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Who Made Your Clothes?

If you're into fashion and you were paying any attention to social media over the past several weeks, there's no way you missed hearing about Fashion Revolution Week. An annual event running April 24-28, Fashion Revolution Week centers around the #whomademyclothes campaign, when consumers and sustainability advocates call for greater transparency in the fashion industry, and celebrate brands who have made the extra effort to ensure their clothing is ethically manufactured. The event was founded after 1,134 people were killed and over 2,500 injured in the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh on April 24th, 2013. As the deadliest garment-factory accident in history, the event has had far-reaching implications throughout the complex and highly distributed global fashion world.

Various well-known brands such as Benetton, The Children's Place, Walmart, and Primark had outsourced clothing production at the Rana Plaza facility, and for a brief moment, global press coverage brought the public's attention to the subject of negligent working conditions overseas. The fallout was sufficient enough to push some large brands to reexamine their supply chains and require better health and safety regulations in their factories. While in many cases only limited reforms have been implemented, the tragedy has sparked a broader conversation about the human and environmental costs of fast fashion and for some, a questioning of the assumed benefits of globalization and world trade.

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The push for greater sustainability and accountability in apparel production is more than just a public awareness campaign by activists concerned about overseas labor conditions. Some of the impetus for change comes from consumers who are fed up with the environmental and human costs of cheap fashion, and are choosing to selectively purchase from brands with a cleaner record. In other cases, designers are questioning the get-rich-quick fast fashion business model, grounding their work in an ethics-based approach to design and manufacturing. Some emerging brands are even opting out of global manufacturing entirely, pledging to make or assemble product solely in the United States, a choice which provides greater regulatory control and sometimes faster production timetables.

What remains to be seen is whether, in the context of one of the world's dirtiest industries, there is such a thing as an entirely new way of doing business?

The new model, sometimes called "slow fashion" (think "slow food") aims to give equal weight to the drive for profit-driven results as to safe labor conditions, fair wages, and environmentally friendly materials and production processes. In other words, as the site for the Fashion Revolution describes it, "an industry that values people, the environment, creativity, and profit in equal measure."


While critics claim the term "slow fashion" is merely a buzz-word, the phrase operates as more of a catch-all for a range of new approaches to apparel production and consumption. On the producer side, some brands are orienting away from trend-driven production cycles and more toward factors such as product durability, waste-reduction, recycling, labor reforms, clean water, green energy, carbon reduction, and more. From one brand to the next, the approach can differ radically, but the common thread is a commitment to measure success by something more than solely profit margins. 


Slow fashion shoppers generally avoid trend-driven purchases and focus instead on classic, more durable goods. Like slow food consumers, they are concerned with the origins of the "ingredients" of the pieces they buy, and make their purchasing decisions based on more factors than style and low price. For some, this may look like good old-fashioned minimalism, or the kind of thrifty utilitarianism your grandparents were known for. 

Thinking about the tragedy of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh gives us pause to consider the dark side of the cheap and trendy goods that fill the shelves of our local big-box stores. It may seem overly ambitious to attempt to reimagine an industry of such enormous proportions as the global fashion industry. But, as every entrepreneur or mountain climber knows, an insurmountable challenge is only achieved one step at a time, with a little faith and vision to guide the way.

In the second part of this article, we'll be returning to the city of Lowell, Massachusetts to examine one project that is building a "test kitchen" of sorts for new designers experimenting with the range of slow fashion techniques.