Like many Canadians, I have been jarred by the images of Syrian refugees these past weeks. I feel a shared sense of shame at Canada’s “fessing up” to the realization that we’re now as jaded as many other nations to such stark human misery. (Though, for a country that interned Japanese Canadians, systemically abused First Nations children, and turned away Jewish refugee boats escaping Nazi Germany, we really shouldn’t be so shocked at ourselves.)
The latest polls I’ve seen suggest 90 per cent of Canadians have had some ongoing level of knowledge of the four-year-old crisis in Syria. That the current refugee flood comes as a surprise, and that such a debacle should catch us wholly off guard, doesn’t add up. Considering our collective historical attitude of being regarded as a haven for refugees, we’ve perhaps assumed that it is still largely true, that we’ve been quietly working behind the scenes in a typically low-key Canadian way to save lives and provide succor. Or perhaps, to paraphrase my new book, Fixing Fashion, it is not that people don’t care, but that they don’t care to know the hidden consequences of their action or inaction. It is in this regard that our evolving social consciousness and the global apparel industry I hail from find their intersection.
When I speak of the pressing issues in global textile trades today, I urge Canadians to look at the cultural evolution of our own country over the past 13 years. Social and economic systems stimulated by a surge in neo-conservative, corporatist, and largely anti-immigrant political power under the Conservative Party of Canada have steadily shed their connections to, and support for, liberal values that took Canadians generations to agree upon.
In Canada’s financial and manufacturing circles, this has led to political pressure for greater “free” trade along with reallocations of labour to cheaper offshore locations. While tens of thousands of Canadian manufacturing jobs have been driven overseas since the signing of NAFTA in 1994, a share of the savings generated has been looped back to consumers. By propping up existing western standards of living with cheap clothing subsidized by exploitation, brands and retailers have made “institutional collusion” an attractive option. Politicians have rarely stood in their way. And as our economy has yet to recuperate from the latest global recession, industry must maintain fast fashion as cheaply as possible to help offset losses in our wages and buying power.
We have literally bought into to a new social contract that allows us to maintain an illusion of wealth and status via the disposable consumption of cheap products in exchange for our acquiescence to global reallocations of labour and profit. As cultural systems and values evolved under globalization, and an explosion of outsourcing took place, we became disconnected from the communities and people who make the things we need and who provide us many of our daily services.
For the past 20 years, beginning with the apparel industry, a wide range of consumer goods manufacturers left North America for Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, Mexico, and beyond, where business was left free to operate out of sight and out of mind. Personal connections to the people who make our pants, toys, school supplies, or dress shoes were torn away. Slowly but surely, we have collectively forgotten to care – chosen not to care – because we know deep down that the far-off human and community costs paid to provide us the many material privileges of life in Canada are often too dark and terrible to accept that we might have had a hand in them.
Over the past decade, this country has lost much of its conscience thanks largely to fear and greed. But as on the political front, where we seem finally to have been startled to reaction against a Conservative zealotry that has defaced the reputation and promise of Canada, our methods of consumption are now being increasingly challenged by wider societal stakeholders. Since the collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh and the scenes of Canadian-branded apparel strewn among the rubble, significant efforts have been undertaken internationally to re-think and re-engineer the fashion industry. There is still a long road ahead, but a small, vocal group of outliers is working to transform the industry from within.
Here at home, for instance, community stakeholders came together in Toronto last October for the first World Ethical Apparel Roundtable, hosted by sustainable industry group Fashion Takes Action. FTA also participated in bringing Andrew Morgan and Livia Firth’s critically acclaimed documentary, The True Cost, to Canada. This past summer saw the release of World Vision’s public policy call for Canadian legislative action against child labour in consumer goods supply chains, while Canadian lawyers launched a bid to represent Rana Plaza survivors in a class-action lawsuit.
The real solution to global consumption, and our ambivalence about living off the exploitation of nature and our fellow human beings, lies in the reality reflected in those challenges we face in the political and cultural life of our country. Much as it will take all industry stakeholders working collaboratively to truly “fix” fashion, so it will take all Canadians – First Nations, newcomers, and founding pioneers – to get down to the hard work of fixing Canada.
Michael Lavergne is an ethical supply-chain consultant and graduate student at the University of London’s School for Oriental and African Studies. Fixing Fashion: Rethinking the Way We Make, Market and Buy Our Clothes is published by New Society Publishers.