Sophie has been working with Fair Wear Foundation for 10 years.
“Just after graduation, I wrote a book, together with a friend. We named it ‘Practical Idealism – a handbook for improving the world’. We felt that after the ‘big’ idealism of our parents’ generation with its backlash of individualism and focus on economic growth, our generation needed a new perspective. Around us we saw so many, like us in their mid-twenties, who wanted to make a difference but felt alienated from activism old-style. So we set out to find everyday actions that would contribute to a better world – a novel and even controversial idea at the time – we’re talking 2002.
While researching the book, we nearly lost ourselves in a depressing labyrinth of cause-and-effect. The more we learnt about the consequences of our everyday actions and, certainly at that time, the lack of alternatives, the more disempowered we felt. The realisation weighed heavily on our minds that by simply existing, we were contributing to the destruction of our planet – and to injustices around the world. We were (and I remain) convinced that every time we consciously choose to change an everyday action to make the more responsible choice – as best we know how – this choice improves the world around us. But there is tension: we can change our behaviour as consumers, as parents, as friends, as employees or employers, as tourists, and as citizens of a country – but will that be enough?
Just so, there are days when ‘fixing’ the garment industry seems a mission impossible. There is so much going on – both in the industry itself and in the world around it – that it seems impossible to know where to start to make a difference. Working for Fair Wear Foundation, with its focus on labour conditions in sewing factories, has only partially resolved that tension for me. A small group of pioneering FWF member brands are working hard to improve conditions in their supply chains. While it may not make statistical waves (with an estimated one percent of garment factories in the programme), the impact it creates is real: the lives of a few hundred or even thousand garment workers in any given factory do matter and if they improve, that is progress.
And yet we cannot stop there. I have been with Fair Wear Foundation for ten years and I honestly believe we have done some excellent work in unravelling the connections between brand behaviour on the one hand and workers’ rights violations on the other. But the bottom line hasn’t changed. Ten years ago, we at FWF noted that millions of garment workers face limits on their rights and freedoms every day. This is still just as true today.
In our book, we concluded that the key to change was to examine each individual decision and allow its impact on the world to be at least a factor, rather than just do what we were used to doing. To give a very simple example: for most people, deciding never to fly again because it is bad for the planet would be a huge leap. So most people conclude that they cannot (or don’t want to) live more sustainably as far as flying is concerned. Feeling disempowered, they stop thinking about it. Alternatively, if we deliberately consider sustainability as one of the factors that inform our decision – along with convenience, cost, and even things like pleasure – and, instead of making one blanket decision, we decide on a case-by-case basis, it is possible to change incrementally. We might still fly, but we fly less, year on year. The huge leap is broken down into manageable steps, creating the potential for much more positive change: if we all cut our number of flights in half, the effect is the same as when half of us stop flying altogether.
If we’re to transform the garment industry, I believe we need to do on a systemic level what I advocated for in my book on an individual level: put ‘business as usual’ aside and examine our needs, our actions and their consequences. Indeed, ‘business as usual’ seems to be the one, ever-present and near-insurmountable obstacle to a truly fair garment supply chain. For example, brands hopping from factory to factory is an obstacle to improving conditions in those factories. Ostensibly, the reason for this is money. But experts agree that the business case for this factory hopping is unconvincing and the real reason for it is that it’s ‘just how it’s done’. Business as usual, that is.
For me, The Threads project is a great opportunity to take a step back from FWF’s day-to-day work and unravel some of the systemic hurdles that are keeping the garment industry from truly transforming.”