Stitched Up, The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion

If you have ever wondered where your clothes were made, grumbled over sky-high salaries among fashion’s corporate tops or sighed over fashion models always being so very thin – well, you’re not alone. Tansy Hoskins’ book Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion published in 2014 tackles the many-headed beast that is the global fashion industry.

Hoskins digs deep and goes wide. She looks into everything from glossy fashion magazines and high-end crocodile skin bags, to garment worker’s wages and union rights.

Most importantly, Hoskins dares to think big. Hers is a voice we need to hear.


Against capitalism

“People are far removed from the production of the clothes they wear. The average high street shopper will never experience 20 years of picking cotton in sweltering heat or working in a polyester factory in Zhejiang. This gives the impression that clothes exist independently both of people and of nature.” (Stitched Up, p. 97)

The problems of the fashion industry are many and Hoskins tackles them one by one: great economic disparities, exploitation of garment workers, devastation of natural resources, unhealthy beauty ideals, consumerism and waste. Yet the main problem, she argues, is the profit-driven capitalist economy on which the whole industry rests.

Look at these economic facts taken from the book:

  • The profits accumulated in the fashion industry are huge – £759 million for Zara and £2.5 billion net for LVMH (Moët Henessy Louis Vuitton) in 2011 (p. 69).
  • The wages of garment workers could be doubled without there being a noticeable impact on the price of clothing, accounting for only 1-3% of the price the consumer pays (p. 87).
  • In 2009 North Americans discarded 300 million pairs of shoes, yet some 50 million Americans live below the poverty line and another 100 million subsist on a low income (p. 53).

Hoskins’ view is of a capitalist system fundamentally based on inequality, where status quo serves the wealthy few. As long as maximising short-term profits is the main incentive of fashion corporations they will squeeze costs where they can. Business as usual, then, inevitably means cheap labour, exploitation of natural resources, increasingly high turnovers and fierce advertising.


Why I don’t believe in a rosy Marxist future

Hoskins envisions collectively owned garment factories. There would be safe working conditions and feasible working hours, no over-production and clothes would be valued for their use, not merely as a commodities to be sold. All this would be secured through collective participation and democratic voting.

I am not immediately convinced. Would it be a centrally planned economy, then? Who would work in garment factories and where would their income come from?

If we are to overthrow the capitalist economic system that fuels the fashion industry, we better know what we are doing. The same economic system is integral to almost all aspects of our lives – food, housing, jobs, transport, health care and welfare.

Know thy enemy. So, what exactly is capitalism? And how are we better off without it?

Perhaps surprisingly to critics of capitalism, profits are not solely connected to devastation of natural resources and exploitation of workers. In fact, a fairly recent study from Harvard Business School shows that companies with a serious sustainability agenda tend to outperform those without. Environmental and social sustainability seems profitable, and economic prosperity is in turn integral to human welfare.

Reality is complex and capitalism is extremely hard to define. We should be wary of throwing it overboard without knowing what we are doing. But nor should we conclude that everything is fine just as it is. It is not.

While I certainly do share Hoskins’ sentiments that a lot is wrong with the fashion industry and our current economic system, I don’t share her trust in a rosy Marxist future as the all-encompassing solution.

But we need to think big and ask difficult questions. And Hoskins dares do that.

Women and making

Hoskins is no advocate of the handmade movement.

“Women have fought to free themselves from the domestic yoke; an ideal society would not send them back to it. Home-alone knitting is neither the most efficient nor enjoyable way to make socks, It represents a triumph of individualism over collectivity.” (Stitched Up, p. 193)

Yes, I am a woman who happens to knit socks at home. Ouch. Thankfully, it is not something I have to do because I am a woman or because I cannot clothe myself or my family otherwise. It is something I choose to do because it reconnects me to the materials and garments I wear. And yes, I do actually enjoy it.

Knitting by hand is certainly not as time and cost efficient as producing machine knits in a factory, but when did efficiency become the defining standard for all things good and valuable? And why on earth is Hoskins championing efficiency when she simultaneously argues for the downfall of capitalism? Efficiency is perhaps the one thing capitalist economic markets actually do extremely well. Equality, no. But efficiency, yes.

Yet, she raises interesting questions. Questions worth thinking about.

Why are there so many women knitters and sewers and so few men? On the other hand, why does Hoskins, along with many before her, rush to the conclusion that traditionally female domestic work is of little value?


Ethical fashion

On ethical fashion, Hoskins is clear: reform is not enough. What is needed is a revolution.

Again, she raises interesting questions: Is it really up to consumers alone to force change? What about the many who cannot afford to choose ‘ethical fashion’? Why are individuals and small businesses offering ethical fashion as a solution (*ahem* or bloggers writing about their personal quests for sustainable clothing), yet so few are campaigning for political change collectively and on a grander scale?

“Ethical consumerism can cement people’s identity as passive consumers rather than active citizens. Life is about more than just retail and we must not allow all major functions of society to be subordinated to the task of shopping.” (Stitiched Up, p. 172)

Why, oh why, is not all clothing ethically made in the first place?

Sharp, visionary and brave, Stitched Up makes you think. It is well worth a read, whether you share Hoskins’ conclusions or not. It provides food for thought, and that is something we need more of.

Have any of you read it? What did you think?

The True Cost

Shima and her daughter, from The True Cost. Image  source .

Shima and her daughter, from The True Cost. Image source.

Next week is the fashion revolution week brought about as a response to the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh on April 2013, where 1,134 garment workers were killed and 2,500 injured. With the fashion revolution week the aim is to raise awareness and push for transparency.

The documentary The True Cost serves as a reminder of why transparency and awareness is so important. It is a powerful, eye-opening and heart-wrenching insight into the dark depths of the fashion industry. It is meant to provoke. And it does! It evokes all the emotions. Yet, I wish it was also truly thought-provoking.

Is it worth watching? Yes. Does it provide any answers? No.

The awful truth

Shocked isn’t really the right word to describe how I felt watching this. Many of the facts presented were things I already sort of knew: like Bangladeshi women spending long hours sewing clothes for Western consumers in over-crowded, sometimes unsafe factories. Like, the near non-existence of unions. Like, factory owners cutting corners and governments ignoring workers’ rights, due to cut-throat competition and a desperate need for business. Like, cotton crops being heavily fertilised and rivers being polluted by chemicals and dyes. Like, clothing heaping up on landfills. Like, shops adding new stock every week and consumers buying more clothes than ever before.

I wasn’t shocked, exactly. But watching this brought it all so close.

I was right behind Shima, the Bangladeshi factory worker, as she walked through the dusty alleys of the Dhaka slum holding her daughter by the hand. I sat beside her in the factory as she sewed, and I listened to her story in the dark of the night in her tiny shack. My skin crawled when I heard how she was beaten by the factory management for organising a union. My heart broke as she said no-one could love a child like a parent, but still her daughter would have to live with her relatives in the countryside. She would see her once a year.

I was stunned with horror as environmental activist Vandana Shiva explained the vicious cycle of debt so many Indian cotton farmers were falling into with the large seed and fertiliser companies. The common tale was of farmers’ bodies being found in the fields after having drunk a bottle of pesticide to end their lives. A staggering 250,000 recorded farmer suicides in India in the last sixteen years – the largest recorded wave of suicides in history.

Heart pounding and thoughts racing, my first reaction to watching this documentary was to never ever buy a garment again without being sure – absolutely certain – that it had not contributed to this rotten-to-core, exploitative system.

The bigger picture

The documentary touches on the systemic nature of the problem: Fast-fashion brands secure their segment in an over-saturated market precisely because they offer fashion cheap and fast. Corporations’ primary incentive is to make this financial quarter better than the last. Adverts seduce us by promising what they cannot give: happiness, love, security, fulfilment. Charities cannot absorb the amount of clothing donated, leaving developing countries flooded with clothes no-one else will wear and their local textile industries undermined. The ecological and human costs of pollution are left unaccounted for. And structural poverty, affecting millions of textile- and garment workers, is perpetuated through desperate choices veiled as free will in a so-called free market.

This is the discussion we need to have. We need to look at the complicated layers of freedom and force that make up the global fashion industry. However, stilted shots shifting between scenes of American consumers in Black Friday shopping frenzy and exhausted Bangladeshi factory workers sitting by their sewing machines, offers no framework to think anew.

The big questions are as difficult as ever: capitalism, globalisation, materialism, ecology, poverty.

Cotton farmer, from The True Cost. Image  source .

Cotton farmer, from The True Cost. Image source.

Towards change

According to this review, director Andrew Morgan deliberately offers no clear answers in the documentary and is proud the film trusts people to feel and think for themselves. I hope people will think for themselves. But I fear they will feel they are just a tiny cog in a huge economic machinery they can do nothing to change anyway.

As the consumers on the top of fashion’s food chain, we need to feel we can contribute to positive change, not merely be pacified by emotional overwhelm, horror and guilt. For, how has our materialist culture taught us to deal with emotional overwhelm? Swallow it up – distract yourself – by consuming: fashion, entertainment, food, whatever. Go shopping. Don’t think. Just do it.

Through The True Cost documentary we do get some clues as to how we can become better consumers. In-between the grimy and awful we follow Safia Minney, founder of the fairtrade clothing label People Tree, in her work to produce organic clothing and secure better living conditions for worker communities. Eco-designer Stella McCartney tells us that the consumer is in charge, and that if we don’t like it, we don’t have to buy into it. Vincent Stanley of Patagonia says they aim to educate customers to think twice and to question the cultural assumption that equates stuff with happiness.

Choose organic cotton. Shop less and more consciously. Right, got it.

But, I’m already pretty into that sort of thinking. What disappoints me with the documentary is that it gives no further direction forward. How can I be sure I am not contributing to an exploitative system, even if I do choose organic cotton and shop less?

I miss a framework for making sense of this huge problem, not just stilted shots of doom. I miss the grey-scale, not just the usual black and white character plot with evil multinational corporations, victimised workers and shopaholic consumers. I miss a discussion around shared responsibility and the possibility for change. Still, circling in on the whole, thorny issue of the globalised fashion industry in only one and a half hour of film is an achievement in itself.

If you’re already convinced that something is wrong with the fast fashion industry, watching this will confirm it. If you’re not yet convinced, you might be. So, if you haven’t seen it, do! And please chime in with your thoughts!