April 2013 saw the Bangladeshi Factory Collapse. 1,129 people died and 2,515 were injured, it is considered to be the deadliest garment-factory accident in history.
When cracks began to appear in the structure whilst other businesses in the building closed their doors garment workers were forced to return to work. Big international and high street brands like: H&M, Walmart (parent brand of George at Asda), Benetton, Primark, JCPenny, Mango were involved in the collapse.
How should we respond to this? Some people reacted by boycotting these brands. Other people, in what I would loosely call the craft community, suggested the only response was to make your own clothes. Reasoning that the only worker who was harmed in the process of making that dress was you.
But a garment, any garment is only the sum of its parts. What I want to talk about is the real meaning of the phrase homemade. Before I go any further I want to say that I am not innocent in all this, I am not delivering this talk from on top of a high horse. So in the name of Full Disclosure here is a list of everything I am wearing today and where it came from. (for those reading this on my blog: Liberty dress, M&S underwear and tights, H&M cardigan, Gap vest, Kurt Geiger boots)
Lets take this dress as a starting point. The fabric is cotton from Liberty, from their classic Mauvey B Tana Lawn range. Its 100% cotton and milled in Lancaster in the UK. Although that doesn’t tell us where the cotton, one of the most energy inefficient and polluting crops in the world, comes from.
This level of transparency is actually quite rare. A more common situation is to buy fabric which is labelled without information about the supplier or the location in which it was made. This is definitely true of this polyester pencil skirt I made a few years ago, I can’t tell you where the fabric was produced or who made it.
Thread is just as important component of the sewing process, this dress was made with Coats Duet, 100% Polyester. Coats is originally a Scottish company which was founded in 1902 in Paisley. In the 1880s they moved their production base to America. Since then they have aggressively expanded becoming perhaps one of the biggest global brands that you have never heard of; “at home” in more than 70 countries and employ more than 20,000 people across six continents.
They are no strangers of controversy, in 2012 they were fined 110million euros by the for price fixing by the EU and in February 2012 were accused of forcibly detaining union leaders at a Bangladeshi factory over an industrial dispute.
They boast that one in five garments on the planet is held together using Coats thread. Which means most people in this room are wearing something made with their products.
The other leading global supplier of thread is Gütermann a German company which is also an international brand. Their website boasts they are present in 5 continents, 80 countries – Their slogan is the sinister “Gütermann is present wherever people sew”
Zips are also essential in the making of clothing. The zip in this dress is made by YKK who offer “total fastening solutions”. YKK is the trading brand of of YKK EMEA which makes fastenings and architectural fittings. The YKK Corporation employs over 40,000 people, operating in more than 70 countries worldwide.
Take a look at the zip on your clothing right now and it is likely that it has YKK stamped into the pull. And if your zip isn’t made by YKK, its probably made by Coats. Again no strangers to controversy YKK have also been fined for cartel price fixing activity by the EU, this time in 2007. They also themselves admit to a less than perfect environmental record in some of their factories.
Knitting has a similar story. I recently made my first sweater out of Lion Brand Yarn. The company was founded in 1878 and in the 1930s were one of the first companies to pioneer outsourcing production using oversees labour. Lion Brand make it difficult for you to find out where your wool was made. The jumper is made from Wool Ease, its 86% acrylic, 10% wool, 4% rayon and is made from a mix of “US and non US origin fibres”
In Britain the most popular wool brand is Rowan which markets itself as a “an ethically conscious brand, with an emphasis on creating luxury, premium yarns sourced from organic, natural fibres.”
Originally founded in Yorkshire in 1978 the brand is now owned by none other than Coats. Again look at their individual wools and outside of a few “British wool mark products” it is difficult to find out where they are made or where the fibres where sourced from.
Now I’m not claiming that Coats, Gutterman, YKK or Lion Brand have bad employment practices, simply that I have no way of proving otherwise. With the exception of Lion Brand, who are fantastically quiet on the subject, they all have statements on their website saying how ethically sound they are.
But talk is cheap. Just look at Bennetton at the same time as they ran their #UnHate campaign we now know they were also exploiting workers in Bangladesh.
So when does homemade really mean homemade and is it any better than something brought at Gap? As consumers we should have a choice and should be demanding transparency. The food industry in the last few years has made some amazing improvements and we now often know where our food comes from even if some of it is horse meat.
Supply chain transparency just isn’t there in the craft or fashion industry and more worryingly people don’t seem to be aware of the issue. You can buy local (these wrist warmers were made with handspun yarn from Shetland) but this is often difficult and expensive.
We should be able to make a choice about where our thread, fabric and wool comes from. Right now there is no guarantee they aren’t being produced in the same conditions as a Primark vest top made in Bangladesh.
Pecha Kucha Dundee is a fantastic event put together by Gillian and Lyall at Creative Dundee, you can find out more on the Creative Dundee website. A huge thank you to Gillian and Lyall for putting on an amazing event and inviting me to take part!