Brands want us to focus our campaigning on personal choice. It obscures a range of other complex issues and too often the actions that would directly help garment workers are sidelinedby Emma Gleeson / July 13, 2020 / Leave a comment
Every day I walk past a street sculpture engraved with a quote from my fellow Irishman Oscar Wilde: “The truth is never pure and rarely simple.” I cannot see it without thinking of the fashion industry’s eye-wateringly complex supply chains, and how our efforts to reform them are falling far too short.
The recent revelations that fashion retailer Boohoo has been operating “dark” clothing factories in the UK where workers at paid as little as £3.50 an hour has shocked many. It is truly abhorrent that people could be forced to work in unsafe conditions—in the middle of a global pandemic, no less— and that they are paid barely half of the minimum wage to do so. But to me, as someone who has worked in this area for years, such revelations are sadly unsurprising.
In 2011 I completed a masters degree exploring the psychological effects of the fast fashion industry on female consumers. I went on to work with the Environmental Justice Foundation on their organic cotton campaign and later with Redress, a sustainable fashion collective based in Dublin. I quickly realised that talking about sweatshops made people switch off. That word has lost its power to shock. I altered my approach and instead championed the idea of buying less, buying second hand, and buying local. At the same time, I understood that championing consumer choice as the best route to systemic change is an idea rooted in neoliberalism, an ideology that places individual choice at the core of our moral universe while minimizing attention to the broader power imbalances that prop up inequality. Understanding this contradiction can help us refocus our efforts to push for justice for garment workers.
In spite of my reservations, I do believe that individual choices matter. I’ve recently written a book about sustainable decluttering, looking at how we can change our attitudes to what we own, what we buy, and how we dispose of what we no longer need. It would be a pretty implausible backtrack to not encourage everyone to buy less and buy better if they have the means to do so. But if this behaviour is not accompanied…