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At its most simple, storytelling is an engaging way of sharing ideas between individuals. But storytelling is also an intimate part of human life and an embodied experience within many cultures. Mutual exchange of stories can help individuals to make sense of their life experiences and everyday struggles. The process translates memories into a more solid means of being handed down, verbally or through writing, between generations and communities. Yet, stories are also constantly in flux, being rewritten, reconstructed and reimagined. For many, storytelling can have an even deeper purpose. Stories inspire hope.


Within the context of the garment industry, exchange of stories can empower

underrepresented women. Indeed, it has been shown that storytelling is an ancient practice of healing, used for centuries as a universal way for individuals to cope with grievance or loss. As such, the sharing of personal experiences can remind individuals that they are not alone, thereby building strength and reaffirming a sense of peace.



Increasingly, societies are also recognising the power of listening to stories to inspire a renewed sense of hopefulness. Within our fast-paced society, we all too easily glance over the array of benefits that listening to others’ stories can have for our collective mental wellbeing - listening requires a building of attentiveness and empathy as we learn about another’s life experiences. In this way, stories allow people to connect with each other through building an appreciation of their emotional experiences and, often, revealing that you are not so different from them. Particularly amid the COVID-19 lockdown, many of us have had to slow down and this has given rise to a renewed chance for societies to listen and learn about the experiences of others across the world.




In revealing the struggles that many women face in their society to be respected as workers, Daliya Akhtar shares her frustration at how her factory managers refused to pay herself and her co-workers their wages (Kelly, 2020). Reflected in a recent film on women in the garment industry, “Made in Bangladesh”, Rubaiyat Hossain, the film’s director, explains that he “wanted to show that if you grow up in a society where you are pushed and shoved around…at some point that rage will come out”. However, Hossain goes on to say that he “wanted to show that it can be a driving force for change”. Indeed, Daliya’s indignation at the working conditions she endured fuelled her drive to later become one of the first women to establish a garment workers’ union in 2013.


Through listening to Daliya’s story, it becomes crucial to realise that these women are often not victims. Rather, in challenge to the stereotype of the poor, exploited factory worker, female garment workers are often active, spirited and brave, fighting in their everyday life for their rights and demands to be recognised. For many, the significant growth of women employed in the garment industry has supported the transition of Bangladesh from a low- to middle-income country. Moreover, female workers continue to actively challenge systems of constraint that provide limited social protection within their factories of employment.


To serve as an example of the hope that can emerge through everyday forms of activism, Sadeka Begum shared her story and has become an inspiration to many in the industry (Reuters, 2020). Five years ago, Sadeka was the main income provider for her family in Bangladesh as she regularly worked 12-hour shifts within her garment factory. However, today, through pursuing a new university programme that seeks to inspire female workers to become future leaders, Sadeka is interning with the United Nations Children’s Fund. Through this, she is launching a project to make improvements to the lives of children of Bangladeshi textile workers through increasing affordable access to education. Sadeka reaffirmed that “I am an example of how education can change a person”.


By sharing stories like Daliya and Sadeka’s on an international platform, Justice in Fashion builds empathy and inspires hope for female garment workers in low-income countries. Whilst we have been increasingly distanced as consumers from those who make our clothes, Justice in Fashion regularly compile stories that highlight the struggles and spirit of garment workers. To read more stories like these, follow this link to our Voices Platform. Through making visible the human faces that are often invisible in the building of our wardrobe, storytelling can support societies worldwide to engage with the voices of women who strive to collectively realise their rights and redefine life in garment factories. In this way, sharing stories can empower women as they continue to actively make change. These stories inspire hope.




References

Kelly, A. (2020) ‘These women aren’t victims’: director turns the spotlight on garment workers. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/jun/04/these-women-arent-victims-director-turns-the-spotlight-on-garment-workers (Accessed: 8 January 2021).

Reuters (2020) Bangladesh university turning women garment workers into leaders. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/economy/2020/8/1/bangladesh-university-turning-women-garment-workers-into-leaders (Accessed: 8 January 2021).

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Green. Natural. Planet-friendly. Environmentalism and ethics are one of the hottest fashion trends of 2020. Up to 31% of Gen Z shoppers in a US survey said they would pay more for a product that is less damaging to the environment.

And major retailers are queuing up to fill the demand. ASOS brought out a ‘circular collection’ of recycled clothes. H&M brought out a ‘conscious line’ and committed to using 100% recycled materials by 2030. As a conscious shopper it’s easy to be persuaded that fashion giants are finally taking a step towards a more ethical way of making clothes.

But wait. The rise of conscious consumers also means a rise in brands using sustainability and ethics as a marketing tactic, rather than a real commitment to overhaul the environmental and human rights violations of their production methods.

Before we happily fill our basket with Primark’s ‘sustainable’ line, let’s look critically at what these green labels actually tell us. When is a brand’s ethical commitment the real deal?

  • What does the brand actually say on the label?

Fun fact: there is no legal criteria for a product to meet to have the labels natural, eco-friendly or green slapped on them. OK, it’s not really fun - but it is important to look for the evidence behind the claims. Is it eco-friendly or does it just have a picture of a leaf on it?

  • What does the brand actually say on their website?

The key to separating the good, the bad and the well-intentioned (but still bad) brands is transparency. Look on their website for detailed information about the materials they use, specific details of who makes their clothes and where, and what they’re doing to ensure fair working conditions and mitigate the environmental cost of production.

If this information is hard to find, consider emailing or tweeting the brand directly. If their response is vague or non-existent… you have your answer.

  • Is there a massive elephant in the room they’re distracting you from?

It’s one thing to release a new line of clothes from recycled materials. It’s another thing to recognise that the entire system of fast fashion production and consumption is incompatible with the UN Sustainable Development Goals and needs a complete overhaul.

ASOS releasing one ‘conscious’ line defeats the whole idea of sustainable and ethical production: if the rest of the brand continues to churn out cheap clothes as usual, it’s not really doing anything for the planet. It’s doing it for your wallet. If a brand’s response to the climate crisis is to produce even more clothes, it’s unlikely to do any good for the planet.

  • Look at the brand’s track record

The past actions of a brand can tell you a lot about its values. Particularly look out for how brands have reacted during the Covid-19 pandemic. At a time when global solidarity was desperately needed, brands including Boohoo, Forever21 and Victoria’s Secret left millions of women, men and children without any income to survive and stripped them of basic human rights.

Of course, brands can change for the better. But for a fast fashion brand to change for the better, it has to stop being a fast fashion brand.

So what can you do to fight greenwashing and avoid falling for the same tricks?

  • Ask. Ask the brands what they’re doing for their workers and the environment. Tweet them. Join in Fashion Revolution’s campaign to ask #WhoMadeMyClothes.

  • Use ethical fashion apps like Good On You that rank brands for their sustainability.

  • Support small & local businesses instead. If you can’t afford this, then try shopping secondhand or swapping clothes with friends.

  • Spread the word! Fast fashion has become normalised. So let’s de-normalise it. Let’s demand better and put respect for human rights, and environmental sustainability, back on the list of basic requirements for a brand to meet.

Cass Hebron

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We recently introduced an Ambassador programme for JIF. Our goal is to gather inspiring individuals who can start critical conversations in their communities about people in the fashion industry. We are thrilled to already have a group of brilliant people across the world who recognised JIF’s mission and are already supporting us.

We want to present some of our Ambassadors more in-depth. So, in the next few blog posts, we’ll represent individually our Ambassadors. If you want to learn more about them then keep on reading.

The first JIF Ambassador we wish to present to you is Ben Shepherd. Ben has been studying the complexities of human trafficking, sex, and labour exploitation for a number of years. He joined JIF because of his mission to raise awareness of modern slavery.

Here’s our short conversation with Ben.


Q: We know you researched slavery through your Ph.D. and working in a national anti-trafficking charity. What got you there? Why slavery?

A: I became interested in modern slavery after hearing a talk from then IJM UK Director, Terry Tennens in 2009. At the time I was completing my LLB. I started to engage with the subject and it grabbed my attention that so much exploitation was occurring. I was horrified by the brutality of the issue. But I was also at how organisations like IJM were using their experience and contacts to help deal with local issues and tackle slavery and exploitation by engaging with local policing and justice departments. I was keen to get involved somehow. I became aware of a charity called the Medaille Trust and started to speak to people on the Board including Terry. Later when I started my Ph.D. I was asked to be a trustee for the Medaille Trust and I was thrilled to be able to join the Board.


Q: Could you tell us more about what you’re currently working on?

A: I currently work in compliance and risk-based role for a global organisation. My role is very different from the work I was carrying out with the Medaille Trust and different from my study. However, I think I sort of fell into this current line of work and have remained in the legal and compliance sector. I am glad I had the opportunity to work in the charity sector for 6 years, and to meet some amazing people who continue to work tirelessly for the cause.


Q: What got you interested in fashion?

A: I wouldn't say I am particularly interested in fashion per se, but from conversations with Sharon whilst working with her on the Medaille Board, I was intrigued to hear how people in the garment manufacturing process were being exploited around the world. A lot of the victims we encountered at Medaille were victims of sexual exploitation and labour exploitation, male and female, but predominantly from across the Eastern block of Europe, so this was a new area that I hadn't previously encountered.


Q: What do you think the role of fashion is today?

A: I am certainly no expert in the fashion industry, but I believe that fashion can do a lot of good. There is a balancing act to be played so that there is the equity between the producers and sellers of fashionable goods. Perhaps it is important for the bigger labels and retailers to push for higher standards, better pay, and working conditions for the workers at the manufacturing level.


Q: What does justice mean for you?

A: Justice is equity - fairness, and opportunity; not allowing the strong to exploit the weak for their gain, providing opportunities to individuals to learn, and to work so that they can provide for their families and have a good standard of living. I like the approach of the economist, Joseph Stiglitz, in that respect. I also think justice is about having the ability to have one's voice heard. When people are silenced, that is an acute form of injustice.


Q: We are seeing people becoming more aware of modern slavery, especially in fashion. Is this a good thing? And what can we do with this?

A: I think awareness is very important, but in isolation, it is not enough to help solve the problem. I think there needs to be a call to action, otherwise, awareness just fades and we become apathetic. It is easy to see images of slavery and be horrified but not do anything about it - indeed, not know where to begin. I think the fact is that we all feel a bit helpless most of the time and instead we focus on problems we can solve.

Thank you Ben for finding the time to talk to us! You can follow Ben on his Twitter or connect with him via LinkedIn.

Until the next one,

JIF team

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