Sometimes overlooked in the discussion about consumption and “fast fashion” is a key detail: Places that mass-produce clothes for global consumers are, in fact, becoming the world’s fastest-growing markets for them. The challenge for any successful sustainability effort is to raise awareness and shape demand in these newest frontiers of consumer culture – even as it addresses current problems of worker safety, fair pay, and environmental responsibility.
Southeast Asia is perhaps the perfect microcosm to examine these complex tensions between a developing economy’s past, present, and future. Currently a producer of apparel for global markets, the region’s consumer class is young, interested in brand-name goods, and expected to double in size over the next decade. This growing glut of mass-produced products has put many traditional craft cultures under pressure and this, coupled with greater social awareness, seems to have triggered a Southeast Asian conversation” about “Who Made My Clothes?”.
THE KINDCRAFT spoke with four of the group’s coordinators in Southeast Asia to hear their thoughts on current challenges, consumption, and craft culture: Emily Lush in Cambodia, Sasibai Kimis in Malaysia, Christine Gent in Thailand, and Florence Bacin in Vietnam.
Current Conditions for Garment Workers
While the conditions in Southeast Asia may not exactly mirror those in Bangladesh, many similar issues exist — especially in countries like Vietnam and Cambodia which also have large-scale garment production.
“The main issues here are overtime work, toilet breaks for women, and the pressure of productivity,” said Florence Bacin, Vietnam coordinator for Fashion Revolution.
“It is a bit difficult to know as the government and official representatives of the fashion industry and unions do not provide much data. Workers can be part of unions, but those are members of Vietnam Confederation of Labour, a governmental organization. The Trans-Pacific Partnership should oblige the state to allow independent unions… but people are not optimistic about this becoming a reality.”
Even when unions act, Bacin said, it can be difficult to measure their efficacy: “About a year ago, workers employed to make products for Nike, Adidas, and others have staged about a week of strikes over social insurance cover and it is hard to find information about the outcomes.”
“The minimum wage for garment workers in Cambodia increased by US$12 this year,” said Emily Lush, Cambodia country coordinator for Fashion Revolution, who indicates that progress in other areas in slow.
“In March 2016, the government began urging factories to improve their health and safety measures, recommending that owners start providing adequate ventilation and clean water to workers, checking fire extinguishers, and planning for evacuations. Given the basic nature of these recommendations, it’s not difficult to image how bad the conditions must be inside many of the country’s garment factories.”
There are other challenges that seem particular to Cambodia, such as issues with transportation. “Large numbers of workers are transported in trucks to factories on Phnom Penh’s outskirts each day, and there has been a spate of road accidents lately involving garment workers,” Lush said.
A New Consumer Culture
As malls in the United States fall under the wrecking ball, they rise in Asian cities under what feels like a ubiquitous canopy of cranes. Retail is trying to keep pace with a regional economic (and demographic) tide which has created a massive number of young, middle class consumers. According to a 2013 report by Boston Consulting Group, the number of middle-class and affluent Indonesians may almost double to 141 million by 2020 from 74 million in 2012.
A separate report by Nielsen also projects that, by 2020, the middle-class population (defined as $16 to $100 disposable income per day in 2005 purchasing power parity) in Southeast Asia will more than double to 400 million. Taken more broadly, the combined middle class population of China, India, and Southeast Asia is projected to be eight times that of the USA and Western Europe combined.
But will these new Asian consumers be curious about how their clothes are being made?
“I don’t think this question even crosses their minds”, said Bacin of Vietnamese consumers. “They are still people with low wages who want to buy cheap products. And those who become wealthier just need to show off and spend money on luxury brands, or even fly to Singapore to go shopping and buy some Zara clothes!”
Sasibai Kimis, Malaysia country coordinator for Fashion Revolution, said that “based on popular media coverage, it does seem like there is greater consumer awareness on the issues of social justice in the garment / textiles sector.” However, she feels that public awareness of ethical fashion issues is still in its infancy in Malaysia. “Most producers, designers, and consumers have not even been exposed to the idea of questioning who made their clothes and under what conditions – and when they are, there is a resigned view that accounting for sustainability in their supply chains will make their products commercially unattractive.”
Florence Bacin is hopeful that consumer education can shift attitudes in Vietnam. “When people actually see the conditions in which their clothes were made, they cannot really consume the way they used to. However there is still a long way to go and it will take time to raise awareness; firstly in the Western world and then even a bigger challenge to do so in Asian countries.”
“There are so many factors that influence our purchasing decisions,” said Emily Lush, “but I think the choice to support ethical fashion goes deeper than that. Fashion is tied up with identity; it’s about choosing to align with the movement.” Lush cited a recent study that explored the dynamics between ethical and ‘non-ethical’ consumers and found that observing ethical behavior in others can undermine our own commitment to social values. “I think this rift is a huge problem and we need to find better ways to unite consumers for the common cause.”
Christine Gent, Fashion Revolution’s coordinator for Thailand, agrees: “I think consumerism here is growing and it has not yet woken up to the consequences of the trade.”
Traditional Arts in Southeast Asia
One of the consequences that Gent alludes to is the loss of traditional dress and heritage crafts among Southeast Asia’s ethnic groups. “Craft products often identify the weaver to a location, as there are more and more conspictuous consumers who all wear the same brands.” Gent said that crafts have a potential to give back identity. “The question is ‘Is this too local‘? Do people want to be identified with a location – or do they just want to be anonymous global citizens?”
Heritage crafts like weaving and embroidery are traditionally passed from generation to generation by women in village settings. “There is still a cottage industry around silk and cotton weaving, and it’s more important than ever to support it,” Emily Lush said of Cambodia. However these handmade producers are struggling to find workers as many young women migrate to Phnom Penh to work in the big factories. “These are mostly jobs that require little training and leave women with few transferable skills.”
“These arts are still very much alive in Malaysia, but they are certainly endangered,” added Sasibai Kimis.
Kimis feels that a challenge for small-scale producers as they compete against big brands is that they often don’t have sufficient access to retail markets, which leaves them exposed to middle parties who try to reduce what is paid to the artisans for their work. “Another issue is the lack of understanding of the value and quality of handmade goods, which means that the labor, skills and craftsmanship of the artisans are often undervalued.”
All four Fashion Revolution coordinators felt hopeful that brands could work with artisans in their Southeast Asian nations. This would create opportunities for brands to source materials in an ethical way while offering artisans a chance at sustainable livelihoods.
Challenges still exist, with Sasibai Kimis noting that more work needs to be done with concerns like quality, consistency, and the ability to produce in greater scale (and to a schedule): “The specialist knowledge of the social-enterprise sector imbues it with the potential to act as an intermediary between artisans using traditional techniques and multinational fashion firms. As the social-enterprise sector grows it is likely that, in tandem with the non-profit sector, it will effectively take on the role of managing and expanding the artisanal elements of supply chains in mainstream fashion, whilst maintaining the core values and principles of sustainability and slow fashion.”
Why We Need a Fashion Revolution
“I want to live in world in which I am not faced with other people suffering because of my greed and ignorance,” said Christine Gent. “I want a world that lives in harmony not fighting nature–and I want more people to feel the same.”
Emily Lush said that the Rana Plaza factory collapse created a space for global awareness around issues which most consumers had previously turned a blind eye to: “Suddenly, we couldn’t look away. I’m a huge believer in the power of big fashion brands to steer industry reform; it’s the big fish who hold the most power, consume the most resources, employ the most people – and will ultimately have the biggest affect. These are the brands Fashion Revolution asks consumers to open a dialogue with every April 24.”
Sasibai Kimis is measured but hopeful for the future of the Fashion Revolution in Southeast Asia, as it provides a rallying point for those who are already passionately involved to grow the effort. “A globalized world in which slow-fashion prevails would almost certainly be using its infrastructure and resources far more humanely and productively – and everyone would look fabulous.”