Sunday, 29 September 2013

Some thoughts on the economics of home sewing

I've not been around very much lately. Too busy, but I've been thinking a lot, looking for answers to questions.

How expensive is cheap clothing?

On a forum I sometimes frequent, a poster stated a few weeks ago – apropos a discussion about what to buy and sell at craft fairs and hand-made markets -

I see really simple dresses in stores that are way too overpriced. People are always looking for clothes that are unique and affordable.

I was incandescent with rage at the sheer arrogance of this statement, but calmed down and decided that I should be more benevolent towards my fellow humans, and put her post down to mere (??) ignorance, so I responded in a more temperate manner than I actually felt, as follows:
Mass-produced clothing which is sold in shops is made, in the overwhelming majority of cases, by poor people in third-world countries being paid a few pounds a week, and whose workplaces seem not infrequently to fall down or burn up - or both! - with them trapped, sometimes even locked, inside. 
If the garments produced by these people are to be considered 'overpriced', why on earth would anyone imagine that a dress made individually by a skilled person in the first world would, should or could possibly be purchased for less money (which is what is usually meant by 'more affordable') than a dress which could well have been made by one of those poor, dreadfully-injured women still lying in a Bangladeshi hospital, or by a hungry child who should, by all rights, be at school or simply playing.
Whether we buy a £2 Primark t-shirt, or a £40 Zara t-shirt, can we say that either one is really overpriced?  If we were asked to pay the true cost of these garments in the coinage of life itself, it would be incalculable. 
Overhead view of collapsed Rana Plaza building, Dhaka, Bangladesh, which held several factories and thousands of workers
Rana Plaza collapse, Dhaka,
April 2013 (rijans CC)

I find the thought of someone being forced to work in unsafe, unhealthy, even life-threatening conditions just so that we can casually buy cheap clothes to throw away, to be simply appalling. 

I KNOW it happens and yet I have still bought the jeans, the t-shirt. 


Because I could. No other reason. Shame on me!

I'm what is most kindly described as 'in my senior years' now, and In my younger years, sewing was most certainly a money-saving activity. In the last quarter of a century, though, things have changed very much, and sewing your own garments is now considered, by many people, to be a vaguely eccentric hobby, and certainly not an economy. 

We in the wealthy West benefit from cheap labour in Third World countries, mainly in Asia. This labour is predicated upon cheap fossil fuels, global debt, central banks and a cavalier attitude to environmental damage and occupational safety, if indeed either of the two latter are acknowledged at all. 

What, then, is the real cost of these cheap garments - and, indeed, all the other items so dear to our consumerist lifestyle? 

Corpses trapped in debris of Rana Plaza building, Dhaka, Bangladesh
Destruction and death (rijans CC)
The cost is life itself, human dignity and freedom, the environment we are leaving to our children and our grandchildren, and our own self-reliance and independence. 

Of course, there are large companies, multinationals even, who see that it is generally in everyone's best interests to ensure that their workers - whether a department manager in a UK business place  or a lowly-paid seamstress in Dhaka - are treated in a fair manner and work in safe conditions. These companies are usually members of the Ethical Trading Initiative, which is also associated with international trade union organisations and NGOs. 

An unexpected view down the road

We have exported much of our manufacturing capacity to the cheapest available producers.  

Losing this capacity, and the skill bank that accompanies it, may well not be sustainable in the long run, especially with carbon footprint questions increasingly rearing their heads. What will happen then? 

Let's look at this a bit differently; it can lead to an interesting journey.

Imagine you can't cook, and you don't have a kitchen in your house anyway, or any other facilities to cook, except maybe an electric kettle and some teabags. It doesn't really matter, though, as you have a nearby restaurant always open, willing and able to serve you with food you enjoy at a very reasonable price, at the times you wish to eat. This restaurant imports its dishes from far away, which is why it is able to sell them so cheaply, and as a result, everyone has sold, given away or thrown away all their cookery equipment and converted their kitchens into home theatres, saunas or guest bedrooms. There are similar restaurants in neighbouring villages and towns, which has resulted in all the local food shops closing and the little take-aways and fish and chip shops losing almost all of their business. Just a few still survive  here and there.

Now imagine that owing to some disagreement in which you have played no part whatsoever, the proprietors of all the restaurants suddenly decide that you and the other people aren't the sort of customers they want, and that they aren't going to cook the food you like to eat, so you have to go there at off-peak hours, eat food that disagrees with you or even take the left-overs, if you want to eat at all. You have no other option, as you can't cook, the food shops have long-since gone out of business and the take-aways and fish-and-chip shops are only open occasionally - the nearest one is ten miles away, anyway, and blisteringly expensive.

Is this type of scenario a risk when domestic capacity for other forms of manufacturing is lost? There is no longer any competitive lever, and it becomes the customers who are vulnerable and the producer who is king.

Although clothing nowadays is cheap - amazingly cheap - it's also very common for clothing to be ill-fitting and badly made. Most people ‘outsource’ their clothing to retailers, and don’t have any say in its design,  and no manufacturing capacity at all. 

Hence they don’t have a choice if they need an item of clothing - they have to take what retailers provide at a price they can afford. If all retailers provide a similar supply … well, that’s the way it is. 

The retailers force the factories to cut and cut their prices to the bone, so the garment workers wages are cut still further and their working hours increased. The garments sold by the retailer are even more badly made by workers with an even lower skill level. 

Thus the continuing economy of home sewing for those of us who are all or any of non-standard retail sizes, have no desire to wear 'fast fashion', who cannot afford designer originals but who have designer tastes, who want something 'different', who hate shopping, or who cannot easily shop, who are creative, who just like to use a machine, or - for that matter - any one of a heap of other reasons. I sew for several of the already-mentioned reasons, and another one not mentioned - I can access a wide range of fabric very cheaply!

I'll finish with a Victorian cartoon which gently mocks two fashionable young women who are clearly at the forefront of technology and all things modern.

19thC cartoon - two smartly-dressed young women talking about clothes

Gertrude:  My dear Jessie, what on earth is that bicycle suit for?

Jessie: Why, to wear, of course!

Gertrude: But you haven't got a bicycle!

Jessie: No, but I have got a sewing machine!