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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. Her latest book is Hiding in Plain Sight: Exploring Scotland's ill health. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 02/08/2015

Having a life exchange experience is not a common occurrence on a Saturday afternoon but that’s what happened to me yesterday.

I had been asked to join the panel for a discussion on ‘the true cost’ of fashion which was part of Glasgow’s Merchant City Festival. The organisers had asked me to participate as I had given a TEDX talk on materialism and also written The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. In it I build on Professor Tim Kasser’s work on materialism. He defines materialism as the pursuit of materialist values, particularly money, fame and image/appearance. His work shows that the more we pursue these values the worse our well-being tends to be. The simple reason why materialism undermines well-being is that it takes us away from the things that really do matter - most notably relationships, a sense of meaning and purpose and engagement in stimulating activities.

In my book I devote a significant section to the current obsession with appearance and why this can undermine our sense of self. But this is tame, and almost irrelevant, when compared to the real victims of the fashion industry – garment workers and those suffering from the environmental damage caused by the production of clothes. This is no small group since clothing manufacturing is the world’s largest industries employing one in six of the global population.

‘The True Cost’ is in fact the name of a full length documentary on the fashion industry launched in June this year and shown at yesterday’s event. Quite simply it’s one of the most shocking, troubling films I’ve ever seen.  It’s a film which elicits strong emotions in viewers – anger, disgust and moral outrage - as well as an almost overwhelming sense of sympathy and compassion for the victims of the West’s lust for ‘fast fashion’. It would take a very callous person to sit through this film and not be moved to tears or driven to deep feelings of remorse and guilt about how our actions are destroying people’s lives.

The film tells the story of the West’s relatively recent obsession with cheap, throw-away clothes.  To satisfy the fashion monster stalking our high streets, and to keep prices low, we are exploiting poor, vulnerable people, mainly women, in countries like Bangladesh, India and Cambodia. We might think our desire for consumer goods, mainly clothes, is good for third world countries as it provides them with much needed jobs but in reality most of these workers are not being paid a living wage.

One heart searing story in the film is of Shimi, a garment worker in Bangladesh, who simply can’t afford to keep her eight year old daughter with her in the city. Shimi takes her back to her village and leaves her in the care of her own parents. This simple act has tragic consequences as she will be lucky to see her beloved daughter twice a year.

Many of these workers have to slave for hours every day to make their meagre wages. Sometimes they’re locked into the factory and forced to work to three in the morning to fulfill pressing orders. If they make mistakes, understandable given their exhaustion and the unreasonable pressure on them, they are physically and/or verbally abused by management.

When the workers try to protest or organise themselves into unions they face the sack and can even be attacked by government forces. One of the most memorable and shocking sequences in the documentary showed Cambodian garment workers protesting peacefully for a living wage being shot at by government troops. Seven people died and countless others were injured as a result of this single protest.

Westerners’ main exposure to the plight of garment workers churning out cheap clothes has mainly been confined to issues of building safety. Many of the factories have barred windows and there have been a number of horrific fires. In 2013 the safety issue dominated global news when over a thousand garment workers in Bangladesh died when the Rana Plaza factory they were working in collapsed on top of them. At Saturday’s event we also watched a twenty minute Australian documentary called ‘the Real Fashion Victims’. This followed up some of the survivors many of whom have amputated limbs or injuries so severe that they will never work again yet they have not received compensation from the companies whose orders they were working on.

And then there is the problem with toxins and environmental contamination. In some areas huge numbers of children are born with birth defects as a result of toxins used in various processes to fuel our fashion industry, particularly the production of leather.

Appearance matters to people – it always has and it always will as it is linked to social acceptability, sexual attractiveness (and therefore mating) and provides an outlet for creativity. But we have to find ways to satisfy our desire to look good that does not damage our environment and destroy the health and well-being of people in other countries.

The uplifting part of the event was hearing people talk about various initiatives to counteract the exploitative nature of the global fashion industry. In the film we heard about ethical clothing companies such as People Tree. I also liked the sound of a UK wide campaign called Love Your Clothes. It encourages people to think more about what they are buying and to buy fewer, more expensive clothes as well as to repair and recycle.

I have never been attracted to the idea of cheap, throw away clothes. I tend to wear my clothes for years rather than months but as soon as I got home I started to look at where the clothes in my wardrobe had been produced and I found a lot with India and Cambodia on the label.

I’m not sure yet what my Saturday afternoon epiphany means for my buying habits but one thing is certain it has changed my relationship with clothes for ever.


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