Eco-Friendly Conundrum of Clothes: An Interview with Ilona Kelly

September 4, 2014 • Fashion

 With fashion week upon us to delight us with glitz and tackiness, we thought we’d sit down with Ilona Kelly, Campaign Director at Labor Behind the Label, to talk about the necessity of dignity in fashion — among other subjects. 

Can you explain Labour Behind the Label’s ‘dignity needed’ campaign?

 The campaign is working towards is a reality in which garment workers worldwide get a living wage. Not a minimum wage, but a wage that supports all their basic human needs. You can work 100 hours a week and still not make enough to pay your rent, your food, medical expenses, and that’s outrageous. We’re working alongside unions in Cambodia, where they are fighting to get their minimum wage increased to a level closer to a living wage. It’s an important issues of wages and work, that does not just affect the garment industry but also there’s a living wage campaign in the UK now. So this connects to issues of inequality, it all relates essentially. We’re looking for sustainable practices on an international front.

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I know that Labour Behind the Label has criticized the idea that vintage or second hand clothes are sustainable alternatives to ‘fast fashion. Could you explain why this is?

 When you think ‘ethical’ and voice concern over human rights issues, it’s important to understand that the causes of these problems are not simple. They’re the result of a myriad of factors. So much of it has to do with economic policy, relating to a drive towards prioritizing privatization and deregulating the labor market. In terms of fast fashion and vintage as a so-called sustainable solution, it goes back to people wanting easy answers. But that doesn’t get to heart of why and how these things are happening and as result it doesn’t address these underlying factors. Thinking of the implications of our choices in terms of our buying practices is an important thing to do. We live in a globalized world with a globalized economy. So everything has an effect, not just in my local community, but potentially in the world.

In Ghana more than half of all the clothes bought there are second hand. I think that emphasizes the scale of the trade. So what are the implications on that? Why has it turned into such a booming trade? Globally, second hand clothes are a billion dollar industry. Instead of people taking a job as a trader of second hand goods, it would be great if they had an alternative — if they had a choice in the matter. And if second hand clothes are booming what is the effect on the local culture? If people are not buying from the local textile industry, then how has it been affected? In fact it has been negative. The local textile companies who are actually employing people in long term secure jobs can’t compete.

It’s also important to remember these questions of poverty and human rights and fast fashion are linked to other issues as well, and that includes the environment. The textile industry is one of the biggest polluters in the world. And ultimately as we consume more our clothes end up in landfills because the industry is flooding the market. There is simply not enough people to buy these clothes, so they end up in landfills.

However, I don’t want to say ‘stop buying clothes’, a simple solution for such a complex problem doesn’t exist. But I do want people to start thinking and being aware of what’s happening. And I think with awareness, with education we start making better choices. Once we think of it in a comprehensive way, we’ll start getting to solutions. Issues are pitted against each other: as a fight between employment and environmental concerns — and that’s not the way to deal with this. We’re being offered a false choice.

Absolutely, with ‘ethical’ fashion it seems to be divided into two things. It’s either human rights or animal rights. It’s one thing or the other.

 Exactly! And that’s the question of how you engage with this industry in an ethical way. And this idea of buying ethically — is it only available to wealthy people? The fact is engaging in the garment industry needs to go beyond being a consumer in it. We need to stop thinking of it just in terms of our consumer power, and in terms of buyers. We are also people. And our actions in terms of ethical and non-ethical are not just defined in terms of what we can buy. Because in the garment industry, as in most industries, at some point something or someone was exploited along the way. That’s the reality. What does ‘ethical’ even mean? We have companies starting to make better environmental decisions, which is wonderful, but at the same time their workers aren’t being paid enough to live on.

This goes back to offering vintage or second hand clothes as an alternative. It’s not going to fix the problem. Choosing to buy at another company doesn’t change the systems that are driving this need to produce clothes at minimum costs no matter what the consequences. And this increasing ‘cheaper is better’ mentality, led to the biggest industrial accident in history just a year and a half ago. Buying at a different company isn’t going to change all that.

But guilt is unhelpful. Sitting around feeling bad about the state of the world doesn’t change anything. You think you can’t do anything so you aren’t going to bother. That reaction is frankly bullshit. You can do something. It’s these easy ways out that allow these systems to continue to damage the environment and exploit. We need to recognize where we are in the state of the world, globalization happened, the economy is a global entity, so our buying practices matter.

Pepe T-shirt. Haiti 2013

Photo from a series by Paolo Woods and Ben Depp, from their series on the relationship between North-South through recycled and disposed t-shirts. More here.


And what has the impact of the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse been on working conditions in the textile industry?

In terms of a direct effect on working conditions, there haven’t been as many changes as one would hope. Even in terms of compensating the victims of the Rama Plaza collapse, where around 1, 113 people died and of over 2,000 people were injured, there has been little movement.  Which is an insult.

To give you the extent of how horrific this collapse was, people trapped in the collapse were literally handed hacksaws and had to amputate their own limbs in order to survive. That was the only alternative. It was either death or you cut off your arm. That’s the scale. When I say 2,000 wounded survivors, these are amputees suffering one of the most traumatic incidents of their lives. You might have survived but your sister didn’t. You know what I mean? So not only might they have these life long injuries they also don’t want to work in the garment industry anymore! Which is reasonable!

The factory collapse was probably preventable. People saw cracks in the building days before. There was a mass exodus the day before, and they were threatened with their jobs. So they said ‘if you don’t go in the factory today, we’re not going to pay you, you’re not going to have a job’. So if you’re a person who has to decide between a likely, but not certain, death, to starving which is the certain outcome, that’s not a choice. So essentially these people had to go back to work.

You would think in this context getting compensation would be an easy thing, but no. It’s been a long drawn out process.

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Benetton, which was sourcing from Rana Plaza, hasn’t given anything to compensate the victims. These companies give a litany of excuses. One of them, which is important for readers to know, is that brands, such as Matalan, say that they were only sourcing there for a little bit, that they left before the actual collapse of the factory. They say it was a trial order and they left in March and the factory collapsed in April, so they don’t feel they have any ethical obligations to support the victims. But the thing about the garment industry is that it’s run on short-term orders. And that helps the companies because they’re trying to get the cheapest product at the cheapest price they don’t want to be bound to any factory. And the threat of going to another factory is helpful for bargaining a price. This use of short term orders significantly undermines worker rights.

The factory owners get concerned they won’t have orders and money coming in month to month, so they’re less willing to negotiate with workers around salary and working conditions. Essentially, these companies are saying anything under the sun to avoid paying. Just recently Matalan gave, we’re estimating around 60 to 70, 000 pounds, to the compensation fund, which basically amounts to around fifty quid, or $82 USD, to the family of each dead worker approximately. It’s just absurd. These families have faced one of the most horrific incidents you can imagine and we add insult to injury they’re not even given compensation. So that’s an ongoing fight and the International Labour Organisation is driving this process, known as The Arrangement, and the fullest of donors are on our website. It’s important to think about that, and if anything, make a call and say hey, give more!

courtesy of

The other outcome is the signing of this international agreement on working conditions, known as The Accord. Companies who sign this have a binding agreement to push for change, to be held accountable for the working conditions in specific factories. So I think that’s great.  But with companies who have signed it, often they think that is their ethical action for the decade and call it quits. So trade unions are still being undermined at factory level. There have been increasing reports of attacks on trade union members. And safety issues continue. So it’s a slow process. But there has been some change….not as much as you would have thought and hoped for…so my organization continues to push for that.

The best thing you can do is be skeptical, ask questions, do research and be more involved. Learn more, think about it, consider it, and ultimately make the best decision that you can given your circumstances. And understand that being ethical isn’t just related to your buying practices. Because if you can’t afford anything other than the clothes at Primark, that doesn’t mean you can’t act in an ethical way. You can communicate to brands what you expect from them, for a company, you can get involved in pushing them to enforce a living wage, and make concrete steps to ensure they make that a reality. Also worker solidarity: engaging with solidarity actions with workers worldwide.

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