Newton’s third law of motion states that “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”. Two recent productions highlight how this is relevant in the world of fast fashion.
“World Factory” at London’s Young Vic theatre takes audience members on the journey of “operating” their own clothing factory in China for a year. The decisions and their implications create an eye-opening experience of how the seemingly innocuous can have far-reaching consequences.
In a similar vein, the recently released “The True Cost” film explores the way in which growing consumerism in developed countries has led to human suffering and environmental destruction, particularly in developing countries.
The productions raise uncomfortable and morally challenging questions. How can the actions of those in of us in developed countries be changed to prevent damaging reactions elsewhere in global supply chains?
“World Factory”: multi-media with meaning
The premise of World Factory fascinated me once I read about it. Split an audience into 16 different groups, ask each group to “operate” a clothing factory in China for a year and then see the effect of each group’s choices. Mixed into this is some passionate acting, video interviews with workers in the supply chain and audio-visual effects aimed at giving a sense of the conditions that workers are subjected to.
As my group of 6 strangers started playing the “game”, we began to face some stark decisions. Do we reduce headcount or force wage cuts on all of our employees? How stringent will we be in ensuring that our workers are of legal age? Do we force our employees to work overtime or do we hire more staff? Should we focus on producing for fast fashion labels or the less profitable work wear segment? We were very quickly up to our necks in difficult decisions, all the while being told to “keep going forward” and that “time is money”.
At one point we paused and asked ourselves: What is our objective here? Are we aiming to maximise profits or produce in a socially and environmentally responsible way? There was no guidance provided in terms of what our aims should be, it came down to our choices as “owners” of the factory.
And this for me was the important point. It made me wonder how many businesses in the clothing industry actually set out their social and environmental objectives when they begin operations, in addition to the obvious goal of financial success. Staying in business is naturally important, providing jobs for many employees is can lift families out of poverty – but at what cost? In the World Factory setting, higher profitability generally resulted from making decisions to exploit the workforce and the environment. Workers had little power. The environment had no voice.
Before we knew it, the game had come to an end and the consequences of our decisions were revealed. The variation in financial, social and environmental outcomes was extremely wide between groups. For every action we chose, there were many unintended reactions.
“The True Cost”: consumption over conscience
In the same week, I watched the equally thought-provoking The True Cost film. The different format enabled the film-makers to explore a broader range of issues from consumer behaviour, fashion labels’ interaction with manufacturers, labour conditions and environment impacts, among many others. The real success of the film came from its ability to bring to life real stories of those affected by fast fashion – factory workers and their families, leather tanners and cotton growers.
What is the story behind the “budget consciousness” of consumers in developed countries? How is it possible for fast fashion labels to sell a dress for £15?
@CurrentlyUnderD (@CurrentlyUnderD) April 30, 2015
The film shows that the answers start with the fashion labels reacting to consumer demands for keeping up with trends and lower prices by shifting between manufacturers in different countries to get the lowest cost and quickest production. Meanwhile it is the factory workers who have the least power in the supply chain being subjected to low wages and precarious, sometimes dangerous, working conditions. Further, there is little regard given to the impact of producing vast amounts of cotton which place pressure on water sources and eventually contribute to landfill as unwanted clothes are disposed of.
However it is the extent and reach of the fashion industry which surprised me the most. According to the film, 1 in 6 people globally are part of the clothing supply chain. Additionally, the environmental damage from the clothing industry is second only to the energy industry. These effects are felt in both developing and developed countries.
The human suffering had the greatest impact on me. In one case, the effects of using chromium as part of the leather tanning process was highlighted. When not properly managed, chromium run-off can enter waterways which can then be ingested by humans, raising the incidence of certain types of cancer. In the US, this is the sort of behaviour that led to litigation against PG&E, made famous in the film Erin Brockovich. Meanwhile, in developing countries, the effects have had much less publicity. There is more than just a little hypocrisy in this.
Other examples emphasised the way in which women are the ones who suffer the most from fast fashion practices. Roughly 85% of low wage clothing factory workers are women. Many of the jobs available are in cities without infrastructure for childcare, meaning that families are forced to live separately. Meanwhile in a different way, women in developed countries are bombarded with advertising propaganda playing on the insecurity that happiness can only be solved through consumption.
The recurring impression that I had from this film was how the desire for the “good life” (the action) for developed country consumers, including myself, has the opposing consequence of suffering by those in developing countries (the reaction). While I’m sure that this film will spark much debate, the bigger challenge is whether any behaviours will actually change. For example, will Harvey Weinstein begin demanding that responsibly sourced clothing should be used in all films produced by his company?
lucy siegle (@lucysiegle) May 16, 2015
So what are the solutions to the issues raised in World Factory and The True Cost? In my view, the first step is for consumers to be more considered in their buying habits. We need to ask who made my clothes?, how were they made? and why are they so cheap?
Secondly is education and spreading the message from these two productions. Metis Arts, the group behind World Factory have developed some great resources including a resource pack for schools called “The Pattern” and a “Digital Quilt” which provides the background research behind the choices available within their game. It would be great if both World Factory and The True Cost can become part of the school curriculum around the world. We need to learn about the impact of our behaviours when we are young.
A big question raised in The True Cost is how the values embedded within our economic system can be reimagined and redesigned. Are the problems raised simply to big to be dealt with? Can the current system be justified as sweatshops create jobs which can be argued to enable economic development in poor countries? How can corporate social responsibility and responsible investment prevent the damaging effects of our consumption and business practices?
These questions were partly answered in the film through the example of People Tree, a UK based ethical fashion label. Yes, the solution partly lies in consumer demand, but as important is the concept behind the fashion label. Too often, the genesis of a brand begins with the fashion concept rather than thinking about the people and processes required to bring the concept to life. This is consistent with my experience in World Factory – what is the objective? Maximise profits or operate in a way which can be profitable while also ensuring a responsible supply chain?
Turning back to consumers, an obvious choice is to purchase less, pay more for it and only purchase from firms that ensure strong environmental and employment standards, including higher wages for factory workers. However the issue with that statement is that it’s easy to make that case for those who are relatively well off in developed countries. What about those who can only afford to shop at discount clothing retailers? Does the inequitable distribution of incomes in developed countries actually flow through to worker exploitation in developing countries due to an inability to pay by poorer consumers in developed countries?
The linkages are pervasive. The actors in this supply chain reach from consumers, investors, fashion labels and governments in developed countries all the way through to farmers, factory owners, factory workers and their families. What are the reactions caused by each of our actions?