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Empathy in your wardrobe?

This article features on Fashion Is Psychology, published 19th May, 2019.

Empathy is a concept that I am sure most of you are familiar with. But what about applying it to what is in our wardrobes?

When considering the preparation of "fashion" we often don’t think about the fact that our clothes have passed through many hands to make it into our wardrobes. This is something that is often overlooked when going through the daily routine of getting dressed. From the designers and buyers, to the cotton farmers, spinners, dyers, machinists, each have played an important role in producing our clothing.

Adopting a more empathetic approach to our wardrobes can help us connect with the people who make our clothes and understand their stories. This should in turn encourage us to make more ethical and sustainable decisions when it comes to our clothing consumption.

I started taking a more empathetic approach to my wardrobe earlier this year. I began to be more curious about what I owned, and more considerate about my future purchases. I now find myself looking more closely at garments, examining the stitching, the panelling, trims, and labels, wondering how many hands the garment has passed through, and how many continents the garment may have traveled across. Needless to say, my consumption habits have changed dramatically. I find myself buying less (on a ‘need’ rather than a ‘want’ basis), researching before I buy, and trying to purchase only ethical and sustainable items.

Image Credit: Ellieelien on Unsplash

So, what is empathy?

Empathy is the process of sharing the feelings of another, whether it be someone we know well, or a complete stranger. This ability to empathise plays a crucial role in our emotional experiences and social interactions, encouraging us to act more compassionately through the facilitation of uncompelled prosocial behaviours.

Our clothes have a story

If we were to look inside our wardrobes right now we would see clothes that we wear for particular occasions, clothes that we haven’t worn for months, even a year, and clothes that we are simply keeping for sentimental reasons.

Every item of clothing forms part of a narrative, and we are only privy to part of that story. The narrative began well before the clothing came into our hands. Even when we look inside our garments, the clothing label yields only a small part of that garments story - often only the final point of assembly.

In order to complete this narrative, we need to be more curious and considerate when delving into our wardrobes. By asking simple questions like #whomademyclothes we are challenging our way of thinking in relation to what we wear.

One exercise that helped me further appreciate the lives of our clothes, their makers, and the rest of the supply chain, involved selecting an item from my own wardrobe for analysis. Now, with a background in fashion, I came at this exercise with a fair understanding of the level of work that goes into garment production. However, close inspection of my prized Gorman raincoat - all of the different types of stitching and assembly (e.g. panels, hoods, pockets, etc.), various component parts (e.g. zipper, toggles, etc.), wondering what the fabric was made from, was it printed or dyed, where was the fabric sourced, where was it sewn - further confirmed to me just how many people and processes can be involved in producing a single garment.

Now, if we can’t find the answer ourselves to any such questions, we need to be going direct to the source, asking retailers and brands. In doing so, we are encouraging transparency, and making the complex, and at times unfair, nature of supply chains more visible. This is exactly what I did. I went straight to the source to find out the story about my raincoat and a supposed ethical Zara t-shirt, via email (repeatedly), and twitter (repeatedly), and sadly each time I was either flat-out ignored, or simply brushed off.

We mustn’t give up though, we must keep asking brands these questions!

Is there a lack of empathy in media reporting?

Employees of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, were forced to work in a building that was known to be unsafe; upper levels built without permission, on swampy, unstable ground, with a lack of oversight, driven by a growing global desire for more cheap fashion.

On the 24 April, 2013, the world watched on in horror as the factory collapsed, killing 1,133 people and injuring another 2,500 (mostly young women), making it the fourth largest industrial disaster in history, and the deadliest garment factory accident in history. Unfortunately, this is not the first tragedy to hit the Bangladeshi garment industry.

Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when this disaster unfolded? Do you remember hearing about it on the news or reading about it?

Rana Plaza has been a catalyst for activist groups, including the formation of organisations such as Fashion Revolution, and seen more 200 global firms join the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. However, one thing that has struck me after doing some further research is the way in which this tragedy was and ‘has’ (I use this word lightly) continued to be reported. A few points have stood out to me:

  • The workers within this factory were producing clothing for the western market, however to this day, a full list of the brands involved have not been released. In some respect it feels like brands such as Primark, and Matalan, which are two of the most commonly reported brands that were involved, are some kind of scapegoat.

  • Many articles have focused primarily on the responsibility of retailers and consumers to recognise that cheap clothes have a cost, ignoring those directly responsible (i.e. the mayor, factory owners).

Kanchana Ruwanpura PhD, from the University of Cambridge, a garment industry researcher, claims that there is a lack of empathy in the media’s portrayal of these workers, with a tendency to "flatten the voice of labour by reducing workers to a homogenous category or to slaves".

A prime example of this, is the media’s representation of her account of the Sri Lankan Garment Industry. After being asked for input for a piece for Broadly, Ruwanpura detailed the highly educated labour force, the high standards in building regulations, and protective labour legislative framework. She also described the lack of living wages, and the lack of opportunity for many of the workers to form unions and undertake collective bargaining. However, what was eventually published by Broadly, showed complete disregard for the reporting of the positives points she had made in relation to the industry in Sri Lanka, with emphasis instead being placed on the lack of living wages and barriers to unionisation.

Garment worker diaries

Many of us have never considered, or simply find it too hard to imagine, what life is like for the individuals living in developing nations who make our clothes. The 'Garment Worker Diaries', a project of Fashion Revolution, is just one project hoping to change that, encouraging us to look down at that shirt we are wearing with a renewed sense of empathy. This project takes an intimate look into the lives (and wages) of some of the women in the Cambodia, India and Bangladesh garment industries. The diaries provide us with insight into their daily routines, their weekly earnings and spendings, how they manage their meagre wages, the conditions in which they work (e.g. length of shifts, brands they work for, injuries), and their family responsibilities.

I think the following statement sums it up perfectly -


Next time we open our wardrobes and take out that t-shirt, or pair of jeans, whatever it may be, let’s look at them with an empathetic eye, and try to understand and gain insight into the lives of our garment makers. In doing so, lets encourage ourselves to make more ethical and sustainable decisions when it comes to our clothing consumption.

Whilst asking questions, like "who made my clothes?", may be only one step, it is an important one in changing our mindset, and in changing the industry.

Additional Resources

Fashion Revolution have plenty more insightful, and empathetic stories and resources on their website.

'Project Money Makes a T-Shirt: The world behind a simple shirt, in five chapters' examines the journey of a simple t-shirt, witnessing just how many hands, machines and continents it can pass through.

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