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.
“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?
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?