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Self Esteem: Wearer and worker politics are connected

Fashion commentator and founder of All Walks Beyond the catwalk Caryn Franklin on the importance of ethical fashion.

Is there is such a thing as Fashion Karma? Imagine for a minute, that the clothes you pick out, transfer their energy to your skin or your store. Could the conditions in which they have been made affect your self-esteem or that of your customers?

Those of us who have been around as long as I have, believe that fashion has the power to influence us in many ways. However, it’s not always a recognition we make collectively.

Our formulaic thinking around the unachievable body ideals we routinely promote is an example. We could endorse a female-friendly message by using a range of bodies. Why, in the face of convincing research by Dr Ben Barry from the Judge Business School at Cambridge University, recording that women display increased ‘intentions to purchase’ when shown an aspirational model who looks more like them, do we insist on sticking with the ubiquitous streamlined teen – Caucasian of course, to engage mature or ethnically diverse and/or curvaceous women? Could we ask ourselves if this might effect your customer’s self-esteem or whether it is the most effective way to encourage sales?

But I digress. Having just returned from a research trip in Bangladesh with People Tree, I’m more mindful than ever that fashion and self-esteem are inextricably linked.

Meeting the relatives of those who lost their lives when the Rana Plaza building collapsed in Dhaka killing over 1,300 garment workers was my first task, and as woman after woman recounted her story I was overcome by disgust. A heartless dynamic that insists on inaccurately low-priced, fast turn-over garments, forcing women the other side of the world to foot the bill is not what I signed up for when I joined the fashion industry.

In the mid-eighties as the high street was taking off, I framed better access to well designed clothes as the democratisation of fashion for consumers. I was delighted at this progress, but I never dreamt in under 30 years it would descend to slavery and heartbreak on a daily basis for those who suply us.

One woman clutched her grandchildren. She had lost two daughters and her son in law. Her husband maimed in another unrelated industrial accident requires nursing too. The combined wages of her dead children kept them all fed and housed. Now the bread-winners are gone, she is without hope. It was impossible not to weep with her, and so I did.

A girl on walking sticks is missing a leg. Mangled and trapped by fallen masonry, she decided on the fourth day of waiting for rescue that the only way out was to force her own death and so she repeatedly smashed her scull against the concrete floor to hasten an end to her excruciating pain.

We learnt from her that there were large cracks in the building and frightened workers complained frequently that it was a death trap. They were protesting on the very day of the collapse, but were threatened with loss of wages for a whole month if they did not return to their stations to meet deadlines. The generator, wrongly sited on the second floor had created irreversible subsidence, but factory managers overlooked safety.

Minimal financial aid, enough for burials and a little food has been handed over by the government to some of the women we talked to but not all. The big question is where the promised compensation package by UK brands to aid their loyal workforce has gone.

It’s worth me checking in with you at this stage to test how you feel now? Anger and disbelief are things that rise quickly to the surface for me. We are all involved. You and I cannot separate ourselves from the 85% female workforce totalling 3.5 million workers in Bangladesh. We are talking about women whose self-esteem and well-being is at rock bottom.

But here’s something to make you feel much, much better. Next on my agenda was a 6-hour train journey to visit Thanapara Swallows where People Tree clothes are made.

I’ll describe it as an idyllic free-range compound for garment making using organic cotton and dyes. Children at the onsite school and creche rush their heroine Safia Minney [CEO of People Tree] with flowers and petal confetti.

The operation involving AZO free and natural dying, hand weaving, embroidery, pattern cutting and construction, supports hundreds of women, 70% of which are heads of household. Some have worked in Dhaka and compare the two experiences as poles apart.

One of the newer recruits to the People Tree team had even escaped the Rana Plaza tragedy uninjured. She talks of beatings, padlocked fire escapes, permanent sickness due to poor water supply, 16 hour days, seven day weeks and low wages. Then she smiles with satisfaction when asked to describe her current employment and invites us to her one room home with corrugated roof tied to bamboo poles with a traditional Bangladeshi kitchen outside. There is a freshwater pump outside, and she is happy to see her daughters in the evening now that her hours are standard. As sole bread winner, she can support her growing family

When I see her standing amongst her co-workers her pride in her work  is uplifting, and I can’t believe it isn’t oozing out of every thread she and her co-workers touch. And that is my point.

Fashion has the power to embolden the women who buy and the women who make it. Your power is in your ability to leverage the great relationships you have with your loyal customers to talk about the benefits of buying less at a better price, of feeling great about every purchase, of side stepping micro-trends and gimmickry in favour of a longer lasting, classic wardrobe, that has quality at its heart. Do you have conversations about Fair Trade Fashion and its benefits for the wearer as well as the maker? It could be time to add a People Tree story to you offer perhaps?

There’s an empowerment that comes with knowing you aren’t part of the problem because you have decided to become part of the solution. And that’s liberation and self-esteem for us all.

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