24 April, 2014

From cotton fields to cutting floors: it’s time to revolutionise the fashion industry

by Rachel Hearson, Account Manager for Major Retailers Cotton at the Fairtrade Foundation

Rachel Hearson, Fairtrade Foundation Account Manager for Major Retailers Cotton, recounts her own personal journey into the lives of cotton farming communities and speaks about how UK shoppers are now demanding that the people making their clothes get a fair deal.

cotton farmersMy background is in the clothing industry. For many years I worked alongside designers, sourcing the best possible on-trend cloth for our brand.  The priority was always to get the right quality product at the best price and, most importantly, to deliver the best possible margin for the company.  

If we didn’t like the prices we were being quoted by suppliers, we told them to come back with a lower offer. Looking back, I realise how unaware I was of the effect my buying decisions were having. I didn’t think about the impact on the most vulnerable people who are involved in making our clothes, right down to the cotton farmer at the end of the supply chain.

When I came to work at the Fairtrade Foundation, finding solutions to address poverty for the smallholder farmers who grow our cotton in Africa and India seemed the logical place to start. I started to understand the brutal effect which cost cutting can have in the fields where cotton is grown. 

The reality of other horrors in the clothing industry was also brought into focus one year ago today (24 April), when the Rana Plaza clothing factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed, leading to the deaths of 1,133 garment workers and injuring many more.

I sat and watched on TV as that workplace crumbled and felt its message could not be clearer: the decisions we make on this image conscious side of the world when we go shopping are not carried out in a vacuum. Unless we think of others as well as ourselves, those living in poverty will continue to suffer.

I have to admit to some embarrassment that in my previous ‘life’ I didn’t think about the lives of the cotton farmers when I pushed for a better deal from our suppliers. I have now met smallholder cotton farmers and know they are every bit as important as the workers in the garment factories.

Our shopping decisions have an impact from farm to wardrobe, from the people who make our clothes to the people who grow them.

Mali cottonIn Mali, I have seen for myself the difference for farmers between scraping a living and receiving the Fairtrade Minimum Price. I handed over T-shirts to the farmers made using cotton that could be traced back to their farming communities  and realised  they had never before seen the products their cotton goes into. How proud they were of their contribution.

Thanks to Fairtrade, the farmers built a health centre, which means pregnant women no longer have to walk 25 miles for check-ups and to give birth. This was a huge development for them. The message was loud and clear: help us to sell more of our cotton on Fairtrade terms so we can give our children a secure future. 

The difference in what we as consumers pay for Fairtrade is small yet it can change lives dramatically. And today we can do something which costs nothing. 

Today is Fashion Revolution Day. The Fairtrade Foundation has joined big names in the fashion industry to call for a better deal for those whose hard work, low pay and unsafe working conditions lie behind many clothing labels. Fashion lovers are being asked to show their support for farmers and workers in the textile industry by wearing an item of clothing inside out, showing the label, posing the question, ‘Who made your clothes?’  They are then being asked to photograph it and share it on social networks with the hashtag #insideout. This is our signal that the public wants the industry to change. 

More than 60 per cent of companies don’t know where their garments are made, a recent survey showed. Another revealed around 80 per cent of shoppers do not believe UK clothes companies are transparent enough about their supply chains, including conditions in the workplaces they use and the wages of those people they employ.  Three out of four shoppers said they would pay an extra 5 per cent for their clothes if there was a guarantee that workers were being paid fairly and worked in safe conditions. 

Fashion Revolution Day should become an annual event used to say ‘no’ on behalf of farmers and workers who need our support and for us to do all we can to highlight the lives and rights of what’s being called ‘the invisible workforce’ behind our clothes. This is the time for us to revolutionise the thoughtless industry churning out the glamour on our backs.

Read more about Fashion Revolution

Read more about Fairtrade Cotton

Get involved by tweeting your questions about Fairtrade cotton to @FairtradeUK from 1 - 2pm BST 24 April, or asking who made your clothes by tweeting @Fash_Rev and your clothing company using #InsideOut

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