By Ellen Ambags, Programme Associate for Women’s Funds
Going through my wardrobe I see labels stating ‘Made in India’, ‘Made in China’, ‘Made in Bangladesh’. I think about the countless stories I have read and heard from the women workers who make my clothes. Stories shared with us by garment workers’ organisations in Asia that are supported by Mama Cash. Stories that are hard to read and hear, about horrible working conditions, unsafe workplaces, extremely low wages for extremely long work days, abuse by supervisors, and, yes, also about women who die. All this while making my clothes.
I shiver when I hear these stories, when I think about those women. I admire their strength to unite in their organisations and stand up for their rights. I am proud that I work for an organization that supports their struggles. And still I buy the clothes they make. Why do I continue to buy these cheap-labour clothes, made under the conditions which these brave women fight against?
For many years I boycotted the so called ‘fast fashion’ stores, like H&M. I checked the labels before trying on clothes that I liked. If it said it was made in a country in Asia, I would not buy it. That was my statement, my contribution to these brave women workers’ struggles.
A conversation with one of the garment worker activists led me to stop this practice. She leads a women workers’ union in South Asia which is supported by Mama Cash. She herself has been jailed several times for the activism she does. She knows all the lived experiences of the women who make our fast fashion. She told me that a boycott will not help the workers. On the contrary, if no one would buy the clothes they produce anymore, they would lose their jobs. This would make their life more difficult. She advised me to keep buying the clothes, also at fast fashion stores. But to also, as a customer, demand from stores and brands to produce their clothes in a better way. To demand better and safer working conditions for the clothes they sell. She advised me to ask critical questions. To continue doing that, all the time. And to persuade other customers to do the same. If enough customers were critical like that, that would pressure the stores and brands to seriously look into the working conditions of the women who make their clothes.
She convinced me. Big time. She was so right. And she knows best. She is the expert.
So I started going to H&M again. Happy to be able to buy nice, hip, happy clothes for my two little girls. And happy and relieved for my wallet too. This saves a lot of money. And the activist from South Asia told me this was okay, right? Right? No, it is not right. I only took half of her advice. So why do I not go any further?
Part of the reason is that I do not fully believe that my critique will actually contribute to improved working conditions for the women who make my clothes. Well, the truth is that my critique alone will not make that difference. But if many other customers started critiquing as well, started asking questions and demanding accountability from fast fashion stores and big brands, then something could happen. Together, we have the power to change things. We as customers should also unite and stand strong. We should demand that our nice, hip and happy clothes be made under fair, safe and just circumstances. Then I could go through my wardrobe, seeing the labels stating ‘Made in India’, ‘Made in China’, ‘Made in Bangladesh’ and I would know that the women who made these clothes had good working conditions. And I would have joined forces, from where I am, with the many brave women workers who fight for exactly that. And this was exactly what the women workers’ union leader from South Asia was talking about.