By Ellen Tirant
When we think, read and talk about ethical and sustainable fashion, we tend to think of the current conditions of the garment manufacturing industry; low cost production in developing countries, low wages, minimal or non-existent safety standards and human rights abuses of workers throughout supply chains. These issues are rife, serious and dangerous. And they need to be changed. But issues stem further than the pure manufacture of apparel, footwear and accessories.
In the last few months I have been chasing the concept of ‘ethical fashion’ around the world. I began in the Philippines last year, looking into the production of cultural and traditional handicrafts, and the sustainability of communities participating within the international export market as a form of community development. Heading to Cambodia, I was exposed to the garment manufacturing scene, and the slowly emerging market of Fair Trade clothing and accessories. Onto India, I was immersed in the concept of ‘slow fashion’; fashion that has an incredible social impact through the entire process of clothing production in the most ethical and environmentally sustainable ways.
Through this travelling I have been incredibly lucky to immerse myself in the world of authentic and culturally significant textiles in many different countries. India in particular is rich with traditional textiles, overflowing with ancient textiles, crafts and techniques that are unique to different parts of the country, incredibly advanced for their times, highly labour intensive, and just down right beautiful! I have spent some time visiting different areas, learning about the textiles unique to each place and visiting weaving centres and villages that specialise in the production of traditional textiles passed down through generations. From traditional block printing of Rajasthan to the embroider work of Gujarat to the cultivation of eri silk in Assam. The work that is put into every individual item is tremendous, the result astounding and the respect they therefore deserve is immense.
What breaks my heart is the commercialisation of these traditional textiles for the benefit of the typical consumer. Our perception of value is so distorted when it comes to textiles and apparel that we do not look beyond the physical item in our hands, and how cheap we can purchase it for. What about the person who spun the yarn? Who dyed the yarn? Who wove the fabric? Then there are the many people who constructed the garment. What about the design, the technique, the traditional significance of the product? As consumers, we tend to lose ourselves in the concept of consumption, and are becoming victims of the fast fashion cycle. The mass production and export of such textiles, crafts and products reduces quality, risks the standards of production (as we know through the issue of corporate greed and low cost production), and essentially commercialises a skill, technique and authentically unique item.
In 2014 I conducted a research project in the Philippines, looking into the concept of product development as a form of community development. Typically, we would consider this concept as a means of assisting communities and/or industries in harnessing aspects of their culture, such as culturally significant and unique products, and becoming active within a market, whether that be local, national or international. Essentially improving skills, creating employment, increasing economic participation and ultimately intending to achieve both community and national development agendas. What is often missed however, is how this jeopardises, in the long term, the aspects of that community that make the community what it is; their traditional products and their culture.
I focused my research on a community weaving industry, where a generational product and skill has been transformed into a commercial, mass-produced and buyer controlled industry. Large buyers were found to be controlling designs, materials, costs, quantities and time frames, leaving the weavers with no control over what once was a skill and tradition passed down through generations, giving identity and purpose to the weavers and the community. This control found to cause many other issues, such as capacity to meet production demands, therefore affecting production costs, fair pay and working conditions.
Many handicraft industries throughout the world are now faced with the consideration of modernity, of transforming their local craft to fit within a globalised demand for a niche market of unique and authentic goods that are locally crafted and culturally reflective. Large scale production and export essentially places communities at risk of diluting their identity, risking the commodification of culture and tradition through the commercialisation of traditional skills and products that are unique to a community, handicraft industry or country. These types of products are at risk of becoming produced purely for export purposes and which intend to satisfy buyers and end users, losing the original, unique, cultural and self-expressive qualities.
To me, tradition and culture is important. The fibre, the fabric, the dye, the finishes, the print, the embroidery etc. These aspects of clothing and accessories tend to get overlooked when we are purchasing goods. The fabric quality, the block printing, the applique, the weaving of motifs, the weaving itself. These things are not often noticed, and we do not place as much value on these things as they deserve. The typical consumer is interested in the colour, the pattern and mostly just the style of the garment. This is essentially what we spend our money on, not the process. Just the look and fit of the end product. What do you as a consumer of these global products value? How cheap they are? How they add to your style, to your wardrobe? Or the craft behind them? Their history, their tradition, the artisans that have spent hours creating them?
I hope that we as a global community, as consumers, can begin to place greater value in global cultures and traditions, rather than the value of culture as a commodity within the market. This I believe is critical for the sustainability of local and traditional handicraft industries and their products throughout the world. We must determine the most appropriate balance of cultural preservation and market participation for the ultimate benefit of a community and its people, and not so much for our personal pleasure and wardrobe.
Ellen was a 2015 production intern with The Fabric Social, a social enterprise working exclusively with conflict-affected women. The Fabric Social work to transform one of the greatest causes of poverty: armed conflict. You can shop, donate, or get involved here.
This article was originally posted in Naked Magazine.