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‘Made in China’, the truth about the high street

Just over a year after the devastating collapse of the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh - the eight storey building housing five Primark factories - which killed 1129 workers, a Primark customer has come forward after finding a cry for help with the words "Forced to work exhausting hours," sewn into a label of the £10 dress she bought from the Swansea store. As this disturbing news breaks, we re-visit Bertie Brandes think piece exploring the malpractice marring our clothing industry and predicting the future of how we shop.

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As a lover of fashion I’ve always found it strange that for an industry defined by labels, we hardly ever read what’s on them. Fashion writers are happy to endlessly discuss the significance of a certain fabric, shape or colour, but when it comes down to the information about how our clothes are actually produced, we seem to experience a nationwide brain freeze. It’s not like it’s a new issue, think of the endless Nike sweatshop scandals that punctuated our youth, or the Primark backlash that’s dogged the chain since it opened, yet here we are in 2014 still pretending to be shocked when another factory collapses in India. From the high street to Amazon, we’re consistently turning a blind eye to how the things strewn across our bedroom floor and eventually carted off to Oxfam are actually created. Obviously it’s ripe for revolutionising, so from exploring why we’re still letting malpractice mar our clothing industry, to predicting the future of how we shop, it’s time to read the palm of the British high street.

It’s not like it’s a new issue, think of the endless Nike sweatshop scandals that punctuated our youth, or the Primark backlash that’s dogged the chain since it opened, yet here we are in 2014 still pretending to be shocked when another factory collapses in India.
 

To envisage something’s future it’s important to pay attention to the past, and I’m sure part of the reason we ignore the high street’s bad behaviour is because we’re so attached to our memories of it. The idea of the high street in this country is so much more than where you buy tights or ill-advised patent leather accessories – it’s part of our cultural identity. From saving up pocket money and sneaking off school to explore emporiums of textures, colours and styles, to finally taking control of your own image, the high street is interwoven with our discovery of fashion and self-expression. It was, for so many of us, a place where you could channel your pubescent 14-year-old frustration through the questionable medium of Jane Norman or Tammy Girl – a Saturday afternoon staple activity, necessary to rectify last week’s fashion experiments (read: disasters). The idea of an “investment piece” was just rubbish compared to feeling sick in a changing room that smelled of vomit on Oxford Street because you drank too many frapuccinos. Bliss. You really can’t fault the high street for being familiar, or cheap, or even magical in its own way.

Add that to the fact that teen movie makeovers and reality TV brought us up to believe a new outfit would revolutionise our career, our love life and literally our body shape, and it’s no surprise we still think shopping’s so important. Shows like What Not to Wear and How to Look Good Naked were constantly advising people to throw away all their clothes and buy new ones – I remember a particularly drastic series that started every episode by burning someone’s entire wardrobe in a wheelie bin. It’s easy to see where the compulsion for my generation to obsessively reinvent themselves has come from. It’s not only the media either, as we grow up and slowly realise we’ll never afford the houses our parents could, saving money becomes less inviting, and the constant small spends of our teenage years remain the norm. In order to accommodate our shopping habits, the high street motto remains “don’t ask, don’t tell, and probably don’t even think about it”, and we don’t. Made in China? That means it’s made by robots right? So that’s fine, right? That’s totally fine.

Except, it’s really not fine is it? As the internet swells and news no longer has to select what stories hit the front page, the information about how and where our clothes are being made is slowly trickling into the mainstream. Sure, it still takes a huge factory collapse like Rana Plaza to grab people’s attention, but wider reporting means with a little research it’s easy to find out the true extent of the damage, like the fact that last year saw on average one factory fire a week in Bangladesh. The dream of a high street that knows no bounds is slowly becoming a thing of the past, as the realities of the global cost of our addiction to fast fashion are edging their way into our consciousness.

Sure, it still takes a huge factory collapse like Rana Plaza to grab people’s attention, but wider reporting means with a little research it’s easy to find out the true extent of the damage, like the fact that last year saw on average one factory fire a week in Bangladesh.
 

Still, while from a rational place we’re starting to understand the ramifications of this kind of frenzied consumerism, the fashion and textiles industry hasn’t had its Jamie Oliver school dinners moment yet. While what goes into our food is more relevant than ever, sweatshop and slave labour stories are considered old news. Possibly because so many of us think it just doesn’t apply to what we buy. There is still a general impression that if you’re buying mid-range or high-end clothes then ethical production and fair wages are part of the bargain. Not so. I went to a panel show a few months ago during which it turned out one of the speakers, who ran a so-called ethical clothing line, didn’t even know how much her workers were paid (though she did know it was less than the living wage). It’s easy to be disillusioned by the widespread ignorance within the industry, and that’s not just the working conditions either. Last year Marc Jacobs “faux fur” trimmed jackets being sold at Century 21 in New York allegedly contained raccoon dog fur. Amazingly, instead of apologising, Century 21 simply released a statement saying it was somebody else’s fault. We blame the shops; who blame the factory managers; who blame the buyers; who blame the local governments. It’s enough to make you dizzy.

One person who knows full well that price doesn’t denote quality is Gethin Chamberlain, an investigative journalist who has broken unbelievable stories on labour conditions and slavery for The Observer, The Times, The Sun and many others. From his research in India, he has found that “top end fashion houses are often the worst offenders.” While there are some designers “who manufacture in the UK or Europe and who have higher standards” they are almost always producing on a much smaller scale. In contrast, “most of those involved in mass production, however expensive, are probably using the same factories as those at the other end of the price scale.” So the cliché that spending more ensures a clear conscience can and should be put to rest, along with the argument that the poorest shoppers cannot afford to demand ethically made clothing. It is a fallacy that somewhere like Primark would have to add retail cost onto their products to ensure higher production standards – I’m sure if they needed extra cash they could find it in the hundreds of millions of pounds of profit they turned in 2013. Evidently this industry isn’t suffering from a lack of money, but a lack of responsibility.

This sense of diminished responsibility may unfortunately become increasingly widespread in the near future. As online shopping booms, high streets are already seeing a yearly decline in footfall meaning we’re becoming increasingly distanced from the history of the clothing we buy. When things materialise on our doorsteps in tissue paper and slick, returnable boxes, it’s even harder to imagine they started off as cloth in the hands of somebody thousands of miles away. The digital high street of the future could mean that the quality of fabrics and stitch-work become even less important. Chamberlain points out how hard it is already to “comprehend the reality of where clothes are made” but fast fashion takes on a new meaning when you introduce it to the internet age, removing yet another level of interaction for consumers. That said; the switch to online might also work in our favour. Instead of people considering shopping as just another form of home entertainment, buying online might allow them to opt out of the frenzy of the retail high encouraged by the high street, with its last minute purchase pots and cleverly positioned escalators.

It is a fallacy that somewhere like Primark would have to add retail cost onto their products to ensure higher production standards – I’m sure if they needed extra cash they could find it in the hundreds of millions of pounds of profit they turned in 2013. Evidently this industry isn’t suffering from a lack of money, but a lack of responsibility.

With that in mind, the future isn’t looking too grim. As well as a change in the physicality of the high street, there is definitely movement towards more profound changes. 2013 saw the legislation of the Bangladesh Safety Accord, the first of its kind, which has been signed by multiple clothing behemoths including H&M and PVH. This agreement, focussed on brand responsibility, binds companies into two-year contracts with their factories during which they must inspect, improve and nurture them. Though it’s too soon to judge its success, its existence alone is testament to the power of the press and the consumer to demand change. Hopefully, as we enter the second half of this century’s teenage years, we’re all going to do some growing up. After all, we’ve done it before – it’s not hard to draw comparisons between the food and fashion industries, and the former has undergone drastic changes over the last decade. While the cheapest food is still inevitably factory farmed, pressure on supermarkets has won the consumer the right to an informed choice. Virtually all mass-produced food products are now clearly labelled with origin, packing locations, nutritional value and welfare information, and it is something we have come to expect. Chamberlain believes that “if campaign groups can continue to get the message across that cheap clothes are made by what are essentially slave labourers, maybe one day the penny will drop. It worked with battery chickens, it worked with cigarettes [and] it worked with salt content in food.”

If, over the next few years, we take an active interest in learning the language on our labels, a language which the shops, buyers and factory managers are so desperate to keep intelligible, then we’ll begin to see changes on our high street. It’s time to realise that somebody handmade the fake-eyelashes that have been gathering dust at the back of your bathroom cabinet, and somebody sewed the sleeves onto the jumper you’re wearing. It’s the understanding that clothes don’t grow on trees that will help us adapt our high street into something we really deserve to be proud of, and I’m confident it’s within reach. After all, imagine fashion with no labels. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

@BertieBrandes