After the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013, Orsola de Castro and Carry Somers knew they had to do something to honor the garment workers risking their lives to make our clothes. That’s why they founded Fashion Revolution and started asking, “Who made my clothes?” Now, it’s become an annual event focused on the intersection of sustainability and human rights in the fashion industry.
In an episode of Good Together, Laura Wittig, Brightly’s CEO and founder, sat down with De Castro to discuss why the movement started, how consumers can work together to make the fashion industry more equitable for all, and her book, Loved Clothes Last.
Fashion’s Humanitarian Crisis
Before the Rana Plaza tragedy, brands had outsourced production to factories in China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and India. What was supposed to be a “win-win” for brands and workers—brands had a lower production cost, workers had jobs that could support their families—quickly turned one-sided.
Both fast and luxury fashion brands alike were able to turn a quicker and higher profit through outsourcing. But workers suffered. They earned less than $40 each month, worked grueling hours in unsafe conditions, and started working as young as 12 years old.
Garment factories’ unsafe conditions led to deadly fires, human rights abuses, and increasing pollution levels.
The Question That Started Fashion Revolution
When De Castro and Somers started Fashion Revolution, they asked a simple question: "Who made my clothes?"
Their #whomademyclothes hashtag has been used millions of times around the globe. Before Rana Plaza, most consumers didn't think about the origin of their clothing. But with such an egregious tragedy now brought to the public’s attention, Fashion Revolution was able to amplify the call for production transparency.
“I, myself, am guilty of having said many times that this is a broken system, and it certainly is broken. But it wasn't designed to be perfect; it was always designed to break eventually, because it was designed on exploitation and excess," De Castro says. "In many ways, Fashion Revolution tries to bring awareness to the bigger picture, and what we, as citizens, can do to activate in a myriad of different ways, according to what works for us as people."
Fashion Revolution also created the Fashion Transparency Index. The index encouraged brands to be as transparent as possible about their manufacturing practices. Transparency doesn’t equal sustainability or responsibility, of course. But it did create competition between brands to be more open about the origin of their goods.
Even as brands move toward sustainability, transparency, and responsible manufacturing, there’s still work to be done.
"You can't really separate the social and the environmental issues. They are completely interdependent one with the other, you know, human rights and the rights of nature," De Castro says. "I think, particularly after COVID, we've seen that, yes, brands may communicate and may improve. But when it comes to the health of their supply chain workers, they may be increasing in profit with all the online sales, but the supply chain—the garment workers, in particular—are being owed billions of dollars in unpaid wages.”
Our Personal Responsibility to Our Clothes
Not only does the manufacturing process need to change, but our personal relationship with our clothing needs to change, too. On average, we buy 68 garments each year and wear each item seven times before tossing it. In some countries, the average number of wears is as low as 3.
More of us are thrifting, swapping, and exchanging our clothes. Consumers have learned about circular clothing systems and the textile industry’s environmental impact.
De Castro’s first book, Loved Clothes Last, focuses on these new relationships to our clothes. She believes that we aren’t just responsible for our clothes until the end of their use. We’re responsible for them until the end of their life.
“Every single one of us can have a different approach to how long our clothes will last and how we will keep them in that period of time. And how we will get rid of them rather than dumping. There are millions of other ways to swap and share and so on and so forth," she says. "[My book] basically puts the reader in a creative position to, first of all, understand why we need to mend our clothes and why it's so important to mend clothes because it's so important that we mend the system. The two go hand in hand."
What You Can Do for Your Clothes
Even if you don’t know how to mend, there are other ways to take care of your closet. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, and she doesn’t want anyone to feel like their hands are tied just because they can’t use a needle and thread.
In her book, De Castro details lots of different approaches. Mending clothes, finding a tailor, and repurposing old items are just some of the solutions that might work for you. She also reframes the idea of donating old clothing to thrift stores. It’s essential to consider a donation as a gift rather than just a guilt-free way to get rid of damaged, torn, or stained items.
Of the two million tons of clothing donated to U.S. charities each year, much of it ends up in landfills because it isn’t sellable. Other items are sent off to developing countries for resale. But no one wants to wear stained or damaged clothing, no matter what country they live in, so the clothes end up in a landfill anyway. This system also suppresses the textile industries in the countries that receive our leftovers.
Avoiding All-or-Nothing Thinking in Your Wardrobe
Here at Brightly, we’re careful to present options for everyone, no matter what stage of your sustainability journey you’re in or what your budget is. "A healthy wardrobe will have a bit of organic, a bit of mending, a bit of sustainable, a bit of sustainable designers... it's a bit of cocktail of everything," De Castro says.
Your closet doesn’t have to be all organic, have tons of certification labels, or be free of fast fashion. The only thing your wardrobe needs to be is a reflection of your style and creativity—and on its way to being more sustainable. Mending and repurposing older or damaged items allows you to express your creativity and help the planet at the same time.