Category Archives: Responsibility

LEARN // Educational resources to follow fashion and think through protest

 

In light of the four year anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse (April 24th), as well as International Workers’ Day (May 1st), I thought it would be a good time to share some new educational resources related to fashion and responsibility.

Ian Cook et al. of followthething.com have launched a free online course through FutureLearn: Who Made My Clothes? The 3-week course is designed to help learners think through systems of global fashion and apparel production and consumption, and to consider new ways of engaging with global supply chains. Here is the course introduction video explaining what’s on offer:

 

In an earlier blog post I shared a few thoughts on alternative forms of protest, highlighting Sarah Corbett and the Craftivist Collective. I mentioned that the School of Gentle protest would be launching soon…and it has! The course has already gone live, but you can still follow-along and participate. There are six classes, each with short video lessons, recommended readings and weekly assignments. For more information on these, see here and here. Here’s an introduction to the course:

I think what’s most interesting (and exciting) about these two initiatives, is that they strive to get learners interested in alternative forms of engagement. While so many responsible fashion education and campaign actions focus on consumer-based (user) approaches to change, these initiatives offer the potential to move things further, leaving space for learners to think through systemic challenges related to fashion and apparel production and consumption. The result is that learners are able to curate their own activist toolkit, with or without consumer-based strategies and actions.

The Social Alterations ‘Mind Map’ is one of our key resources designed to help you dig through to the root causes and consequences of a particular issue or challenge. We’d recommend keeping this resource on hand and using it in conjunction with the Who Made My Clothes? course and The School of Gentle Protest. You’ll find that resource for free in our Lab, here.

And with our Mind Map in hand, here are some additional resources to check out:

And of course, if you haven’t already, be sure to check out all of the resources we have developed over the years. You’ll find these all available to download for free in our Learning Lab.

Happy learning everyone, hope it all leads to some creative disruption!

Interview // Artist and activist Robin Pacific, TakeActionFAST campaign

As we mark the 106th anniversary of Triangle (25 March 1911), I wanted to share the work of Canadian artist and activist Robin Pacific. Since 2013 she has been working on a community project to raise awareness on the realities of work and life for garment workers in Bangladesh. In May she is launching TakeActionFAST, a labour rights campaign she has organised with partners in Bangladesh and in Canada (details below).

I first heard of Robin’s work when I was in Dhaka conducting part of my fieldwork in 2015. Recently I was lucky to connect with her and learn a bit more about her work.

Mary Hanlon:  To get started, could you tell us a bit about the F.A.S.T. campaign and how it came about?

Robin Pacific: We are now calling it TakeActionFAST (because the Heart and Stroke Foundation launched their own FAST campaign – cheeky!). In 2013 I received some funds from the Ontario Arts Council to do research on possible art projects about who makes our clothes. I turned the research into a collaborative community project and invited 30 women in groups of three to my house. I cooked for them, and gave a 10 minute talk about art, fashion, globalization, free trade and workers’ rights. Then the conversation just flowed. It was at one of these gatherings that someone came up with the idea for a logo called FAST – FAIR living wage, ADULT labour only, SAFE working conditions and No unpaid overTIME.

The idea for a campaign to tell retailers we will pay 5% more for our clothes if those conditions are met evolved over time and went through many variations. The necessity that I must go to Bangladesh if I wanted to speak on behalf of garment workers there also came about during those dinners.

MH: You’ve partnered with various sponsors and supporters. How did these partnerships come about, and how important was it for you to connect with groups in Bangladesh?

RP: This whole project has been about never giving up, and just relentlessly continuing even when it seemed there was no support. So I just kept e mailing people I heard about in Bangladesh, and at UniGlobal, and various Canadian trade unions. When they didn’t answer I emailed them again. When they still didn’t answer, I phoned them! Eventually the first trip came together. We made art with 100 garment workers represented by The Solidarity Centre/Bangladesh led by Alonzo Suson and Bangladesh Workers Solidarity Centre led by Kalpona Akter. We were very, very lucky to work with these outstanding trade unions. It was inspiring and transformative to meet young women who were risking their jobs—and sometimes their lives—to form a union.

If we hadn’t had the support of these two groups I think our visit to Dhaka would have been more or less futile.

We also were very graciously hosted at a luncheon by then Canadian High Commissioner Heather Cruden, and one of her staff suggested we connect with some survivors of Rana Plaza. This too was a profound experience, and humbling – meeting these people whose bodies and psyches were so shattered.

While in Bangladesh and after, I kept meeting artists, individuals, trade union members, members of NGOs, and I also go a little connected to the Bangladeshi community here in Toronto. All of these connections have immeasurably enriched the work I’ve done.

MH: What has been the biggest challenge you have faced so far?

RP: The biggest challenge I’ve faced, in a way, has been my own despair at all those points when things weren’t working out, when it seemed things would never come together. My challenge is not to take it personally and get discouraged when people aren’t interested, or reject various proposals for exhibitions, etc.

MH: As you move forward, what keeps you inspired? What scares you?

RP: What keeps me inspired is the heroism of the young women and men I met, and also the fact that I fell in love with Bangladesh, the way one does, inadvertently, with the people, the culture, even the insane traffic. I’m committed to social justice, and taking on this one issue and really working on it exclusively has kept me inspired. Also, I did put this on a long timeline. I wanted to accomplish one thing – the TakeActionFAST petition. Along the way I got to do some fun and meaningful art projects and meet so many extraordinary people.

The issue is off the radar of the media completely. This is what I call the Politics of the Aftermath. The media lurches from one disaster to the next, disaster porn as it’s been called, and no one seems to think of the long term after effects on the survivors of these horrific crises. I’m really counting on millennials to pick up the torch. I’m afraid that I’m just too much of an outlier – an artist trying to create a social justice campaign, not really encouraged by the local art world here, and a social justice activist who is an artist, so viewed skeptically, on occasion, by trade union people and activists, because I’m working alone. Everything I’m doing is hope and prayers that I can bridge these two complex communities.

 

If you’d like to support Robin and the campaign project, or learn more about her work and this community project, check out the project website here.

I particularly enjoyed seeing project photographs and listening to the audio recordings from interviews with workers, here.

While the campaign is live now, there will be a launch in Toronto in May. Here are the event details:

When? May 4 – May 5, 2017, 7 PM-12AM

Where? The Great Hall, 1087 Queen St. West, Toronto M6J 1H3 (at Dovercourt)

What?

  • Online action campaign;
  • Canadian and Bangladesh bands, singers, dancers and food;
  • a pop up fashion market of indie Canadian designers;
  • a ‘Mock Sweatshop’ where participants can sew giant t-shirts with garment workers from Workers United Canada;
  • a Rana Plaza Memorial;
  • and art by and about Bangladeshi garment workers

WATCH // Media Theorised: Reading against the grain

 

What role does advertising play in journalism? Who funds and controls media coverage? Why is representation so important? How are stereotypes produced and reproduced through the media? Does the medium that we use consume information matter?

And, what does any of this have to do with responsible fashion?

The Listening Post has produced a series of short animated films introducing five media theorists: Roland Barthes, Noam Chomsky, Stuart Hall, Marshall McLuhan, and Edward Said. Media Theorised is a project that calls for a critical engagement with the media, and is a nice resource to share with friends, colleagues and students.

Many of the entanglements highlighted by these theorists are brought to the surface through the project itself, with respect to how it is shared and consumed, and all of these tensions would make great topics for further discussion: for example, the fact that I am sharing this content with you through a blog post on an English-language website; that the Media Theorized project was itself developed by a media network (Al Jazeera), and that each video has little Google advertisements that pop-up, and sometimes play before the video starts—a  reminder of the role of advertising in media (briefly mentioned in the Noam Chomsky piece); or the fact that you may have found this post through social media, and may be reading this content on a tablet, phone or laptop.

A couple of years ago I briefly shared some thoughts on how one of these tensions plays out in media stories related to labour rights for IANS: sponsored content surrounding responsible fashion, where the lines between corporate interests, corporate social responsibility, and critical journalism (or even bad journalism, for that matter) become blurred. Although I was picking on The Guardian at that time, the takeaway was that a critical lens is needed when reading any and all media coverage related to these issues (including coverage produced on this site).

I hope you’ll find these resources relevant and interesting. I’ve embedded a couple of the animations below. Each film comes with an essay and a downloadable poster – who doesn’t love a good poster?

LEARN // Leadership, Feminism and Equality in Unions in Canada

 

With International Women’s Day around the corner, I just had to share this excellent resource with you: Leadership, Feminism and Equality in Unions in Canada, a project organised by Linda Briskin, Sue Genge, Marg McPhail and Marion Pollack.

From the project website:

“This project on Leadership, Feminism and Equality in Unions in Canada explores the current climate and attitudes to women, feminism, leadership and equality in Canadian unions through the insights, voices and experiences of women union leaders, activists and staff in Canadian unions.

Undoubtedly unions in Canada have played a significant role in promoting women’s equality. And many share the optimistic belief that organized labour can continue to play a critical part in challenging women’s inequality. Yet evidence suggests that equality issues have still not moved into the mainstream of union culture. Some even point to a backlash, suggested by the decline in women’s participation in leadership, fewer resources for equality organizing, and in some cases, outright attacks on advocates. These are disturbing trends.

Union women fought hard for equity gains over the past five decades.  In the current climate of recession, cutbacks, and austerity, are we now losing ground?”

 

There are links to loads of resources, including this important short film, originally produced in 1981 by Linda Briskin and Lorna Weir – a wonderful historical resource for teaching.

While the project relates specifically to the labour rights movement in Canada, it is completely relevant to union and labour organising globally.

Image source: Leadership, Feminism and Equality in Unions in Canada

Craftivism: An intimate form of activism

Taking to the streets and marching in solidarity with others on issues that are important to you can be exhilarating—I can still feel myself buzzing from protests I recently attended in Edinburgh.

In the past few weeks I’ve seen family members, friends, and colleagues express themselves politically in ways that, for them, were new and challenging: they have marched, signed petitions, sent emails and postcards, and picked up the phone to contact government representatives. I’ve also, however, seen others keep quiet—silence, despite the views and opinions I know they hold dear. Why not join in?

Activism can be divisive

Sometimes the reasons to want to stay away from certain strategies and actions are just as important as the reasons to get involved. Take, for example, the emotional and social labour that goes into activism (discussed by Órla Murray in this article), or the fact that some actions only work to reinforce structural violence (explained here by Yasmin Nair and here by Zoe Samudzi).

Not everyone is comfortable raising their voice

Wanting to steer clear of specific forms of activism can also be down to an individual’s personality. As I learned from my research with fashion-based labour rights activists, some people just aren’t physically comfortable engaging in certain types of action. Here’s where quieter forms of protest such as craftivism can play a role.

Craftivism is a form of activism that strives not only to create space for introvert and ambivert activists to participate in strategies and actions, but also to help extrovert activists question their motives.

If this sounds right up your alley, have a listen to Sarah Corbett of Craftivist Collective explain her process here and why she feels her campaigns have been successful. Then visit her website to learn more.

BTW – In 2017, Craftivist Collective will launch the ‘School of Gentle Protest’ – an online resource! We can’t wait!

 

What does it mean to be ‘ethical’ in fashion? And what is everyone wearing? (Poll)

13606828_1058021627620503_2576551059090656025_nIt’s festival season in Edinburgh. Depending on who you ask, the summer is either the best or worst time to be in the city. Festival season, I’ve come to learn, also equals tourist mania. This is only my third summer in Scotland, so the tourist thing doesn’t bother me at all. Besides, the city buzzes with an indescribable energy during the summer months. Not even the rain can dampen my spirits. The season brings the Edinburgh film festival, the jazz festival, the magic (!!) festival, and others, and of course the fringe festival, but it also brings the Edinburgh International Fashion Festival (EIFF).

EIFF is in its 5th year, but this was my first time attending. I was approached to moderate a panel on ‘ethics in fashion’ and was of course happy to help. This was an EIFF initiative to bring together students from London College of Fashion (LCF) and Heriot-Watt University. The students were to design their ideal panel discussion, and Winnie Wen, a graduate student researching responsible fashion and marketing at Heriot-Watt University organised the panel on ethics in fashion.

As we know, responsible fashion — or whatever terminology you’d prefer to use or not use (ethical fashion, eco fashion, fair trade fashion, sustainable fashion, organic fashion, green fashion, etc.) — is a messy topic. It just covers so much ground. So the panel topic I wrote up cast a pretty wide net:

Fashion designers and brands are increasingly challenged to consider the social, cultural and environmental impact of their products; from designing for diversity and supporting labour rights, to protecting waterways and securing animal welfare, ethical considerations in fashion are vast and often interconnected. How can designers and brands engage with their stakeholders to better understand and support complexities at work within systems of fashion production and consumption? Exploring what it means to be ethical in fashion, this panel deals with stakeholder engagement and communication.

The panel was made up of three excellent speakers: Carry Somers, Founder of Fashion Revolution, Anna Telcs of Not Just a Label (NJAL), and Lynn Wilson, designer, educator and circular economy expert.

It was designed to focus on audience Q&A, and the audience was fantastic. The panelists were so very informed, and it felt like the discussion could have gone on for much longer.

Photo by Aleksandra Modrzejewska

 

My favourite question from the audience had to be the last one: ‘What are you all (the panelists) wearing?’ I love this question because it really drives home the mess of responsible fashion work and activism. Is there some perfect outfit to wear that will absolve us of the issues at work in the global fashion and apparel industry? Well, I say no. For me (today, at least) it’s less about individual consumption and more about education, regulations and the rule of law.[1] But for other advocates and activists, it is all about consumption patterns. And for others still it’s a little of both of these positions, or something completely different. And this got me thinking…time for a poll!

So just for fun: what are you wearing? You can select more than one option from the non-exhaustive list below!

[1] You see I say this now, but every time I go clothes shopping I end up overanalysing absolutely everything until I’ve talked myself out of buying anything at all. Hence the mess that is responsible fashion research and activism…we all still have to get dressed! Nadira and I sure did have fun exploring this tension when we took the Labour Behind the Label Six Items Challenge in 2012. My answer to the question on the day of was boots (Clarks) and trousers (Gap) from the high street, a shirt that was given to me from a friend (I don’t know the brand name), and a second-hand jacket (brand name Aritzia).

Counting factories, counting heads: garment work in Bangladesh and the trouble with numbers

How many garment workers in Bangladesh?

 

This blog post was inspired by an email I recently received from a colleague. She was doing some writing related to the garment sector in Bangladesh, and she asked me a very simple question:

 

“Is there a standard or particularly good reference on the garment industry in Bangladesh, or even on the numbers of people working there?”

Actually not a very simple question at all.

Immediately, I was reminded of a recent study out of NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights—a study I wanted to write a blog post about a while back, but didn’t.

I wanted to share the study, because I so love its presentation. It’s not very often that academic research is packaged in accessible and engaging formats. And this one was! You may have already come across it, and if you have then you know exactly what I’m talking about—it’s cool. It attempts to map factories in Bangladesh, and you can zoom in and out, and there are images, and statistics—who doesn’t love easy to digest figures? It’s very interactive, and its presentation reminded me a bit of the “The shirt on your back” interactive from The Guardian (launched on the 1 year anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse). I wanted to share it with you as an example of how researchers can share findings in new and exciting ways.

The reason I didn’t share it with you is because—as usual—it’s all a bit more complicated than it seems: the research has been contested.

The study in question is “Beyond the Tip of the Iceberg: Bangladesh’s forgotten apparel workers” by Sarah Labowitz and Dorothée Baumann-Pauly. According to the researchers, there are more than 7,000 factories in Bangladesh, with more than 5 million workers. These figures are a big jump from previous stakeholder estimates, which typically cite over 3,500 factories (sometimes estimated at 4,000-4,500), with approximately 4 million workers (sometimes cited as just less than this).

Researchers at Penn State Center for Global Workers’ Rights, alongside other academics, have critiqued the report.[1] These researchers determined that the Stern results were inflated as a result of a flawed research methodology (specifically with respect to data collection) and sought clarification. Here’s how it all went down:

Business & Human Rights Resource Centre and Just-Style offer summaries that break this all down, but I recommend reading the original documents and responses listed above.

So, the official numbers are being challenged, but that’s not really the main point of the critique. What the researchers have seemingly found most problematic, is Stern’s use of the iceberg analogy—with ‘tip of the iceberg’ implying that efforts underway in Bangladesh to secure building safety since Rana Plaza (Accord, Alliance and the national initiative, specifically) are only just cracking the surface.

Essentially, all of the researchers agree that factory remediation in Bangladesh post-Rana Plaza is moving far too slowly. However, the Stern researchers have argued that the sector is much, much bigger than anyone cares to admit. And in doing so, they have determined that worker safety is just barely being addressed.

Now back to that email from my colleague: how many factories? How many workers? Estimates only at the moment, I’m afraid. In the end, I directed her to recent(ish) ILO figures (see here, for example).

It’s crucial to remember that the entire industry has trouble with numbers, not just Bangladesh. Accurate data on global fashion and apparel production is difficult, because so many of its moving parts (and people) remain out of sight.

Recently, I participated in a panel discussion on modern slavery at the University of Edinburgh. We know garment work ≠ modern slavery in and of itself. But we also know that working conditions in fashion and apparel supply chains can sometimes mirror that of modern slavery. And we know that forced labour exists in this system. At Social Alterations we work to support rigorous research, and we want that research to be sensitive to, and respectful of, context. Because it has to be. The workers’ perspectives are those that matter and are those that should be prioritised.

But research also needs to be open and accessible, hence my original intrigue with the Stern interactive site. This is just one of the reasons we’re supporting research initiatives like Safia Minney’s Kickstarter project: Slave to Fashion. Check it out, and get involved if you can.

 

[1] It’s interesting to note that this isn’t the first time research out of Stern on the garment sector in Bangladesh has been questioned. On 22 May 2014 a group of very prominent labour and human rights academics published this open letter.

On the importance of birth certificates in Bangladesh

A screenshot of one of the stop motion animations in 'My Birth Certificate!'

A screenshot of one of the stop motion animations in ‘My Birth Certificate!’

Birth certificates in Bangladesh. A crucial issue, not often discussed.

In the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse, media, research, company and campaign attention in/on Bangladesh has typically focused on such issues as disaster relief and compensation, building and worker safety, wages and trade unionism, etc.—all issues we know are important to labour rights (and not only in Bangladesh).

It’s time to add the importance of birth certificates to that long list.

My Birth Certificate! is stop motion animations made (written, produced, directed) by children in Bangladesh. It is the result of a collaboration between Rainbow Collective, Alex Nobel (EMG Initiative), TRAID, ChildHope UK and Nagorik Uddyog in Bangladesh.

Check it out:

WATCH // Modern Slavery: Are we complicit?

photo (5)

 

Earlier this month I was invited to participate in a panel on modern slavery at the University of Edinburgh, organised by the Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability.

The panel addressed a lot of issues, including the (potential) impact of consumer boycotts and buycotts. I called on consumers to remember they are more than consumers, and to also consider/imagine alternative ways to support workers.

The event was recorded, and I’ve embedded it below for you to check out.

During the discussion, I mentioned a website I had used to calculate ‘how many slaves’ work for me. I mentioned this was an interesting tool to help consumers think through linkages, but also voiced concern that context was lacking. I realise that I never mentioned the actual name of the site, so in case you’re interested and not already familiar, here it is. Bangladeshi labour rights activist Kalpona Akter shared some thoughts on this tool with Design and Violence last year, here.

On the panel with me was Kathy Galloway, Head of Christian Aid Scotland, Karen Bowman, Director of Procurement at University of Edinburgh and Mei-Ling McNamara, a PhD Student in School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures at University of Edinburgh. Chairing was Michelle Brown from the Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability.

We would love to hear your thoughts on modern slavery in general, but also in the unique context of the global fashion and apparel industry. Please share in the comments, or with us on Facebook or Twitter.

WATCH // Udita (Arise): a film on garment making in Bangladesh

 

Udita Poster

 

On April 24th 2013, the Rana Plaza building collapsed in Bangladesh. Over 1,130 workers were killed and thousands more were left injured. These workers were producing garments for consumers in Europe and North America.

We have now marked the two year anniversary of the collapse, yet the ILO trust fund established to support victims and their families remains nearly 3 million dollars short.

Rana Plaza was not the first industrial accident of its kind in Bangladesh, and building (and fire) safety is not the only challenge faced by garment workers.

Udita, the latest documentary from The Rainbow Collective, brings together footage capturing garment work in Bangladesh, collected over a five year period.

The Rainbow Collective premiered the film in East London at the Unite The Union Community Centre to a packed house on 24 April, marking the 2nd anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse.

Udita Trailer (full documentary below):


Udita

Udita asks its audience to listen to the testimonies of workers and organisers. No simple solution is presented. No judgements are passed. Viewers are left to draw their own connections.

Thanks to The Rainbow Collective for making Udita free and accessible.

Please watch and share through your networks.

Udita (full documentary):

Note: This blog post was also published on Routes blog, with permission.