When faced with the scale of injustice and corruption in the fashion industry, why try? Why would a group of students sit in the middle of Queen Street on a standard Saturday morning, attempting to sew new clothes from second hand fabrics? Because each time we make a purchase, we can choose either to support slavery, or to take a stand and say that human lives matter more than cheap clothes. Last Saturday, October 22nd, Just Love (a Christian student justice organisation) hosted a Sew-In, where students met for a few hours and made all sorts of garments – tops, slippers, a bag, a dress, shorts. We modelled these in a street photography style to comment on the way in which the fashion industry glamorises garments which may be beautiful, but may still have a very ugly story behind their creation.
In our globalised society, we rarely think about the people that make our clothes and other textiles. The supply chain is concealed and we only see the finished product.
Arjun, a child weaver in India, explains about the conditions in which he was enslaved, forced to work for no money: “Most days we were only given one break for eating and one break for toilet. If we tried to sleep, they would beat us. Sometimes they gave us pills so we can work all night. I felt so tired I cut myself often. If the blood from my fingers came on the carpet, they would take green chili and rub it on my wound for punishment.”
There are more than 45 million people in slavery in the world today, and many more working in conditions that are too terrible for us to imagine. Every time we buy something carelessly, we essentially say that their lives do not matter to us. Living ethically is important for many reasons, including person ones, but our choices also have the collective power to catalyse structural, long-term change. A senior executive from a big high street clothing company told the Guardian that shoppers ‘don’t care’ about conditions, and research that both reflects and dictates the current market shows most ‘prefer inexpensive items over respect for human rights’. For companies to change the way in which they work, we need to show that, as shoppers, we do care about human rights. Over the last few years significant steps have been taken, both by campaigners and companies, to expose exploitation and to improve working conditions throughout the supply chain, but there is still so much to be done. We need to join together, raising awareness, empowering and informing people and ultimately transforming the horrendous injustice that many of us unthinkingly propagate.
Our sew-in was in no way an attempt to imitate the horrific conditions that workers face. It would be insensitive short-sighted and patronising to draw comparisons. Rather, by sewing clothes in a public space, we wanted to remind shoppers of the hidden people behind the clothes that hang on rails.
We want to stand together in peaceful but uncompromising protest to say that we do see through the poor ethics of much of the fashion industry and, furthermore, the glamorisation of these clothes through publicity and the media, which come at an unacceptable cost to so many individual lives and communities. We want to bring people together in this stand against injustice and hold each other accountable for the many times that we fail and put our convenience above the lives of others. We want to change our habits, motives and expectations in the way that we live and shop, and challenge you to join us as we pursue equality, dignity and true beauty for our global neighbour.