Do I have to say that it’s beyond me why studies in sustainability and ethical production haven’t yet been made a fixed part of the academic program of all fashion schools calling themselves ‘forward thinking’ in the 21st century? If you read Tansy Hoskins’ Anti-Capitalist book of Fashion, Stitched-up, you’d learn all about the capitalist relations of production, marketing and consumption that make the fashion industry one of the top biggest devastators of the planet. In case you won’t, we made this interview where we talk with Tansy, an investigative journalist for the Guardian, about her trip to Bangladesh factories, radicalism and being tortured for wanting a wage of 120 dollars a month.
What I get from this interview is that the Rolling Stones were wrong and time is definitely not on our side. It is not just fashion, but everyone has to consider their impact in contributing for pollution, resource depletion, inequality and make informed choices. Because I don’t want the future me to be filtering rain water, while wearing a gas mask thanks to some people 20 years earlier selling jeans and jumpers 5.99 a piece.
“We are literally facing a climate meltdown, and we need to be transforming the way we organize the industry. It takes a long time for courses to be rewritten, and most of the time, tutors don’t want to rewrite stuff. Students have to demand it.”
What are the fashion industry’s three major faults?
The current one that people are most aware of is the exploitation of humans in the supply chain. Obviously, it was brought to the public’s consciousness by the recent factory collapses and fires. There are four million young women working in Bangladesh for a wage that they can’t actually live on; producing enormous profits that they don’t benefit from. The second fault has to be the violations against the planet and environment. Fashion is the fourth worst water polluter in China out of all their industries. Essentially, the industry pollutes all the water that it comes into contact with during dyeing and finishing processes. Lastly, I’d say the visuals of the fashion industry: the way people are taught that if they don’t fit within a small set of aesthetics, they should be dissatisfied with their body. You’re too fat, dark or ugly; even those who have supposedly won the genetic lottery aren’t happy, because they have to maintain their bodies.
Is it essential for fashion universities to include such issues in their curriculum?
Universities need to step up. We are literally facing a climate meltdown, and we need to be transforming the way we organize the industry. It takes a long time for courses to be rewritten, and most of the time, tutors don’t want to rewrite stuff. Students have to demand it, and they can also do their own research. Things can be achieved outside of the curriculum. Students can organize their own events, stage their own sit-ins or occupations, and question and criticize the institution.
What do you have to say to those who are unconcerned?
It does concern them. The fashion industry is a system of unsettled debts to the environment. It acts like water is free, oxygen is free and the rainforest is an unlimited resource, and we get to the point that these debts are gonna get paid back at a terrifying price to humanity. If we do make changes in the fashion industry, it opens up a lot more possibilities for creativity and creative control on a more individual level. At the moment, the fashion industry is on a corporate lockdown. Most people don’t want to work on a design assembly line. It’s not creative.
“Radical now just means quite basic things like if you say women in Bangladesh should be paid a living wage.”
In Bangladesh, the garment industry makes up about 70% of the economy. It is hard to come up with a solution. If they raised the workers’ wages, mass production will continue to be an issue. If they stop mass production, their economy will probably collapse.
That’s why we need a global response to these problems. The Asia Floor Wage is a regional campaign that tries to make sure that there is a regionally consistent wage. Currently, we are witnessing a race to the bottom, where there is no limit to how low wages can go. But the Asia Floor Wage is about literally putting in something like a floor, a level beyond which, wages can’t be decreased. And I’d like seeing a global initiative of that — we have global initiatives on everything else but that.
Is a catastrophe necessary before we see any change?
The Rana Plaza was the watershed moment. It led to the Bangladesh Accord, which is a set of legally binding agreements on factory standards between multinational corporations and trade unions. Part of what I do is to change the way people think about fashion and themselves. We’ve been told repeatedly that the only way you change things is by consuming and shopping differently. We need to be working in solidarity with people in Bangladesh, as part of trade unions and pressure groups like ‘War on Want‘ and ‘Labour behind the Label’.
How can students engage in this issue?
Radical changes bring about material change. It’s not really radical unless you’re aiming towards something that can transform the lives of the people in Bangladesh. Those are the people I care about and I want to work alongside. I don’t give a toss about the factory owners or the brand or anything like that. I never found anything from a factory owner or a brand that I’d classify as radical. The weird thing is that radical now just means quite basic things like if you say women in Bangladesh should be paid a living wage. Like, “I think they should be paid 120 dollars a month,” is suddenly radical. Thats how bad things have gone. The campaign for next year will be the fight to get the minimum wage of up to 120 dollars and people will be killed for trying to do that. Buildings will be destroyed, people will be beaten up; tortured and arrested for it. You know it’s very strange… It’s not radical but things are so messed up that it is radical.
“We live in a time were people are more conscious about all kinds of different things that are going on in the world, and I feel that people want things to be different.”
Are you optimistic about the future?
There is no point in being pessimistic. I have spent some time in Bangladesh recently, particularly with the National Garment Workers Federation, which is the biggest Trade Union Federation around the garment industry. It was amazing to witness the ability and willingness of young women who marched along the streets against armed police officers. They come out in hundreds and thousands and they are really inspiring; garment workers across the world are tough as well. In Cambodia, for example, and in China organizing the biggest strike in recent Chinese History…. In Haiti and Indonesia there were ten-thousands of people defying their Governments… I’m optimistic. I’m also optimistic because we live in a time were people are more conscious about all kinds of different things that are going on in the world, and I feel that people want things to be different.
Could you imagine how the future might look like in 20 years time, if capitalism stays business as usual?
When I was in Bangladesh, we went to one of the biggest rubbish dumps in Dhakar, meeting the women who work as waste pickers because their farmland have been destroyed by flooding from the cyclones. Now they’re picking on that disgusting rubbish dump… I feel like the future is here. The kind of world I’d like to see wouldn’t involve the capitalist-driven profit system that we have. If no one was telling you that you’d have to go and make a billion units of clothing every single year, then nobody would sign up to work from 6 am to 11 pm for six days a week, like they do in Bangladesh. If you actually start to have democracy, then you can deal with all these problems. Who is it that needs that level of production? We sure as hell don’t! I have enough clothes to last a lifetime. Who is it that really benefits now? The shareholders and corporations. So, in terms of a good future: the sky is the limit.
Interview by Rozalina Burkova
Illustrations by Jade Pilgrom
Follow Tansy Hoskins on Twitter