Peter Cornish explores the brave new world of conscious fashion.

There’s been a revolution happening, quietly, in the background, making changes and gathering support. It’s become a global movement as mindsets begin to shift, unable to ignore what is happening to people and our planet in the name of cheap, fast fashion.

The revolution was spurred by a tragedy too large to be ignored. On 24 April 2013, the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,138 people and injuring another 2,500. This was the spark that ignited the revolution. There were five garment factories in Rana Plaza, all making clothing for the world’s largest fashion brands. Their employees were mostly young women.

Have you ever wondered who makes your clothes, how much they are paid, what their lives are like? The answers can be found among the victims of the Rana Plaza tragedy. The majority are women, aged 18 to 35, poor, uneducated, working long hours in harsh conditions, frequently abused, and paid barely enough to afford the basics of a meagre life.

These are the people who make your everyday t-shirts and jeans. Clothes bought cheaply and discarded quickly, like the people who make them. The uncomfortable truth is that our thirst for the latest catwalk trends is harming the planet as well as the people who make them. We need a revolution to change this, and like the untelevised revolution this revolution puts you firmly in the driving seat.

Fashion Revolution was founded shortly after the Bangladeshi disaster, in the belief that to lose so many people in one building and one event was too much to ignore. Something needed to change. The founders understood that fashion companies need to make sales and profit to survive and grow, but this should not happen at the expense of people’s working conditions or our rapidly disappearing natural environment.

Uniting people from all over the world, they saw change was needed in three areas – model, materials and mindset. Their manifesto states that fashion should provide dignified work, from concept to creation to catwalk. It should not enslave, endanger, exploit, overwork, harass, abuse or discriminate against anyone. Fashion should liberate the worker and wearer and empower everyone to stand up for their rights.

AsiaLIFE met up with Florence Bacin, who has been co-ordinating the work of Fashion Revolution in Vietnam since 2016, to find out more about the changes being made in the fashion industry here, and how we can play our part in the growing movement. “Much of what Fashion Revolution does is offer the consumer tips and advice of what they can do, to raise awareness about all issues and offer possible solutions,” explained Florence.

Fashion should respect culture and heritage, celebrating and rewarding skills and craftmanship, following the lead of companies like Fashion4Freedom which was featured in the June edition of AsiaLIFE.

The environment should not be negatively impacted during any part of the production process, protecting natural resources, the soil, water and air, and without causing harm to our health. We should not destroy unnecessarily and seek to repair, reuse, recycle and upcycle where possible. Our wardrobes should not overflow with unworn clothes and unwanted clothes should not be discarded to und up in landfills.

Florence is also interim country manager with the Fair Wear Foundation, a Dutch non-profit which sets out to change the fashion industry by showcasing best practices. “There are 90 European brand members who have signed a code of labour practices they implement through their supply chains, committing to improve work conditions and labour rights in all factories,” Florence told me.

Vietnam’s textile and garment sector is one the country’s largest industries and a main contributor to its economic growth comprising in the region of 4,000 businesses and employing more than 4.5 million people. In her role, Florence works with member brands to monitor progress from previous years’ audits as well as supervising a hotline for worker complaints.

“People don’t realise how little money actually goes in the pocket of workers. We don’t talk about fair trade, we talk about a living wage,” she explained. Vietnam’s national wage council focuses on the living wage when calculating minimal wage, increasing pay significantly more than some countries.

Most textile workers in Vietnam, approximately 90%, are union members, but are not allowed to form their own unions. Although wage rates are better than other countries, such as India, China or Myanmar, according to a recent study by the Fair Wear Foundation overtime is often forced or not paid at the correct rate.

Other issues facing Vietnamese workers include restrictions on toilet access due to short break times or insufficient facilities, and problems with the social welfare of workers traveling from the countryside to the factories. “We train complaints handlers to make the process smoother, analyse data to form best practices and open social dialogue,” Florence said.

As consumers become more aware of the work conditions in the garment industry, and the environmental impact production has, they are starting to ask questions to brands who make their clothes. #WhoMadeMyClothes provides a transparency index based on information that is publicly available, showing how far brands go to protect their workers and the environment they operate in.

April saw the fifth anniversary of the Rana Plaza tragedy. By using our voices, and considering our purchases, we have the power to change the industry. It won’t happen overnight, but together we are stronger. The more people ask “who made my clothes” the more brands will listen.