Last year I took my 1968 Elna Supermatic Sewing Machine for its first real service since my Mum and Dad bought it for me for a teen birthday. The thread tension was a little off and occasionally it would skip stitches.
When I arrived at the shop, the mechanic, who had spent seven years in Switzerland as an apprentice honing his trade, beamed. ‘This is the best sewing machine ever made bar none,’ he announced. He proceeded to tell me that at the time of its release, a woman could expect to spend half a year’s wages on one, but not only could she leave it to her daughter, she could leave it to her granddaughter.* I suspect he is right. I am the second owner of the machine and after its service it sews as if it had come straight off the factory floor that day.
Fast forward to 2019 where most sewing machines are lucky, in this mechanic’s experience, to last five years.
I think of the clothes that I have made on my wonderful sewing machine, some of which are still in my wardrobe after 20 odd years. I have taken the time to bind the seam allowances or do proper run and fell seams. These are finishes rarely seen today in the world of fashion. They are sewn using good quality fabrics; when cared for they will last more than a lifetime.
Fast forward to 2019, where so many clothes last little more than a season or two before the fabric deteriorates or the stitching comes apart.
In a previous life, I was a fashion designer. I got out of the industry at a time when I saw Australian manufacturing heading overseas to China, Vietnam and Bangladesh. I watched as quality plummeted and prices continued to rise. I began to hear rumours of slave labour treatment of machinists, mostly women, working for piece work wages or kept in massive manufacturing plants for Western fashion giants.
Fast forward to 2019 where, according to The War on Waste, four fifths of the world’s fashion ends up in landfill less than year after manufacture. In Australia, that is 6000kg every 10 minutes, 36 tonnes an hour.
According to The Fashion Law:
Fast fashion is the practice of rapidly translating high fashion design trends into low-priced garments and accessories by mass-market retailers at low costs. There are a number of elements that are key to the fast fashion process, namely: the price of the garments and accessories; the method and timeline of manufacturing; the trend-based nature and disposability of the clothes themselves.
Fast fashion is marked by massive volumes of clothing, high stock turnover and low-quality garments. Manufacturers want consumers to replace items quickly. They are often only worn a handful of times, and sometimes not at all, before being thrown out or donated to charities. The cost of fast fashion is very low, often because domestic manufacturing is abandoned in favour of much cheaper off-shore processes and low profit margins. Far too often, however, exploitative and often slave labour situations ensue. The documentary Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price presents a disturbing account of how fashion workers are forced to live and work in cramped, sometimes dangerous conditions, work seven days a week for less than $3 a day and are taught to lie to inspectors so they are not punished by managers. In Bangladesh, fashion constitutes 80% of their exports, but garment workers earn an average of $43 US a month. In 2016 they earned the lowest minimum wage in the world.
Instead of a fashion season being six months, new styles are released much faster, stimulating a desire for ever more new clothing. Most fast fashion companies have new clothes on the floors every four to six weeks. Some, however, may have as many as two new drops every week. There has been a massive increase in the rate of clothing manufacture – 400% in the last 30 years.
Fast fashion is highly trend driven. Their manufacturing processes mean that they can easily copy the runway shows of high-end designer labels and have basically identical garments in their stores before the original design company can.
The difference between the high-end garment and fast fashion is its disposability. It is actually designed to be thrown away after only one or two wears. This in turn drives consumers back into the store to buy even more poor quality clothes.
In Australia, companies like Zara, H&M, Cotton On, Kmart and Big W are some of the most well-known fast fashion brands. A little like Ikea furniture, no one expects fast fashion items to last more than a few washes.
Low cost means low regulation. Not only are the wages poor for garment workers but their health can be affected by chemicals and processes used in clothing manufacture. The buildings in which they work are often highly unsafe as evidenced by the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh where 1134 garment workers perished. Slave labour and sweat shop conditions flourish, with workers held against their will and identification documentation taken from them.
I haven’t even addressed the environmental impact of the fashion industry. It is one of the most polluting, water wasting and high energy using industries on the planet.
How can we, as Christians, respond to the fast fashion phenomenon when we are called to be stewards of the planet and its resources and care for others who are making our clothes? Here are some suggestions:
- Buy less. Most of us have plenty of clothes in our wardrobes. We don’t need more! From a fashion perspective, learn to coordinate and fully utilise what is already owned. Does your colour palette work? Does every top go with every bottom? Can your wardrobe coordinate with only a few pairs of shoes?
- Enjoy a clothes swap. Get your friends or church together with all their unwanted clothes and simply switch wardrobes.
- Buy second hand. Look for well made clothes that will last. Make sure it will go with the rest of your wardrobe.
- Make your own clothes. Learn to sew, knit, crochet and cobble and enjoy the pleasure of creative expression.
- If you have to buy new, purchase from companies that have transparent ethical standards of their treatment of workers, pay fair wages, and use organic or recycled fibres and sustainable manufacturing processes. Baptist World Aid produces a yearly Ethical Fashion Guide. The Guide grades 130 companies from A+ to F based on their commitment to reduce exploitation and environmental impact using 44 specific criteria. It accompanies the Ethical Fashion Report which analyses the fashion industry in depth.
- Get educated. Learn about the fashion industry and challenge when it falls short. Boycott companies that don’t protect their workers or fail to keep to environmental standards. Protest the government to unsure companies are transparent and environmental impact is minimised.
* These were his words but I acknowledge that sewing machines can be left to sons and grandsons too!
Dr Katherine Grocott