To say that Tansy E. Hoskins‘ Stitched Up deconstructs the garment industry would be a misrepresentation. What the British activist and journalist does is more like a controlled demolition, using facts and footnotes to strip away the apparel trade’s decorative exterior and then to dynamite the foundations.
Hoskins’ polemic begins with the title. In British usage “to stitch up” is “to swindle, to overcharge exorbitantly,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and Hoskins’ goal is to show the many ways that fashion swindles us all. Through its own media outlets and its billions of dollars in advertising, the industry creates a glittery illusion of beauty and sophistication. The reality is a $1.5 trillion industry as grimy and profit-driven as any, and the glossy pages of Vogue conceal a record of human and environmental damage we might expect from coal mining or oil drilling.
Some of Hoskins’ material is familiar: the torture deaths of animals to produce handbags and fur coats, the starvation wages and intolerable work conditions of the young women who stitch our clothes. We’re less likely to know that the draining of the Aral Sea to irrigate Uzbekistan’s massive cotton fields has produced what Hoskins calls “a diseased rock-salt desert plagued by winds that blow carcinogenic dust into villages.”
The media covered the deaths of 1,133 Bangladeshi workers in the April 2013 collapse at Rana Plaza, but few people are aware of fashion’s connection to an even greater industrial accident. At least 3,800 people died in the December 1984 explosion at Union Carbide’s chemical plant in Bhopal, India; tens of thousands were injured, and the health effects continue to this day. The plant had been producing aldicarb, a pesticide largely used in the cultivation of cotton — “a deadly harvest,” Hoskins writes, “to be turned into disposable clothes and goods.”
From Bhopal to the Catwalk
The industry has its victims in the advanced capitalist world as well. The exploitation of consumers in New York or London is clearly less horrifying than the treatment of workers in Bangladesh, but it remains exploitation. Frequently using and reinforcing racist and sexist stereotypes, fashion pressures working people here to consume, and to consume more than they can afford. Women especially are subjected to “constant messages that [they] must diet, must get cosmetic surgery, buy clothes and feel bad about themselves,” Hoskins writes. And those of us who can resist the omnipresent pressure to buy are still compelled to “dress for success” if we hope to get and hold most types of job.
The exploitation extends even to the industry’s glamorous façade. While the media fetishize a handful of Photoshopped top models, the young women on the catwalk actually tend be underage, vulnerable immigrants from Eastern Europe and South America, models’ union president Dunja Knezevic tells Hoskins. These are “girls for whom not having food available for eight hours is acceptable because their mother works in a factory and doesn’t have any food for 12 hours a day,” Knezevic says. And models aren’t exempt from industrial accidents: between August 2006 and February 2007 three models died from the effects of self-starvation.
Stitched Up would be invaluable just as a reference book on the devastation fashion has inflicted. But Hoskins isn’t content to expose fashion on paper; she also wants to take it on in the real world.
Consumers in the Global North are generally aware of the issues; they’ve at least heard about the deaths in Bangladesh. But what can they do? The most common reaction is to feel guilty and, at the same time, helpless.
Routinely assaulted by the claim that “the consumer is king,” that shoppers control industrial practices through what economists like Paul Samuelson call “dollar votes,” people here feel they have a responsibility as individuals to change the way they shop. But “ethical consumerism” isn’t easy to carry out in everyday life. The products that claim to be nonpolluting or sweatshop-free “are often the most expensive on the market,” Hoskins notes, “so ethical consumption is unfortunately deeply class-based.” We end up in effect “blam[ing] those with the least individual power in society for the destruction of the planet or the existence of sweatshops.”
And how are consumers to know whether the “ethical” products are what their retailers claim they are? After all, we’re dealing with an industry that specializes in creating illusions. Hoskins describes how in 2005 a company named NatureWorks LLC emerged to sell Ingeo, a “miracle fabric” advertised to be biodegradable and free from petroleum. Ingeo turns out to be made largely from genetically modified (GM) corn, developed in a joint venture by Cargill Inc. and Dow Chemical. Cargill is the world’s largest corn merchant, and its interest in the project seems to be a desire to increase consumer acceptance of GM products. Dow is of course the producer of napalm and Agent Orange; in 2001 it merged with Union Carbide, inheriting responsibility for the carnage in Bhopal.
From Guilt to Solidarity
This doesn’t mean that there’s no room for action, according to Hoskins — just that “action must not stop at the checkout.”
The media tend to depict garment workers simply as victims, but as Hoskins points out, for more than a century “predominantly female garment workers” have led “some of the bitterest and hardest fought battles of the international labor movement.” Workers in places like Haiti and Bangladesh need our solidarity far more than our sympathy. In recent years consumers from the Global North have helped win meaningful changes in the garment industry, but this has happened only when they acted in collective, organized campaigns coordinated with the workers in the Global South. Here in the United States, for example, groups like United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) have used focused consumer boycotts on campuses — sometimes just the threat of boycotts — to force major manufacturers to agree to honor demands from workers in the Caribbean Basin.
There are limitations to this strategy. Hoskins notes that despite recent victories real wages have continued to fall in the garment sector internationally, and she contends, convincingly, that fashion’s crimes are to a large extent inevitable in a capitalist system. Still, solidarity campaigns “can unite, engage, educate and inspire people,” she writes. They “have vital parts to play in changing the world and fashioning a new one.”
Stitched Up is a useful and even attractive aid for people ready to take up this challenge. Its scope is encyclopedic, but the prose is rarely dull; Hoskins’ writing is powerful when describing the industry’s atrocities and witty when exposing its absurdities. Nothing with so much content is going to be perfect, of course: too many of the footnotes give URLs without further information; the discussion of surplus value seems overstated; and some of the denunciations of capitalism may be unnecessary after Hoskins has already exposed the system’s fundamental faults.
But these are minor problems that can be resolved in later editions — because this is a book that will need to stay in print for years to come. It may be too much to hope that Stitched Up will do for fashion what Rachel Carson did for pesticides and Jessica Mitford did for funeral homes; this is one slim book against an industry with a powerful machinery of deception. But at the very least it will be an indispensable handbook for every labor and environmental activist, and for all consumers who wonder what they can do to prevent future Bhopals and Rana Plazas.
David L. Wilson and co-author Jane Guskin are working on a revised edition of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers (Monthly Review Press, July 2007). Wilson also edits Weekly News Update on the Americas, a summary of news from Latin America and the Caribbean.