In Remake’s 8th journey, we took the next generation of fashion designers from California College of the Arts and Parsons Fashion to one of the world’s foremost garment manufacturing countries: Sri Lanka. Our fashion students discovered the human effort behind production and the lives of the women behind Made in Sri Lanka. These are the top 5 takeaways to know about the Sri Lankan women #whomadeyourclothes:
1. The math doesn’t add up:
It takes a 100 pairs of human hands to bring one t-shirt to life. On the factory floor alone we counted 40 people working on a t-shirt that was priced at £8 or $10.45! The only way to get us clothes this cheap is to disempower women. The women behind made in Sri Lanka told us they do 12 hour shifts, 6 days a week. Yet minimum wage is 5x less than a living wage. Some told us they take up sex work at night just to survive. All for a cheap tee we will throw out after a few wears?
2. The system reeks of colonialism:
To get our clothes to us cheaper and faster, brands operate off of razor thin margins. Even the most powerful vendor groups and factory managers told us, despite all the Research and Development (R&D) and innovation that the Sri Lankan industry is known for, the buyer is still king. The western brands set the price and lead time. This means the makers work long hours for untenable wages.
3. Let’s stop talking about “empowering women”:
It’s become very trendy for brands and retailers to provide training for financial literacy or confidence building for makers to empower them. But we found that the local, fierce grassroots activists and women on the assembly line are plenty powerful. They don’t need training. They need a voice in the system itself. They need an increase in wages and access to healthcare. These are their words, not ours.
4. The robots are coming:
When apparel fled from Mexico and the Americas to Asia, there was no responsible exit. Locks were placed on doors and back wages were owed. The brands who ghosted left communities destroyed. In Colombo, Sri Lanka we saw laser machines distressing jeans in 5 minutes, what used to take 50 human hands. We ask, what will happen to the 75 million women who rely on this industry when the robots take over? To us, increasing wages to lift this generation out of poverty seems to be a race against time.
5. It all starts with design:
We learned how a simple change in color palette can save so much water. How a complex design without training leaves the maker working harder for less. A whimsical last minute change to the design, no matter how small, means she’s staying late at work. Walking home in the dark, likely to be harassed while she walks alone.
Our journeying students from California College of the Arts and Parsons Fashion leave us hopeful. This generation sees the maker in their own narrative. They want to design with intention, keeping people and our planet in mind. Perhaps they can help slow down the fast fashion madness and make durable slow fashion that leaves communities better off.