When we first came to the small town of Wayanad in Kerala, India back in 2017, our intentions were simply to volunteer with a small farm to learn about community life in Kerala and meet some new, interesting people.
My partner Rob and I plucked and processed organic green tea, we planted saps, dug ditches, shifted manure and milked cows. We also met an amazing group of people organised by our host, TGG Foundation.
Part of TGG’s operation includes a small stitching workshop called the Women Empowerment Centre. Here, a team of women create garments and bags for the local community, earning a fair wage doing work they enjoy.
After a couple of months, we left the farm – only to return months later with a new idea for a clothing social enterprise, called WYNAD Clothing.
The concept is to engage the women in Wayanad to stitch sustainable clothes for sale online, creating more demand for their work.
A percentage of what we sell will come back to TGG Foundation to help fund their activities.
In June 2017, we returned again to Wayanad to set up WYNAD Clothing thanks to a grant from the RG Foundation, with a mission to make the enterprise a success.
Before we started this business I knew nothing about how clothes are made in the modern world. I’d like to think I have an eye for what looks good, but I knew nothing about the reality in which the majority of clothes are produced and traded.
Now I feel as if my eyes have been opened to one of the biggest cover-ups of our time, and I’m still learning every day. Best to look at the two major issues created by what has become known as the "Fast Fashion" industry separately.
In the UK, 97% of our clothing comes from overseas. There are roughly 40 million garment workers around the world. Most of them live and work in developing countries, and about 85% of them are women.
Although many of these workers are producing products which are to be used by some of the world's biggest brands, the majority of them survive on low wages, working long hours in bad conditions.
Bangladesh is the second largest exporter of clothes in the world. The minimum wage for garment workers there is the equivalent of £45 per month – which is far from the £75 that is needed to cover a worker’s basic needs, and even further away from a living wage.
Some argue that the opportunities created for women in developing countries through the fashion industry is a much needed step towards gender equality. Women in high production countries find it easier to find work, earn a living and become independent.
However, the fact remains that most female garment workers are paid less than men, work in more uncompromising conditions and have fewer opportunities to develop skills or progress in their roles.
The Fast Fashion culture – which dominates shopping habits in the West – is the engine that drives this inequality. Through often untraceable supply chains, big retailers operate low cost, high volume models which pressurise suppliers into cutting corners and it is the workers who pay the price.
The fashion industry is the second most most pollutive in the world, behind only the oil industry.
The rapid growth of garment producers in countries like China, India and Bangladesh has no doubt played a part in boosting their economies. But every action has a consequence and the environmental impact of this growth has been devastating.
The transformation from raw material to malleable thread to fabric usually involves many different chemical processes, LOTS of water and a large amount of power. And this is all before a product is manufactured, packaged, shipped and finally sold.
The amount of variety available across the fashion industry is staggering, with each material and process contributing differently to the overall impact.
Cotton is probably most well known natural material and accounts for around 40% of clothing worldwide. But cotton is well known in agricultural circles as an extremely thirsty plant as well as a plant which more often than not receives huge doses of chemicals to help it grow and keep away damaging insects.
Whilst only 2.4% of the world's cropland is planted with cotton, it consumes 10% of all agro-chemicals and 25% of all pesticides, according to Ecowatch. The chemicals that are then used by large scale processing plants to turn fluffy balls of cotton into smooth, wearable fabrics are extremely hazardous and if not disposed of properly will do long term damage to waterways and rivers that are unfortunate enough to be located near a production plant.
Could a 'fashion revolution' be the answer?
To me, it feels like momentum is building and change is happening.
I’m not sure if that’s because I’ve been swallowing content about Slow Fashion, Sustainable Clothing and Fair Trade on a much larger scale than before, or if the word is getting out and the demand for change is increasing.
The now infamous Rana Plaza incident in 2013, where 1,134 garment workers were killed in the collapse of an eight story garment factory in Bangladesh, has become a much needed catalyst in the fight for progress.
Emerging out of this tragedy was the start of a true Fashion Revolution, and a dedicated network who have evolved a simple idea of asking your favourite brands #whomademyclothes into a global thorn in the side of rampant, insatiable consumerism.
If you’re like I was over a year ago and all of this is fairly new, or you hadn’t really given it much thought, then I urge you to check out their website and get involved 2018’s Fashion Revolution Week in April. There’ll more than likely be something happening fairly near to you.
Other amazing resources include the True Cost documentary (you can find it on Netflix), Ethical Fashion Forum (they have a great tool for identifying ethical brands and suppliers around the world) and the Trusted Clothes blog.
But in the end it all comes down to us. The decisions we make which like it or not connect us intrinsically to a people and environment which seem far enough away to pretend they don't exist. We can take steps every day to contribute to change.
Easy things like; researching our favourite brands and their supply chains, experimenting with more sustainable materials in our clothes, reworking our existing wardrobes and buying second hand (I recently read a shocking article on Huff Post on the damage created in East Africa from wealthy countries donating unwanted clothes).
For me, the journey continues – and thanks to the grant from RG Foundation, WYNAD Clothing is gearing up for our SS18 collection.
We’re meeting suppliers all over India, testing fabrics, networking with other brands and creating our designs which will hopefully put us on the map and allow us to continue contributing to this movement.
If you’d like to follow our progress, connect with us and join the journey.