Today (24th of April 2018) marks the 5th anniversary of the collapse of the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, one of the deadliest accidents in the supply chain of most high street brands. It sparked the so-called Fashion Revolution, as the initiatives of individuals which had long had an interest in the subject gained momentum, and were joined by people who had no interest (mostly through lack of knowledge) before.
With celebrities taking part in Livia Firth’s Green Carpet Challenge and expensive (and sometimes limited in style or size) brands, the movement has often been accused of not being inclusive, like a pastime for the white middle class, despite many bloggers focusing on thrift stores, vintage fashion and reusing clothes as a creative, ethical and affordable solution (for example Take it Up Wear it Out). It has also been accused to be a feminised movement, not entirely without merit, and one that has often been associated with a particular side of the political spectrum, and that may have put off many people when we need to have everyone on board with better working conditions for the people who make our clothes (and everything else). My focus on this topic from the pro-life point of view, and especially for Catholics, is not because I disregard the importance of everyone being on board with what is a human rights issue, but because it seems to me to be a group that should be among those shouting the loudest about it, but we seem to treat social justice and Catholic Social Teaching as something that Pope Francis and the politically-liberal love to bang on about, but not a faith imperative. As the Christian right seems to be largely identified with the pro-life movement, it became a no brainer to look into the issue from this particular perspective. There is loads on the Internet on the subject from other angles anyway.
Bar a number of articles on Threads, an episode of the Upside Down podcast and a few other people here and there, the impact of fast fashion seems to have fallen off the radar of Christians as an issue of faith. When we hear about pro-life issues, we mostly hear about abortion, or to a smaller extent euthanasia, especially when high-profile cases remind us that the vulnerable are at risk from a utilitarian mentality in our healthcare system, as much as the activists intent on changing a law that protects the many for the desires of a few. And if you stopped at the dictionary definition you’d be right. However, if you look at the slogans of main pro-life groups, they are about supporting the sanctity of life from conception to natural death, and, especially the abortion ones, would talk about being pro-woman and loving them both. So any issue that impacts the life of a person is by extension a pro-life issue. I had a conversation with a strongly pro-life friend once, walking up a field in Walsingham, in which she lamented how we don’t seem to see a divergence between shopping at Primark (not picking on it as if the only culprit, it’s the place where most people can afford to buy clothes) and our faith. That conversation stayed with me for a long time, especially the question: why? Is it a case of being educated but overwhelmed by circumstances (as I often find myself, and she confessed to it too), or have we been silent about this for too long? If you go to a Catholic event, chances are you will see a stand for a pro-life charity, mostly dedicated to abortion. You may also find something for Cafod, especially if the parish embraced fair-trade in coffees and teas, or Aid to the Church in Need. I am yet to see much about issues of human trafficking and forced labour (modern slavery).
Here’s why fast fashion is a pro-life issue, and we should all support the fight for ethical alternatives:
Human trafficking in general is a pro-life issue.
We often think of human trafficking as sex trafficking, and the link with abortion is clear in people’s minds, but human trafficking is broader and more insidious. However, if we are passionate defenders of the sanctity of life, we cannot close our eyes to the reality of forced labour, and labour in conditions that we would consider inhumane and would never accept for ourselves. Conditions that often kill. Human rights are one of the aspects addressed in the documentary “The True Cost“. From a Catholic perspective, the Catholic Feminist podcast has dedicated one episode to the subject of human trafficking.
It disproportionally affects women in developing countries.
Cheap labour entraps women in poverty. If you are involved in the pro-life movement, you are familiar with the idea of bringing abortion to poor countries so that women are not enslaved by their pregnancies. In fact, one of the arguments put forward for so-called safe abortions (when women die from abortions in London I’m not buying the rhetoric of safe and unsafe…) is that it is estimated 25 million abortions are occurring each year in such places. It is not unreasonable to think that without worker’s right a pregnancy may put at risk a woman’s livelihood, so they may choose to terminate the pregnancy if they aren’t altogether forced to do it (there is evidence of exploitation of pregnant women in the industry). It is also an unsafe environment for a woman (pregnant or otherwise) anyway, so it is dangerous for both mother and child even should she be allowed to keep working when pregnant (which seems unlikely, but it’s a worthy consideration perhaps at early stages of the pregnancy).
Environmental issues are often behind the displacement of people.
The UN recognises environmental rights as the basis for human rights. It seems like a faraway concept, but environmental migrants are a growing problem and it is easy to see how their livelihood and that of their children are affected by having to move away from their home to find somewhere where the conditions allow them to live, whether they are escaping severe drought or natural disasters. As an estimated 235m items ended up on landfill sites in the UK in 2016, as people bought 1.13m tonnes of new clothing, the link with our throwaway culture is crystal clear.
Going back to the issue of the treatment of the workers and the violation of their human dignity, it is possible to argue that knowing the kind and extent of the abuses that go on and still partaking in the fast fashion industry is material cooperation with evil. There are situations in which we cannot escape it, and they fall within the usual parameters of culpability. The CCC 1868-1869 is most relevant to this discussion. It seems, to me, imperative that we start looking at how we can support better fashion choices as individuals, as families, and as churches, while living within our means (wouldn’t it be great to run a clothes swap party in the parish hall? You can also sell cakes and fundraise for an organisation, killing two birds with one stone). As Christians, we are called to be in the world but not of the world, and while I don’t intend to dismiss the importance of a culture of modest clothes in our highly sexualised society, maybe if we also talked more about who made those clothes we would bring the kingdom on earth even faster.