While I would not call myself a monarchist – there are far too many issues of inequality attached the the institution of monarchy for me to be comfortable with the idea- I do recognise the huge platform the UK royals, notably the young ones, have. Especially notable is the power they have to highlight important global issues. Given that fashion and clothing is where much of the focus is when the global gaze falls (with unrelenting frequency) on Kate Middleton (The Duchess of Cambridge), the opportunity to do good in that space is immense.
I was therefore disappointed to see that on the latest Royal visit to India (#RoyalVisitIndia), Kate was wearing a 75 pound Topshop dress. A ‘Fast Fashion’ brand that makes its profits, and Kate’s dress, off the backs of the exploitation of Asian women garment workers.
Given that the very same day the Royal couple had met to talk about advancing women’s rights in India, this seemed to be both a massive missed opportunity and an extraordinary misstep in public relations.
Let me explain why.
The Asian Garment Industry is a Dangerous Exploitative Place for Women
As I learned on my own journey through India to see how ethical clothing is made, life for young women (and girls) involved in textile industry in India can be a dangerous and exploitative place.
Given that 70-80% of garment workers are women, the debt trap that cotton farmers fall into, the extremely low wages, the poor and sometimes deadly conditions of the workplaces, the long hours, the indentured labour practices in cotton mills, and the use of children in outsourced work such as beading is something that disportionately affects women. It is no coincidence that poverty in the developing world is a women’s issue, as Melinda Gates constantly highlights in her work at the Gates Foundation.
Even worse, the sexual exploitation of young women from rural areas of India is often the direct result of the strangle hold that seed and fertilizer companies have over cotton farming communities. The debt incurred, due to the frankly unethical practices of these companies, leads to an extraordinarily high suicide rate amongst cotton farmers. These men leave families needing to survive and young girls tricked into going to major cities for cleaning jobs end up in sexual slavery. Something that the movie True Cost has been trying to highlight to the world, while organisations like The Loyal Workshop and FreeSet work at the other end to give these women a chance to get out. Those clothes are not looking very pretty at all now.
The Global Fast Fashion Industry is Destroying Local Environments
The growing of cotton in non organic ways is pesticide heavy. As a crop it requires huge amounts of water usually taken from local waterways and depriving local people and animals in the area. Keoladeo National Park in India which was a stop off point for birds migrating from Russia is now virtually drained by local farmers (organic cotton by the way is mainly rainfed to avoid this.) The pesticides used are often mishandled and applied by children and lead to a large number of pesticide poisonings in adults and children each year. The dying of the thread and the final fabrics often results in heavy metals and pollutants being disposed of straight into the local waterways and agricultural land. Worried about fluoride being added to your tap water? Well communities in India have got real toxic heavy metals like chromium at levels that are off the chart in theirs.
The Not Nice Facts about the Cotton Garment Industry
29 million estimated cases of pesticide poisoning each year in standard cotton workers in developing countries.
5 the age which some kids start working on cotton crops in developing countries.
5 the main groups of toxic chemicals commonly used and found in children’s clothing.
4.2 billion the dollars that US cotton farmers receive in government subsidies each year. equivalent to the value of their entire crop.
75 the percentage of the subsidised US cotton crop dumped on the international market priced at or below the cost of production in developing countries.
90 the hours a week that some garment workers are required to work without contracts.
51 the euros per month the average garment worker in India is paid.
195 the euros per month calculated as needed to live basically in India.
1.5 the tonnes of carbon emissions the average family’s annual clothing requirements are responsible for releasing.
70 kilos of clothing waste a family produces each year.
Here Are some Ethically made Alternatives Kate Could Wear
So that Topshop dress that Kate wore is looking pretty expensive now. The irony is not lost on us that the item of clothing she was wearing represents a terrible wrong that we are doing to not only Indian women and men, but garment makers throughout Asia. But there is a way to rectify this. As well as the bigger picture solutions to fixing fashion, the Duchess has a unique platform from which to highlight the issue: through what she wears.
There are a number of brands that now make their clothes in India to much higher ethical and environmental standards. Here are just two the Duchess’ advisors could have considered:
- New Zealand label Kowtow– perhaps a little minimalist for the Royal style, but Kowtow clothing is made of fairtrade organic cotton and constructed in factories that pay a living wage and are certified as ethical. A subtle and minimalist style that the Duchess may enjoy on less formal occasions perhaps?.
- For a more local British brand Kate need look no further than People Tree. People tree have been world leaders in making ethical clothing in India for some years and is a very successful UK fashion business to boot. No women were harmed in the making of these clothes.
Those of us who work hard to bring the environmental and ethical issues that plague the the global clothing factory to the public consciousness would only stand up and appauld if those that advised the Royal family recognised that in investing a little thought in who makes the Duchesses’ clothes (and a tiny act in the public space), the lives of an extraordinary number of Indian women and girls would change.
So Kate do join us and ask #whomademyclothes this april on Fashion Revolution Day.
Retweet our tweet to Clarence House if you would love for the Royal Global Platform to think about how ethical fashion can make a difference in women’s lives in the developing world
— muka kids (@muka_kids) April 14, 2016
Jess Berentson-Shaw founded the social enterprise Muka kids’ to connect consumers, designers and garment workers across the world, and empower them to make the clothing industry a sustainable one. Muka kids has a marketplace to trade preloved organic, ethical & sustainable clothing. Through its partnerships with accredited brands it also helps make new sustainable clothing more affordable. Sales on the marketplace fund a micro finance scheme for women cotton farmers in India trying to pull themselves out of poverty.