Translated/ Edited by Sherry Chen
A Final Embrace
Many powerful photographs have been made in the aftermath of the devastating collapse of a garment factory on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh. But one photo, by Bangladeshi photographer Taslima Akhter, has emerged as the most heart wrenching, capturing an entire country’s grief in a single image.
“I have been asked many questions about the photograph of the couple embracing in the aftermath of the [Rana Plaza building] collapse [in Bangladesh]. I have tried desperately, but have yet to find any clues about them…Every time I look back to this photo, I feel uncomfortable—it haunts me. It’s as if they are saying to me, we are not a number—not only cheap labor and cheap lives. We are human beings like you. Our life is precious like yours, and our dreams are precious, too.
They are witnesses in this cruel history of workers being killed. The death toll is now more than [1,127]. What a harsh situation we are in, where human beings are treated only as numbers.
This photo is haunting me all the time. If the people responsible don’t receive the highest level of punishment, we will see this type of tragedy again. There will be no relief from these horrific feelings. I’ve felt a tremendous pressure and pain over the past two weeks surrounded by dead bodies. As a witness to this cruelty, I feel the urge to share this pain with everyone. That’s why I want this photo to be seen.”
Shahidul Alam, Bangladeshi photographer, writer and founder of Pathshala, the South Asian Institute of Photography, said of the photo: “This image, while deeply disturbing, is also hauntingly beautiful. An embrace in death, its tenderness rises above the rubble to touch us where we are most vulnerable. By making it personal, it refuses to let go. This is a photograph that will torment us in our dreams. Quietly it tells us. Never again.”
The Shadow Unseen
It’s not saying that we should never buy new clothes because we certainly do. Some people still buy well-made dresses and tailored jackets but more and more we should be conscious of where the clothes are from and the impact they have had both sociologically and environmentally on the planet.
Jo Wood, activist and promoter of ethical fashion, said, “I am a total organic, live a strict an organic lifestyle and am passionate about being aware of where food, cosmetics, and clothes have come from. The more I have explored the path that consumables have taken to reach their buyers, the more concerned I have become about the ethical state we find ourselves in.”
Over 90 million items of clothing are thrown away each year in UK alone. It seems to have become a habitual pleasure to throw something away and go straight back to the shops for more. Part of the cause of this problem is with the major distributors battling to provide the cheapest possible price for their consumer.
Garment workers throughout the globe are traditionally paid the minimum wage and work long hours in substandard, environmentally hostile conditions in order to produce the clothes that we take for granted. In the developing world, countries such as Indonesia and China mass-produce enough clothes to reach to the moon and back every day. This routine production and exploitation in the name of fashion means we can buy a new T-shirt for 50p while retailers reap huge profits from these suffering workers.
Over two thirds of the world’s cotton is grown in developing countries and the former Soviet Union. Valued at over $32 billion every year, global cotton production should be improving lives. But this “white gold” too often brings misery. Along with the poverty and appalling working conditions created, the impact environmentally is enormously detrimental due to the chemicals used and the vast distances these items have to travel to get to the future buyers.
The problems don’t stop there.
Discarded clothing and shoes are typically sent to landfill. There, textiles present particular problems. Synthetic products do not decompose. Woollen garments do, but in doing so they produce methane, which contributes to global warming and climate change.
At a time when the issue of global waste is on the political lips of leaders all over the world it is time to decide how we can do our bit. In a very basic sense it means that we take into account worker’s rights, social justice and environmental issues. Ethical fashion is about being creative and embracing eclectic style. It’s about cutting up an old T-shirt, some old jeans or a dress that’s been hiding for years to give it new life. Dusting off those belts and hats. It’s about being cautious about what you throw away; it’s about wearing fashion that respects our planet; it’s about creating a demand for ethical products so big fashion houses rethink their strategy. Ethical fashion is about buying garments from suppliers you can trust. Ethical fashion has cool scribbled all over it.
The chance to make a big change is here; we just need to take it.
Green Fashion Is More Than a Passing Trend
In a society obsessed with instant gratification, novelty, and conspicuous consumption, it’s easy to dismiss fashion design as frivolous. Skirt lengths and platform heights appear inconsequential when juxtaposed with real-world concerns like climate change, economic strife, water shortages, and hunger and malnutrition. But if you consider the fact that clothing is something we envelope our bodies in every single day, to ignore the apparel industry’s environmental and social impact would be negligent, not to mention foolhardy.
$2 billion of hazardous pesticides are used every year to grow cotton—more than any other agricultural crop.
Clothing uses more water than any other industry besides agriculture. Conventional cotton, which is grown in more than 70 countries and comprises almost 50 percent of textiles worldwide, also happens to be the most toxic crop in the world. Roughly $2 billion of hazardous chemical pesticides are released into the air every year, accounting for 16 percent of global insecticides—more than any other agricultural crop. (To put this in context, it takes about a third of a pound of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to grow enough cotton for a T-shirt.) The World Health Organization estimates that at least 3 million people are poisoned by pesticides every year, resulting in 220,000 deaths worldwide annually. In rural communities, where poverty prevents farm workers from taking the necessary precautions, miscarriages, premature births, and sickly children are ubiquitous.
Like any good product design, clothing production can be accomplished in a better, smarter, and more socially and environmentally sustainable way.
We seek to change people’s minds about what “fashion” design entails beyond fleeting fads and mindless consumerism. Like any good product design, clothing production can be accomplished in a better, smarter, and more socially and environmentally sustainable way. And we’re not the only ones who think so. Organic clothing, produced without toxic pesticides and dipped in low-impact dyes, is gaining popularity across the globe. In 2006, retail sales of organic cotton products reached $1.1 billion globally—85 percent higher than the year before, according to the Organic Exchange. Organic cotton is by no means alone on the playing field. With improved technology, other strange and wonderful eco-fabrics have entered the fray, from salmon leather to fiber derived from milk.
We’re excited about the future of fashion design and think that it’s time for hardcore fashionistas and hardcore greenies alike to start paying attention to eco-fashion—and, more important, start engaging in dialogue with one other. We hope that we will provide that forum, paving the way to a smarter, more sustainable future.
Eco fashion is a generic term that can mean many things. To us, eco fashion is a holistic concept that refers to all fashion products that have been created in such a way as to contribute to a healthier and more equal world. On this website we use several criteria to differentiate products in our guide. For a more in-depth look at these concepts, check out our Glossary section.
Vegan: Products that have been made without the use of leather or animal tissue products. Examples are shoes and bags made from “vegetal leather” using Amazonian rubber instead of animal skins or other recycled or man-made materials.
Ethically Produced: Ethical fashion is fashion that has been produced with respect for people and the environment. Although there are existing certifications for Organic and Fair Trade, we want to encourage companies who are taking significant action but don’t qualify for certification. This might include companies producing locally or on small scales in developed countries, who might not qualify for Fair Trade certification or companies working with farmers to transition to sustainable crops but who might not yet qualify as Organic (which takes a few years). The “Ethic Chic” section of each brand profile should have details on the specific steps of the brand’s ethical production.
Craft/Artisan: Products that have been crafted using artisan skills such as embroidery, which preserve the perpetuation of ancestral traditions.
Custom: Also called demi-couture or made-to-order. This is a way of encouraging quality and “slow fashion” over mass-produced disposable fashion.
Fair Trade Certified: An organized movement that promotes standards for international labor (such as reasonable work hours, no child labor, the right to unionize, a fair living wage), environmentalism, and social policy in areas related to production of goods. Fair Trade focuses on exports from developing countries to developed countries. Some Fair Trade certification organizations include: FLO www.fairtrade.net, IFAT www.ifat.org, TransFair (Canada and US) www.transfairusa.org andwww.transfair.ca.
Organic: Natural fibers that have been grown without any pesticides and other toxic materials, preserving the health of humans and the environment. The process of organic growth can be certified by various organizations.
Recycled: Anything that has been made from already existing materials, fabrics, metals or fibers. These are often reclaimed from previously made clothing and accessories and reworked into new ones. Fibers can also be re-purposed from pre-existing fabric, re-spun and reused for new garments.
Vintage/Second-Hand: Vintage is a generic term for new or second-hand garments created in the period from the 1920’s to 1975. However, the term is often used more generally for second-hand clothes or up-cycled clothes (second-hand clothes that have been given a new life through some sort of customization).
Supporting Ethical Fashion on a Tight Budget
Many of us want to make a difference but can’t afford a $200 sweater to wear with $185 jeans. Here are some ideas to help you make the most ethical choices with your budget. It can be easy to use money as an excuse for making unethical purchases, but with creativity and planning you can use our purchase power to help make the world better.
Buy less. This simple truth is that we all have more clothes than we need. By committing to buy one ethical shirt instead of two cheaper ones, for example, we can make a positive impact on the supply chain and reign in our consumption. If you’re really ready to rethink your consumption, you can look over your whole budget for places to cut or redirect your spending.
Shop thrift. It takes a little work and a bit of commitment, but you can find fashionable, very affordable clothes at thrift stores. Even if your thrift store treasures were made by exploited people, you’ve saved them from the trash and reduced the consumer demand for new clothes.
Try your hand at homemade. This is for the really adventurous. It may be a challenge to find ethically sourced fabrics, but if you sew your own clothes, you always know exactly how the seamstress was treated. Plus, your stuff will be one of a kind.
While ethical products will always be a bit more expensive than less ethical ones, increased demand will help lower the costs. You likely won’t be able to totally revamp your spending all at once, but that’s okay. Positive progress is a process. Do what you can and don’t be discouraged.
Being the first magazine in Asia that focuses on sustainable fashion, we hope to eventually promote fashion ethics and keep you updated with the latest news on ethical fashion.
Let us start with small steps, and take our responsiblity for our planet and our own lives.
National Association of Sustainable Fashion Designers (SFD)