April 24 is Fashion Revolution Day -- an opportunity for us to reflect on the welfare of the workers who make the clothes we all wear. Starting at the stroke of midnight on Thursday, hundreds of thousands of ethically-minded fashion enthusiasts will be turning their clothes inside out and snapping selfies with the hashtag #whomademyclothes for Instagram or Twitter as missives to their favorite clothing companies.
The theory of change is that clothing companies will see this outpouring of consumer demand for transparency and release all sorts of information about where their clothes are being made (Bangladeshi sweatshop vs. Los Angeles resort/factory), who's making them (malnourished child vs. well-fed adult) and maybe even how much those people are getting paid ($2 per day vs. $15 per hour). Viva la revoluciￃﾳn!? Not quite.
Fashion Revolution Day made a splash in the social media universe last year and will probably do the same this year, but it's not going to get any real response from the fashion industry because of one, huge, fatal problem: most clothing companies have no idea who makes their clothes. Even if they wanted to tell us, they couldn't.
Clothing companies are in the business of manufacturing clothes, so shouldn't they know who's holding the needle and thread? Actually, the companies we think of as clothing manufacturers tend not to make anything at all. They design, market and sell clothing, but they don't actually make any of that clothing themselves. Instead, they contract with a vast network of independently owned factories that do the actual manufacturing.
What if the clothing companies just tell us which factories they're working with? Doesn't that basically tell us who's making our clothes? Wouldn't that be a Fashion Revolution Day success? For as long as we can remember, that's what has passed for transparency in the apparel industry -- the name and location of the factory hired to make a product, and maybe some photos of the factory floor. That's a step in the right direction, but it doesn't actually tell us who's making our clothes.
One reason for this is that the factory that's hired to make clothes may not be the factory that actually makes the garments. Subcontracting is common in the apparel industry, and many factories wind up sending work to other factories when they become too busy to do it themselves or when they find someone who can make the product more cheaply.
But there are bigger issues at play. When you imagine a clothing factory, you probably think of a large warehouse with lines of whirring sewing machines. That's called a cut and sew factory -- it's where pieces of fabric are cut into patterns and sewed into finished garments, and that's the factory that clothing companies interact with. It also happens to be the last step in a very long production process. Before the cut and sew factory there's generally at least one farm that produces cotton or wool, at least one factory that cleans that fiber, at least one factory that turns the fiber into yarn and at least one factory that weaves or knits that yarn into fabric. Many people are employed by each of those farms and factories in total obscurity, and they happen to be the ones who are subjected to the worst working conditions.
Cotton, for instance, is a slave crop. A large percent of the cotton on the world market comes from India and Uzbekistan, countries with rampant slavery in their cotton industries. That slavery isn't happening at the cut and sew level -- it's way down the supply chain at the level of farms, the gins and the spinning mills that turn cotton into yarn. Clothing companies have no contact with farms or gins or spinning mills, and accordingly have no idea who is working there or in what conditions.
Clothing companies can be secretive and guarded about where their clothes come from, and that gives the impression that they're hiding something about their supply chains. But, more often than not, the truth of the matter is that they just don't know much about where their products are made. That's unacceptable in a world where technology has made tracking and monitoring so cheap.
So what can we do about it? Fashion Revolution Day and the #whomademyclothes hashtag are just the first steps in a bigger movement. Clothing companies aren't going to spend money to learn about where their products are made unless consumers force them to do so, and asking them #whomademyclothes shows them you're thinking about it.
But don't stop there -- to create real change, the companies need to know that transparency is a consideration in every purchase, not just a fleeting social media demand. So figure out some more directed questions to ask (like "what are your labor policies for the farms that provide your wool/cotton") and ask those questions every single time you buy clothes. Talk to the store sales staff, pose the question on the company's social media accounts, email their executives and start petitions on sites like Change.org.
And, of course, reward the companies that engage with your questions (even if they don't have the answers) and stop buying from the ones that don't. If we, as consumers, show that we're interested in this information, not just one day of the year but all of the time, the industry will find a way to give it to us -- so ask #whomademyclothes on April 23, then keep asking it until we get actual answers.