If Looks Could Kill: The Problem with the Fashion Industry

If Looks Could Kill: The Problem with the Fashion Industry

We were winding our way through a maze of narrow alleyways no wider than our shoulders. Alongside the footpath lay a long, open drain that was stagnant with sewage, the stench of which had attracted swarms of flies.

About 30 meters down the alleyway, we reached a rickety ladder and carefully climbed three levels to the tiny loft-like space of a crumbling shanty, where we found a dilapidated garment workshop run by a man who introduced himself as Mo.

Eight young migrant workers were hunched over rolls of fabric, upon which they were embroidering intricate patterns with a fine needle and thread.

The floors were concave with the weight of the men, the ceiling above so low you could barely stand. Most of the young men were wearing just a lungi — a piece of fabric draped around the waist — a seemingly necessary adaptation to the oppressive heat and humidity trapped in the confined space.

The workers were from rural regions of Bihar, sent by their families to find employment in bustling Mumbai.

Most were bonded laborers, who earn a sum of money in advance — a bond, or debt — and in return work thirteen or more hours a day, seven days a week, to pay back their initial “loan” on a per-garment basis.

All of these workers, including Mo, worked in the factory by day and used the floor space at night for sleeping.

As is common in the industry, many of these workers will lose their vision and the mobility of their hands due to the fine detailing demanded of them.

Oftentimes, further loans must be taken out to cover medical costs, thus fueling the cycle of financial bondage. There is no conception of health provisions or sick days, let alone vacation time or social security.

Such is the reality for untold numbers of workers — hundreds of thousands —who have left their homes and families in search of employment and found their way to the largest slum on earth: Dharavi, Mumbai, India.


My wife Sofi and I had gone to Dharavi as part of our research for Alice + Whittles, a fashion company we created to have the face of a high-aesthetic, high-quality line of fashion essentials, but the blood, guts and backbone of a company working towards the long-term reduction of poverty.

Our vision for Alice + Whittles was to make beautiful, well-crafted goods through farmers and craftspeople around the world, whose work would be respected and fairly rewarded.

We wanted to take responsibility for the items we make, how we make them and what they’re made with.

We believed in the incredible value of transparency, for both producers and consumers, but we were quickly finding that true transparency was difficult to find. No one knew what exactly was happening in the production world, let alone why the processes had been allowed to become so cloudy.

Having both left fieldwork careers with the UN, our natural instinct was to go see the broken system of garment production for ourselves, to meet people from different regions, sectors and layers of society that all contributed to the products we find on the racks.

And so we traveled to Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kutch, Pune and Bangalore, spending countless hours with policy makers, NGOs, factory owners, designers and everyday labourers. It took several months of information gathering, but we had finally begun to get some answers.


Shifting fashion production to developing countries in southern Asia started gaining momentum at the end of the 1990s, when many Western fashion companies had only two words on their minds: faster and cheaper.

This was the rise of fast fashion, when brands were doing everything they possibly could to take the latest looks from the catwalk and turn them into garments in our closets over shorter and shorter periods of time.

Suddenly, whereas brands traditionally released two collections per year — Spring / Summer and Fall / Winter — some were beginning to crank out more than a dozen in the same amount of time.

But what started as a move by fast fashion brands to secure a competitive edge over their rivals has since had a much more profound effect across the industry. Consumers have come to expect cheaper goods with the same look as the high-quality fashion lines, which in turn force even luxury brands to find ways to produce entry-level items to attract these newer, savvier buyers.

All of this pressure, then, gets passed to the manufacturers themselves, who must meet faster turnaround times at lower costs. This demand leaves a factory with very few choices if it wants to survive.

The factory could tell brands that the implications of a supply chain like the one they’re demanding would be unethical, unsustainable and brutal, which would result in the factory simply getting replaced by another one of the countless others.

So the factory will decide to make it work no matter what it takes. Even if “what it takes” is employing bonded laborers like the ones in Mo’s workshop. Even if “what it takes” is providing inhumane working conditions for their workers, and consumers never being the wiser of what their new expectations are actually costing.

To put it bluntly, all fashion brands should be contributing to the long-term solution to the problems that have corrupted our industry. We’ve even gone so far as defining that contribution as six responsibilities.

1. Take responsibility for your complete supply chain, all the way back to its raw materials.

2. Support the decent wage of all workers.

3. Contribute to the communities where your work is being done — beyond wages and regardless of the regulatory framework.

4. Take care in selecting materials that have a minimal environmental impact.

5. Invest in long-term relationships with suppliers.

6. Use technology and innovation to bring products to market efficiently and ethically.

This line of thinking has been so thoroughly removed from the fashion industry that it’s almost darkly comical. For example, when creating a new product, you would typically go to a trade show to meet with manufacturers or with a consultant — someone to help you turn a design into a reality. And you would expect the questions you receive to regard craftsmanship or materials, labor ethics or the environment — values, in other words.

Instead, the questions you actually receive are about maximum costs and minimum quantities.

One popular approach by culturally savvy brands wanting to create change has been to give back through charity programs. Unfortunately, however, the complex realities of exploitation and poverty are often oversimplified into shortsighted strategies that are easily digestible by the public but not terribly effective in the long term.

Charity is not always a long-term solution, and at times it might actually get in the way of the best solution by masking the core problems or even creating new ones.

Worse yet, some of the companies who support charitable causes haven’t fully vetted their own supply chain and are therefore directly contributing to the core problem of unethical production. And there’s something horribly incongruent about giving back through charity only after earning that money through exploitation.

The point is, the problems within the fashion industry are complex. There’s no clever, quick fix. There’s just a long road ahead — but a road absolutely full of rewarding, meaningful conversations, experiences, insights, creativity, and old-fashion hard work.

And the way we see it: if it’s a long road ahead, we might as well start moving now.

We started Alice + Whittles as our way to put forth a tangible argument for the fashion industry’s opportunity to change.

We’re committed to releasing a new line of goods only as quickly as we can research and craft a full value chain that supports our values throughout the line’s creation.

We start by finding the most meaningful countries for both material sourcing and goods production, with “meaningful” defined as countries with the highest mix of resources and skill (for us) and need (for them). We go and see these environments firsthand, meeting people, asking hard questions, developing long-term partnerships and even requiring signatures on ethical trade agreements.

We talk to the workers about the goods we want to create, and we ask for their input. We tell them how much we plan to sell them for, and they laugh hysterically. Most of them have never known what comes of their work.

And we use online tools to stay in touch. There’s an internet cafe being built on our rubber plantation so that the workers can have a direct line of communication with the Fair Rubber Association, allowing them to provide continual updates regarding needs, challenges and potentially exploitative circumstances.

These tools aren’t revolutionary for our culture, but they’re certainly revolutionary for our industry. Travel is no longer inescapably expensive. Ongoing communication is no longer impossibly challenging.

When we released our first collection of espadrilles, we worked our way through the full value chain — from the farmers and organic cottonseeds in northern India used to make the canvas, to the handloom and handcrafted techniques used in the production of the final goods in France.

Through this process, we not only helped support the livelihoods of small scale farmers and weavers — but we were also able to minimize our carbon footprint, with a very good understanding of what we needed to improve.

Because, after all, we’re far from perfect. There are many aspects of our value chain that we need to improve upon, from integrating recycled materials into our new collections to finding more environmentally friendly means of transport when coordinating the logistics of manufacturing.

But we’re in it for the long run — so we’ll keep looking for problems in our supply chains and finding innovative and ethical ways to fix them.

We believe in being part of something bigger than just the goods we make. We believe we can help change how the fashion industry operates. And we believe that by working towards this, the industry as a whole can have an impact on the world we live in: by reducing poverty through the creation of sustainable livelihoods, and by helping preserve the environment through the sustainable curation of the materials we use.

We’ve started on a long, challenging journey. And this is only a small step — we understand that we’re a drop in the ocean compared to the influence and experience most large brands have.

But we’ve started out on the right foot.

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