A Conversation to Drive Urgent Change Against Fast-Fashion from the Streets of Hoi An, Vietnam.
Having spent the best part of (almost) 10 years working amid the fashion industry, I’ve been fortunate to work alongside some incredible teams whilst being exposed to the many facets of this industry. From international wholesale sales, to the other side of the trajectory – buying, production planning and design, to experiencing the hard slog on the shop floor with small business owners who are forever challenged by the price-conscious customer. Too often, across each of these levels of the supply chain, there is a conversation not being had. And that is, ‘who made my clothes’?
This past week we visited Hoi An; a stunning ancient town, cut through with canals on Vietnam’s central coast. It’s a labyrinth of streets bustling with tailors and leather craftsmen (and women) at the ready, to make anyone and everyone their next best pair of leather shoes, accessories, and/or ‘custom-made’ outfit.
On home soil, $100 AUD wouldn’t nearly cover the meterage of a quality fabric required for an item of clothing of this size or complexity. So, why should it here?
As you brush past the many store fronts, which are brimming with the exact stock from one to the next, the sales associates pull you in to sell their services. For near to less than the cost of a modest 3-course meal in Australia, you can wear the hat of ‘designer’ and have a skilled tradesman turn around a tailor-made suit for example, in less than a day’s work.
Now, obviously there is a sizeable difference in currency exchange and other economical factors between western countries and Asia, but with much regard to this, as well the unique experience of having a garment custom-made being a lengthy art form not to be taken lightly, there seems something very wrong with the maths here. On home soil, $100 AUD wouldn’t nearly cover the meterage of a quality fabric required for an item of clothing of this size or complexity. So, why should it here?
To dig a little deeper, tailoring, in its traditional sense is an artisanal trade that takes years to master. Rightfully, the process of having a suit made, either bespoke or made-to-measure, is an extended practice that requires weeks to months to realise. However, throughout the streets of Hoi An, as beautiful as this city is, I struggle to fathom how a garment pulled together in few hours is deemed ‘unique’ and ‘of quality’? Indeed, tourism supports small business and this presents an otherwise accessible experience for some, though at what true cost to others?
Let’s consider $100 for a moment. In Australia the minimum wage is $18.93 p/hour (business.gov.au) and therefore this value can be achieved with 5.5 hours’ of labour in safe working conditions. Let’s also consider that the supply chain of a single garment is incredibly complex. Be it a 3-piece suit or the most basic of tank tops; more or less, the many stages (and hands) in which an item is passed from conception through to end-purchase is relatively the same. From the field workers and farmers sewing and harvesting crop or shearing stock (even affording to water the land and feed the stock), to the spinners and millers, the textile designers and garment dyers, the factory workers, design managers, planners, pattern makers, cutters, QA, buyers, the sales force, the landlord; and the many, many freight forwarders required to ensure this process is carried out like clockwork. Everyone wants a cut. A mere $100 (if that), unfairly distributed between an infinite of human hands, grinding for hours each day and trying their utmost best to earn a living. Let alone, to sustain one.
It’s a dangerous cycle in which we – educated consumers, contribute to each time we demand ‘new’, ‘more’, ‘low cost’ and ‘now’.
For the Vietnamese ‘tailoring’ experience, this distribution channel is perhaps long winded, for a single tailor is skilled to perform several tasks. Though the minimum wage in Vietnam is higher and production facilities more strictly regulated than the likes of less developed nations; what is not too dissimilar throughout the off-shore supply chain, is the lack of transparency which occurs behind the sales desk. Poor working conditions and exploitation of staff, inadequate safety and compliance, exposure to toxic chemicals, polluted waterways. The list goes on. It’s a dangerous cycle in which we – educated consumers, contribute to each time we demand ‘new’, ‘more’, ‘low cost’ and ‘now’.
It’s a multi billion-dollar industry driven by greed, that sees the world consume about 80 billion new pieces of clothing each year.
As I walked through the streets of Hoi An, I couldn’t help to feel saddened by the chaos of this city, and the oversupply of suit bags that I saw leaving stores. For all of my working life, I’ve too often watched and listened to small business owners struggle with a rapidly changing retail landscape. It’s no secret that Australia’s rag trade industry is suffering, driven by a myriad of contributing factors; – heightened competition through the influx of offshore players, e-commerce, inflating leasing costs, increased lease tenures, a constant of promotions which has born the ‘sales-driven’ consumer, who better knows than to ever pay full price. And wait for it, fast-fashion.
Fast-fashion is the term used for inexpensive trend-driven fashion items that are rapidly mass-produced by retailers. It’s a multi billion-dollar industry driven by greed, that sees the world consume about 80 billion new pieces of clothing each year (truecostmovie.com). That’s a 400% increase in 2 decades, which for more reasons than one, simply isn’t sustainable.
And despite the ‘tailoring’ experience in Hoi An being a ‘custom’ experience, I can’t help to argue that this is indeed fast fashion. For an intricate process to be so financially accessible, the labour, fabrics and trims (at the very least) needs to also come cheap. This in turn makes for a short-lived garment because the wearing performance merely isn’t there. It’s then into landfill and the vicious cycle repeats itself. Though, whilst the in-store experience may be pleasant as one is fussed over for few moments, all the while trawling cloth books with a screenshot of inspiration readily in hand, in order to cheaply replicate the seasons latest look; there is a lot that goes unsaid. And one hell of a lot, unseen. Because fashion is ‘glamorous’. It makes us feel good, and perception is reality and all that bullshit…
Nobody wants to discuss the harshness of this industry. It’s an uncomfortable conversation to be had, and is often led by a double edged sword. Companies don’t want to disclose that for every ‘bargain’ we bag; somebody’s water supply is polluted with toxic chemical, which in turn sparks its own series of ramifications. Somebody’s child is growing up without a mother, because she is working hundreds of kilometres away to earn the most mediocre of wages to feed her family, that she very rarely sees. For everyday that somebody else turns up to work, their life is threatened with the unsafe structures of their workplace and so on. We wouldn’t support this kind of practise in Australia, yet why is it acceptable to encourage as such offshore?
And it isn’t. But we simply don’t see it, it doesn’t directly affect us, and therefore it’s easy to turn a blind eye. These are indeed very real excuses that we’re making for very real people, who we continue to exploit with every poor vote of our dollar.
I’m simply asking that we learn together, improve our consumption habits and foremost consider ‘who made our clothes?’
In writing this entry, I posted an excerpt of my feelings and experiences of Hoi An to social media, as well instigated some conversations within my circle. It garnered some interesting viewpoints and unpacked a series of reasons as to why educated, economically stable individuals and their families weren’t prioritising ethically sourced fashion. Despite better understanding the implications of not doing so, their priorities remained local. Supporting our farmers and electing to invest in experiences that positively influenced a child’s development weighed heavily for example. And I can’t argue with that. Australia is becoming increasingly expensive and for as long as fast-fashion continues to afford our families and their children good nutrition and an education, what will be, will be.
The purpose of this entry is not at all to place blame, neither suggest that you need never to purchase a single item of clothing again. Rather, it’s to continue an all too important conversation that needs to be had more often, without any uncomfortable feelings associated. It’s not about being ‘green’ or ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, I’m simply asking that we learn together, improve our consumption habits and foremost consider ‘who made our clothes?’ For as long as we don’t, the world won’t change.
There are so many great initiatives that we can engage to better preserve our environment and give clothing the longevity it deserves, as well the vulnerable workers a voice they need. For example, look after your garments and consider cost-per-wear should you be deterred by a price tag that otherwise suggests ‘fair-trade’; support charitable second-hand stores and ethical small business, hold a clothes-swap amongst your friends, hire an outfit, up-cycle, make use of hand-me-downs. Ask yourself, ‘do I really need that?’. Because more often than not, you don’t. With every less piece of clothing that we buy, we stall the merry-go-round that is fast-fashion, and there is a whole lot of thanks to be had.
If you got through until the end, thank you. Ethically sourced fashion and fair-trade operations within this industry is something that I’m incredibly passionate about. There is no reason to discriminate, neither to deny someone the enjoyment of a safe workplace. I absolutely understand that the importance for ethically-sourced fashion is only one of the many urgent topics at hand, yet improving our consumption habits is perhaps one of the easiest actions we can take hold of.
If you’re interested in learning more and understanding which brands to support, Baptist World Aid put together a fantastic fashion report each year that ranks organisations in terms of their contributions to ethical practice. Download the 2019 report here.
And if you’re not too afraid to view the ‘unseen’ harsh realities of the fashion industry, The True Cost Movie is a very real and moving documentary. I’ve no doubt it will pull at your heartstrings and shift your mindset toward a more sustainable future, that we can all enjoy.
Thanks for reading x