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If you could change one thing about the fashion industry, what would it be?

17 Dec 2019

In a new series of interviews, Better Work hears from people along the length of global garment supply chains for their perspective on the industry, the issues it faces, and its future.

Have you ever played the game queen (or king) for a day? Imagine for a moment you are made the supreme ruler of the world’s clothing and footwear industry – what would you do to improve it? That’s one of the questions Better Work put to people up and down the supply chain in our interview series Voices from the Supply Chain. From sewing machine operators and factory owners in Indonesia and Jordan, through to fashion designers and models in Milan, to a 12-year-old shopper from Australia, we wanted to know how they feel about the people behind the clothes they make, wear and sell.

Claire Anholt of Better Work explained the thinking behind the series, “The idea came from one of our team members in Vietnam. They wondered what questions a consumer at the end of a supply chain would ask of someone who makes clothes at the beginning and vice versa. It made us think of how it would be great to hear from those who are actually involved in the industry, as well as those like us who work on the industry.”

Interviewees from inside and outside of the business were asked similar questions. Some were personal – what is your favourite item of clothing? – others professional – what direction will the industry take over the next ten years?

Prominent labour economists Dr Drusilla Brown of Tufts University and Dr Kelly Pike of York University in California are among those whose interviews will be posted over the coming weeks. They responded with guarded optimism about recent trends. “Buyers and retailers… are starting to see the social value of improving compliance (on labour standards),” said Pike. Brown points to Jordan as a major success story. “When you look at Jordan you see the power of trade – huge improvements in working conditions and leaders who decide they want to change the nature of their industry.”

As to their favourite clothes – for Brown it is a red matte jacket, while Pike loves her warm, fluffy house robe.

Jordanian factory owner Awadallah Diab Abu Zaid is confident the global industry will continue to grow, but he is cautious about the future. “The garment profession is a non-static one, it is continuously moving to the countries that can best host it.”

For the series, Better Work spoke with a number of factory workers, including Wijdan in Indonesia who is working as a sewing machine operator to fund her degree in sociology. Her working day starts early, at around 7.30am, but she told us she enjoys both the job and the sense of community the factory offers. Balqees, a Bangladeshi working in Jordan explained that she left behind a husband and seven-year-old son who she helps support. When asked what she would say if she saw someone wearing the clothes that she has made she answers simply “I might not say anything. It would be a proud moment for me.”

Ryaz from India is also working in a Jordanian factory. He too provides for his family back home, “…since my father died, I have taken on the responsibility of providing for my household,” he said. When asked about spotting someone wearing one of his garments he replied, “I would ask them if they liked the pattern, the quality and technique – because I made it!”

Regarding what’s next for the sector, some, like Better Work Director Dan Rees, saw technological change as a potential disrupter for the industry over the next decade. Predictions were varied and not everyone sees the future of garment manufacturing as sustainable. Australian ethical fashion journalist Megan O’Malley imagines a future without global garment supply chains. She would like to see “garment workers out of making garments and into sustainable employment that doesn’t involve finite resources… we can’t sustain this high-volume manufacturing, it creates crazy amounts of waste,” she warns.

Ultimately, the industry is a competitive one, with national and international market forces often placing downward pressure on producers. Interviewees were asked if they would be prepared to pay more for items where they knew that working conditions were good. For Chinese design student Si Xu, the answer is yes. She likes to buy fewer items but ones where she can count on the quality. “I think it is worth paying more for clothes if the workers producing them are treated fairly,” she says. However, for Rosa Nivarra Espinosa, a caregiver from Ecuador, the price is important, “The most crucial element for me is how affordable the items are,” she told Better Work.

Voices from the Supply Chain can be found on the Better Work website where new interviews will be posted regularly.

If you work in the industry and are interested in taking part in our series please contact us to find out more about how to share your perspective.

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