers have died in countries like Bangladesh, it was simply the highest death toll.
In the wake of the tragedy, Carry Somers, the owner of a sustainable fashion brand called Pachacuti and a long-time advocate for transparency, thought about the best way to respond. She’d decided enough was enough. What the industry needed was a revolution. “It wasn’t a decision. It was having an idea and acting on it in classic entrepreneurial style,” she tells me from her home in Staffordshire, on the edge of England’s Peak District. As she explains how the seeds of her social media driven pressure group, “Fashion Revolution”, were sown, her voice is calm, soothing even – but the seriousness in her expression betrays her controlled anger and reveals the gravity of the situation her industry is in.“Since 1992 I’d run my own fashion company, which started off in clothing and ended up mostly selling hats and headpieces,” says Somers.
Her millinery brand, “Pachacuti”, took its name from the Quechua word meaning “world upside down” or “the start of a new era”. The Quechuan language, which still exists today amongst indigenous Andean people, was the language of the Inca empire, which was wiped out by Spanish colonisation.“As 1992 was 500 years since Columbus arrived in the Americas,the wordseemed like a very apt namefor a business thatwanted to give more of the benefits to people on the other side of the world, rather than have the middle men and people in the West making all the profit.”
Pachacuti became a forerunner in the burgeoning fair trade movement of the nineties, piloting trade certification systems while at the same time selling in top luxury stores all over the world.“The challenge was to marry up working with very marginalised producers, a lot of them illiterate, whilsttrying to get them to meet the demands of the international fair trade standard, but also to make hats of a sufficient quality in the weaving and finishing for a very demanding market.”
With the hats being made in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, Somers made regular visits to assess the impact of her business on local people and the environment. Pachacuti took part in the “Geo Fair Trade” project as the only non-food company, alongside cocoa and tea producers.“We tracked all of our panama hats back to the GPS coordinates of all our weaver’s houses. Only 45 percent were accessible by road, so it was quite a challenging task. We then tracked the straw that the hats were made from back to the cooperatives that produced it and then right back to the individual parcels of land where the straw was harvested, and we collected 60 different socioeconomic environmental indicators over three years.”
When Somers later started Fashion Revolution, she took this level of supply-chain knowledge as a benchmark of whether brands knew where their clothes were made. It led to the first high-profile social media campaign: “Who Made My Clothes?”, which gives consumers the opportunity to tweet the brands they buy clothes from and ask if they know who made them. The objective is to pressure brands into analysing their own supply chains and monitoring them for sustainability.“Transparency was really important to Pachacuti as a brand,” Somers says.“We didn’t know whether our customers thought it was important, but we knew that it was. We knew we had to give visibility to the people making the products. We knew exactly where our products came from, right down to the fibres of straw.”
Read the full story by Joshua Surtees in the 3rd PLATEA print issue available online and in selected stores worldwide.
© photo credit Rachel Manns