First it was Gap, click then Primark, and suddenly every shop on the high street was being accused of exploiting third world workers in Asia , Africa or even Eastern Europe during the 1990s up until today. The British high street rapidly became synonymous with “cheap clothes, cheap labour”. But what can we do about it? After all, we can’t all afford designer garb or find chic vintage pieces, the likes of Topshop and H&M are to an extent our only choice. However, in recent years the publicity and focus on fair trade has increased dramatically, as well as a push to improve wages and working conditions. As clothing manufacturers attempt to clean up the face of British fashion. One key factor behind this move has been the Clean Up Fashion project, working closely with the Labour Behind the Label coalition. Responding to the sense that, now, more than ever, society wants to know what is happening behind the scenes in order to make to change our current lifestyle of endless consumption. The Clean up Fashion website hopes to target companies who have made no steps towards better working conditions and pressure them into making the required changes.
The Clean Up Fashion project is a website established to generate awareness of the ongoing and still occurring exploitation of workers within the textile industry. Attempting to combat this through downloadable Take a Stand action cards as well as providing frequent reports investigating the deeper issues at hand. The website provides information about the many companies we buy from. Encouraging readers to contact stores to make them aware that the customer wants their clothes to be made in fair conditions. Alongside this, you can read up on other issues surrounding the garment industry, including what the workers themselves want and their requirements for a better standard of life. Finally you can make yourself heard by writing your opinions on the Let’s Clean up Fashion blog.
Essentially, this project provides education and the opportunity to stand up for people who may be unable to make themselves heard.
Whilst the project hopes to encourage and enact change within the industry, it does not endorse boycotting one store for another because of their ethics. Instead, Clean Up Fashion want to do improve the industry en masse through active consumer role play instead of allowing the situation to continue through passivity. Just because you don’t eat at McDonalds doesn’t mean that they will stop tearing down rainforests in Brazil to graze their cattle; and in the same way, refusing to buy a sweater from one shop in favour of another won’t stop sweatshop conditions. Big companies who were targeted back in the 90s by protesting customers made steps towards change, and this is what the project hopes to continue and fast track if possible. As a learning resource, the website gives you the power to make informed complaints about the issues at hand, and to hopefully make someone at the top listen.
What are the issues at hand? Well, there is the living wage, summed up fantastically by the Human Rights Article 25.1: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family”. However simple this might sound, companies and trade unions often disagree over universal living wages. One suggested way this can be avoided is through allowing workers and employers to come together to decide on a living wage. The disadvantage of this is that companies may simply move to exploit the next community instead; so an industry wide agreement is preferable to stop price-lowering competitiveness from cycling out of control. One country with such problems is Pakistan, where many young girls (80% of the garment work force is female) are the only employable members of their families for their low wages: “We work until 2 am or 3 am during the peak season. We always have to work a double shift. Although we are very exhausted, we have no choice. We cannot refuse overtime work, because our standard wages are so low.”
Piece-rate working is another difficulty, as workers cannot generate enough items per week to secure a living. Clearly, this is something that needs to be addressed quickly.
Another concern for Clean Up Fashion is the necessity of creating trade unions for exploited garment workers to ensure they have a voice within the industry to fight their corner. Trade unions provide security and confidence for people who might otherwise be too scared to speak out or might just be ignored. The set up of trade unions in Indonesia allows more workers to provide for their families with a higher wage, whereas the lack of them in rural north India allows poor working conditions to continue. Clean Up Fashion highlights the travesty of Cambodia and Turkey where the creation of trade unions has resulted in mass dismissal; problems that were resolved as a result of active campaigning in the UK that the project encourages.
In fact, it is estimated some 115 people were murdered for their involvement in trade unions in 2005. Social audits of working conditions have been shown to be useless in implementing change in factories. It is clear then through the concerns and issues raised on Clean Up Fashion that something needs to be done; the website is a fantastic resource to discover what is happening and how you can help.
Despite awareness of these issues, many companies on the high street still refuse to get involved with change; either by lack of acknowledgement or lack of urgency. The project categorises each company by what they have achieved and if it has responded to the campaign in any way.
For example, the website reported the following about Gap’s response: “Gap’s plans remain impressive in depth, with research completed and work now planned in seven countries. It is the one company to ensure that trade union rights are central to its plans, however, it has yet to start any real action on the ground to increase wages and needs to progress more quickly in this area.”
The notion of companies starting steps towards change but still needing a final push is the essential theme behind this campaign, and it is people like us who care about fashion that should be doing something about it to ensure we can wear our Topshop dresses without any pang of guilt.
For more information please visit the following websites:
Hidden away in the streets of a small residential area of Primrose Hill, approved you will find a little gem in the form of The Museum Of Everything. A short walk from Chalk Farm tube station, website a few little hand made signs posted up on a tree here and there guide you to this small wonder. Having no real idea of what to expect from this brand new venue, search I was more than pleasantly surprised. I’m greeted at the entrance by a tiny alter framed in fairy lights telling me that donations are welcome from ‘£1-£1million’ if you so wish and to place said donations into an unassuming tea cup. You immediately get the feeling that this is a humble little dwelling.
An aroma of jam, tea and scented candles takes me to the first room of the museum. Through a rainbow ribboned curtain I come to a projected film playing on a brick wall. A cluster of benches are fashioned as pews for anyone who wishes to sit down. Everything is quite mismatched and charming – a table sits in the corner providing a selection of breads, cereal and other breakfast fare. I almost forget that I’ve come to an art gallery. Two old dears behind the counter serving tea and cakes, randomly placed potted plants and jars of sweets and jam may otherwise suggest a village church craft fair.
This is indeed, curiouser and curiouser (I was so much surprised, that for the moment I quite forgot how to speak good English). Upstairs the exhibition truly begins in earnest with a small piece of writing on the wall, “ For these artists there are no studies, no press junkets, no art fairs, no magazine spreads. Instead there are treasure troves of untrained work, discovered under rocks in basements and attics, it’s creators often unaware their art will ever see the light of day”.
Enter under an archway into a low–lit cave and there are two nativity-like scenes. Created by Nek Chand, this piece shows a group of figures huddled together. The naïve faces are covered in an array of what looks like smarties and bon bons. One figure leans forward to you, lantern in hand and made up of what appears to be broken pottery.
What is so apparent and great about this place is that there are no pretentions. There are scuffs and cracks on the walls and floors, pictures are presented in a haphazard manner with no intention of hiding the supporting nails and fixtures. It is what it is. Which I found made it all the more pleasing. It’s hard to work out what this building may have been used for before, but walking through to the next room brought about memories of the corridors of an old primary school. The work of August Walla sits on one wall, colourful childlike drawings with flat, bold colours. The same is apparent with the art of Johann Hauser, displayed on the adjacent wall. There’s something about the way the framed art fluctuates so much in size and erratic in presentation that is quite endearing. I don’t feel under any pressure to form any grand or contrived opinions of the place I was in or the art I was looking at. Nor did I feel obliged by the stare of someone standing in the corner of a room to view the artwork quicker than I would like. I could leisurely enjoy everything at my own pace.
A network of adjoining corridors, descending staircases and rooms lead me to an installation by Judith Scott. You are confronted with a narrow passageway holding a small collection of suspended objects. Whatever they used to be before is now completely obscured by reams and reams of wrapped yarn. At first they appear to be animals but any defining features have been hidden. Quiet and still, these enigmatic creatures make me wonder, out of exactly what need were they born? The artist claims they come out of rituals and some kind of inner necessity. You can see that they have quite a powerful presence. So much so, they seem to almost have a divine quality that makes you want to just stand there and take them in.
The creators behind this museum clearly have a sense of humour. After several more rooms, I find myself in front of a bolted door with another handmade sign reading “Nothing” – just in case you were wondering what was behind the locked door. No sooner have you walked around the corner, another sign greets you reading “Everything”. Will this be what I have been promised from the beginning? Indeed, the open doorway leads to a descending staircase into an enormous, imposing space, warehouse big. Filled from floor to ceiling is a vast array paintings, illustrations and various other framed works. I think this might be the ‘everything’ part of the museum. Some are illustrations; small in size, intricate in detail and others are wall hangings that almost span the whole length of a wall. There is also the work of George Widener who, introduced by the museum’s curator James Brett, gave a small talk about the history behind his work.
As I leave, I see a final sign, “Last Thing” that hangs above the exit. I am once again back in the tea-scented room I started in. The Museum Of Everything easily exceeded any expectations I had. Quirky and modest with personal touches, the museum makes you feel comfortable and at home. Discovering this place is like a little secret that you want to keep all to yourself.
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