My Friends Are Garment Makers: When "Fashion Revolution" Gets Personal

All photos in this post are courtesy of Nicola Harger Photography

The longer I'm here in the beautiful Philippines, the more personally connected to the cause of "fashion revolution" I become. In just a few short months, I've befriended women in the garment industry, met local, small ethical fashion businesses and listened to their struggles to survive and "make it" without compromising on fair wages, and have even gotten the inside scoop on the big fast fashion manufacturing factories here. 

And in the space of these past three months, I've gone from a generally-positive ethical-lifestyle promoter with a "yes! We can do this!" attitude to a pretty angry and slightly more angsty tortured social justice warrior (that's only half tounge-in-cheek). I find myself wanting to post long facebook rants about greed and capitalism far more often than I want to post about a brand or a new ethical living find. 

Why? Because now things are getting more personal. I've cared about the people behind my clothes ever since I started this ethical consumerism journey, but It's different, more intense, now that those people are my friends, now that they are people I've sung karaoke with and joked with and shared meals with. 

Last year when I launched A Beautiful Refuge I sat with my new friend M over steaming bowls of tinola and learned about how she was just a teenager when she started working in clothing manufacturing for brands like The Disney Company and Victoria's Secret. She made very little, and by the time she'd paid for her jeepney fare to and from the factory and for food there wasn't much left.

A few weeks ago I talked with K, another friend who worked in the garment industry before she was sucked into a life of commercial sexual exploitation through promise of more income and an easier method of survival. I felt a wave of hot anger pass through me as I thought of the wealthy high-level employees of the same multi-billion companies that "couldn't afford" to pay my friend and countless workers like her a few more dollars a month. "How can they live with themselves when their success comes at the expense of the broken lives of others"? 

I grabbed coffee in a mall recently with another new friend, C, who worked in the garment industry in the Philippines for two years before quitting just last week to form her own label + employ at least a few of the seamstresses she saw being treated unfairly in the factories where she worked. Here in the Philippines, the garment manufacturing industry isn't as large as other countries in Southeast Asia. Do you know why? Because big fashion companies don't want to pay the required minimum wage. And the required minimum wage here is not even a living wage- it's under 10 dollars a day! C told me how Express, one of the larger international fast fashion brands that has been manufacturing here in the Philippines for 17 years, is pulling out of the Philippines and moving their factories to Vietnam "because there are even less regulations there, and because they can pay an even lower wage". 

I mean, this is nothing new. I knew before moving here that Express didn't pay fair wages and that factory conditions weren't great in the Philippines... but moving from "I read some info on a website" to "my friend shared how this is affecting her life" kind of increased my level of investment.

And anger. 

So, what do I do with this anger? How do I turn it into something constructive? 

I can, for starters, continue paying fair wages to the women at A Beautiful Refuge (twice what other "fair trade" businesses I've visited here pay). I can continue tirelessly working to expand the business so that we can hire more women. 

Maybe, in the future, I can help start a factory. An actual fair wage factory, a completely transparent factory. One that can employ all of the skilled garment makers who are losing their jobs here in the Philippines. It's a dream that I'm actually taking (scary) steps toward with some friends.  

Aside from that, I can continue to take steps to weigh my own consumption, finding balance, and contributing my spending to worthwhile companies. 

Because that's all I know how to do, for now. 

Thanks for listening/reading.