Wednesday 23 June 2021

What Happens to Garment Workers if We Stop Buying Clothes?

But what will happen to garment workers’ jobs if we all stop buying fast fashion? This is a question that gets asked time and time again to people in the slow fashion movement, often by people who are genuinely concerned and don’t want to perpetuate even further harm. However, the slow fashion movement is not just about boycotting fast fashion – it’s about building a better world founded on the principles of intersectional equality and anti-capitalism. It’s about uplifting the voices of garment workers rather than stopping the production of clothes altogether. 

There are so many ways to maintain and create jobs for garment workers whilst also slowing down production and improving workers’ rights. 


Garment workers are key to a circular economy. In this system, the materials and fabrics already in existence as part of garments would be reworked into new items or enhanced versions of their previous selves. The skills required to do this successfully are those owned by the millions of garment workers worldwide. Not only would this involve reworking old clothes, it would also mean a shift to a focus on repair and revival. One brand that is known for doing this well is Patagonia (I’m not linked with Patagonia in any way, they’re just a brand who are well known for being all round pretty good). Not only do they resell their secondhand items in their ‘Worn and Wear’ collection, they also run a repair system. You can simply bring an item into one of their shops or post it to their repair based in Reno, and they will return it to you all fixed! They also have tutorials for various kinds of self-repair on their website, if you want to give it a go yourself. In addition to these initiatives, in non-Covid times, Patagonia also run repair tours across the US, where they go to towns, set up for the day and repair people’s clothes. In a recent episode of Emily Stochl’s Pre-Loved Podcast, Patagonia’s Head of Secondhand Alex Kremer discussed these processes in more detail and the joy when he discussed the garment workers who go on tour with Patagonia was infectious. If you want to learn more about how it all works, I would highly recommend listening to that episode! Granted, Patagonia are based in USA and as far as I’m aware you can only take part in their repair scheme or tours if you’re also in the USA (or it will at least be much more difficult to take part if you live anywhere else), but their business model is something I would love to see replicated by brands across the globe. 


While the focus in a circular economy should be on reusing and repairing, we will always need new clothes. Let’s be frank here, there are some items that we just shouldn’t buy secondhand. Name me one person who would happily wear secondhand underwear (also read as: socks and tights, and personally I wouldn’t want secondhand swimwear although I have seen some in charity shops.) It’s a no from me. So yes, garment workers will still have new things to make in addition to work on repairs and reusing old items.


While moving away from the fast fashion model, all aspects of the supply chain have to be considered and all aspects of the supply chain will benefit. Garment workers will be paid at least a living wage if not more (brands can certainly afford it, they have no excuse) and will be able to spend more time on one garment without the pressure to reach extremely high quotas every single day. This will not only be better for their physical health but also their mental health, as they will be able to eat properly, have time to sleep the hours and socialise with friends and family, and will be less likely to suffer abuse at the hands of supervisors who are in turn pressured by brands. A move away from harmful chemicals (like many dyes) and trend-based processes such as sandblasting (the literal blasting of sand particles onto denim to give jeans a ‘worn’ and bleached look) will be better for the health of garment workers, the environment, and consumers alike. Slow fashion is by no means passive, it is a holistic vision of a better fashion future, actively pushing for the increased welfare, wages and job security of garment workers, of better treatment of the planet, and of better relationship between us and the clothes we wear. It is not simply ‘not buying clothes’, it is pushing back against the capitalist system and demanding change.


As was noted in a recent Remake Community Call discussing the #NoNewClothes campaign, not buying clothes, or at least heavily reducing our consumption of them, is a way to free up our time (and our wallets) so that we as consumers and citizens can focus more on creating change by lobbying the brands who hold power within the supply chain. I know at least for me, slowing down my consumption has lifted some of the pressure I felt to keep up with trends and ‘fit in’, as well as a created a closer link with my own personal style and identity, and appreciation of the work of the people who made the clothes I love.


Degrowth in fashion is a good thing for everyone on all ends of the supply chain and brands need to be held to account and forced to slow down. And the supposed justification for fast fashion that it ‘provides jobs’ will never be valid so long as the jobs in question are highly exploitative and often amount to little more than slave labour. 

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If you liked this post you might like: 50 Questions to Ask Your Favourite Fashion Brands

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