In the summers of 2017 and 2018, we ran a free online course called ‘Who made my clothes?’ with and for the Fashion Revolution movement. 16,000 people from all over the world, many with experience working in the industry, joined us for three weeks to Be Curious (week 1), Find Out (week 2), and Do Something (week 3). We’re hoping the course will run again but, in the meantime, wanted to share some of its content: the parts where we showed how fashion’s supply chains work and the places and lives they connect (via a great webdoc series from NPR) and then how you can do this research yourselves, on your own clothes, to create your own personal answers to the question ‘Who made my clothes?’ You can try this for yourself, set it for your class to do, whatever you like. It starts with each person choosing an item of clothing that’s special to them, one they wear every day, one they know nothing about. That mystery helps. Follow our advice… and adapt it for any other things you might like to follow. We’d love to know what you find and write, so please tag us online @followthethings on Instagram or Twitter. Best of luck with this.
Step 1: Watch ‘Planet Money Makes a T-shirt.’
To see what fashion supply chains can be like, how they work, who and where they connect, and the kinds of stories could be in your clothes, watch this series of 6 short films (or check out the whole webdoc experience here).
Step 2: ask ‘where am I wearing?’
In order to find out ‘who’ we are wearing, we first need to find out ‘where’ we are wearing. This is not a straightforward task because, although the ‘made in’ labels in your clothes tell you where they were assembled, they say nothing about the origins of the materials from which they were made.
The task in this step is to look at the materials from which your chosen item [of clothing is] made, and find out where they may have been made and/or grown.
a. Ask the brand
Your clothes’ labels won’t say, so you will need to do some detective work. The first thing to do is to get in touch with your … [item’s brand]. Phone, email or tweet [its] customer helplines and ask … in which countries [its] materials were likely to have been grown or made.
If they cannot or will not say, don’t give up! This is when we learn to make some educated guesswork.
b. Research exporters of material
If you have chosen a pair of leather trousers, for example, search online for ‘leather exports by country’. This will bring up lists of countries where your trousers’ leather may have been sourced. Choose the country that exports the most, or the country that your trousers were made in if it’s on that list.
If you have chosen a cotton shirt, try searching online for ‘largest exporter of cotton’. This will bring up a list of countries from which your shirt’s cotton may have been sourced. Again, make an educated guess about your source.
Image searches can be helpful as they often return maps and graphs that provide quick, clear answers. Ask for help and advice from other learners in the discussion.
Step 3: researching with empathy
… Empathy is an important concept in this course. It’s the process of feeling as another person. It is both ‘affective’ and ‘cognitive’. Affective empathy is a shared emotional response. When, for example, someone else looks sad, you feel sad. Cognitive empathy is where you try to step into someone else’s shoes, to appreciate their lives, and how they understand the world and themselves. Empathetic stories encourage us to identify with other people’s lives.
[In 2016, g]arment industry researcher Kanchana N Ruwanpura argue[d] that media stories of its workers’ lives do not portray empathy, as they tend to ‘flatten the voice of labour by reducing workers to a homogenous category or to slaves’ … We therefore need to take a more complex and empathetic approach to the ‘who made my clothes?’ question in this course. We need to treat the people we find as rounded people, to be able to get a sense of their lives within and outside their workplaces, to try to step into their worlds, get a sense of their world views, experiences, beliefs and fears, the things that shape the way they look at the world and at themselves, and to think about the similarities and differences between our lives and work, and how they are, and could be differently, connected.
… To gain a more detailed understanding of empathy as a concept, you may be interested in watching The Power of Outrospection, a cartoon animation of a lecture by Roman Krznaric, author of ‘Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution’.
Step 4: start your detective work.
[Now you have this information, to] find out who made [an] item of clothing for you, we recommend a step by step method, following clues and picking up on detail as you go. This activity will require some determined and focused online detective work. You’re trying to find the people who may have made your clothes, and what they say about their work and lives. It won’t be quick or easy, but perseverance will lead you on fascinating trails of discovery.
There are two steps in this detective work, and two sets of top search tips. In the next step, we will look for the people working in Tier One, the people who assembled your item of clothing in a garment factory. In the step after that, we will look for the people in Tier Two who grew and made the materials from which it was made.
We’ll be giving you our top search tips. Not every one will result in immediate success, and some may take you in unexpected directions. There will be dead ends and strange tangents. But, if you persevere, it’s amazing what you can find.
Tier 1: who assembled your clothes?
[Find] the brand of your item of clothing and the country in which it was made [on the labels sewn into it]. This is all the information that you need to start your Tier One search.
In this step, we simply ask that you follow the search advice below, and carefully read the sources that you find. The most important thing to do is to look for the human stories of garment factory workers and their lives, but please make sure that you try to understand the context in which these stories are being told and keep a note of your findings and their sources.
It’s important to cut and paste what you find into a separate document, to make sure that you keep notes about which quotations come from which sources, and to add a reference list at the end of the page.
Please make sure that you use more than one source. The more you find, from more sources, the more believable your story will be when others see it. It will also help you to refine your search: once a story starts to take shape, you can use the details that you have found in much more specific searches to find extra nuances and details.
Think also about the year in which your garment is likely to have been made, and look for sources published around the same time, or for sources that talk about relevant time periods. An article that is twenty years out of date may not be the most reliable for this task.
N.B. Please don’t rely only on what a company says about workers in its own supply chains. Always look for independent sources like press stories or NGO (non-governmental organisation) reports to gain different perspectives.
Here are our step by step recommendations for your Tier One detective work:
- Do a quick search for your brand, using a website such as Wikipedia, to see if it has a parent company that you can also add as a search term. For example, if you search for Vans, you’ll see that it’s owned by the VF Corporation.
- Search for your brand, your ‘made in’ country, and key words such as ‘sweatshop’, ‘labour’, ‘child labour’, ‘strike’ or ‘factory’. (Stories about highly charged incidents and long term issues include these terms and often lead to detailed stories being told about garment workers and their lives.) Use standard searches, as well as more specialist ones like Google Scholar and Google Books, which can give you additional information, for example, from academic studies of garment factory labour.
- Look for your garment brand’s scores and stories in:
- Fashion Revolution’s Fashion Transparency Index
- Shop Ethical’s clothing ratings
- Rankabrand’s fashion, clothing and shoes ratings
- Baptist World Australia’s ‘Behind the Barcode’ Ethical Fashion Guide Report (note that you will have to register to download this free report, but it is excellent)
- Note down the issues on which your brand scores well and badly, and the explanations for these scores. Turn the information you find into internet search terms to add extra nuance and detail to these stories.
- Check Fashion Revolution’s Research Library Pinterest board to see if the work and lives of people making clothes for your brand in your ‘made in’ country have been discussed in worker rights NGO and other reports. Look at their covers and titles, read the brief descriptions, click the images to get to the original reports, search for their human stories and read around them to find out how and why these human stories were generated, and why they are being told.
N.B. Always look both for human stories (i.e. garment workers talking about their lives and work) and background information (e.g. a brand’s human rights policies).
Remember to copy information, quotations and sources into your research document as you do this. Add these details under the title – Tier One findings – and don’t forget to note down the names of the garment workers you find, as well as what they say.
Tier 2: who made their materials?
In this step, you can start your search looking for people producing these materials in … [the] Tier Two countries you [found in Step 2 above]. Unless the brand has told you exactly where your garment’s materials were sourced, your educated guesswork can take you to a number of countries.
Again, please make sure that you use more than one source. The more you find, from more sources, the more believable your story will be when others see it. It will also help you to refine your search: once a story starts to take shape, you can use the details that you have found in much more specific searches to find extra nuances and details.
Think again about the year in which the materials from which your garment was made will, themselves, have been grown/made, and look for sources published around the same time, or for sources that talk about relevant time periods.
For this stage of your research, please follow the step by step search advice below:
- After examining your garment’s label to find out the materials from which it was made, do an internet search to find out how each one is grown and/or made into fabric. You might want to begin with a website such as Wikipedia, which has a clothing material page.
- Contact your brand’s customer service department by phone, email or social media and ask them to tell you from which companies and which countries they sourced your garment’s materials. Refer to the countries that you [found in Step 2] and ask if this information is correct.
- Check Fashion Revolution’s Research Library board Pinterest again to see if you can find reports about the growing/making of your garment’s materials in different countries. Read these reports to find human stories and/or to get some ideas for search terms which may enable you to find human stories elsewhere.
- See how likely it is that your materials were produced in countries where forced and/or child labour is common by checking this interactive US Department of Labor List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor. Filter the ‘Good’ list to show ‘garments’, ‘textiles’ and/or ‘cotton’. Use your findings as search terms – e.g. ‘China’, ‘cotton’, and ‘child labour’ – to find the stories which go with this information.
- If your garment is made from cotton, which could have been grown in Uzbekistan, check the Responsible Sourcing Network’s Pledge Against Forced Labor in the Uzbek Cotton Sector to see if its brand has signed. This is a campaign to eliminate forced labour from cotton supply chains in one country where it is known to be commonplace. Again, use your findings as search terms – e.g. your brand, ‘cotton’, and ‘Uzbekistan’ – to find the human stories that go with this information.
- Another place to look for stories of human labour are in the case studies of reports into ‘industrial toxicology’, ‘occupational toxicology’, ‘industrial health and safety’ and/or ‘occupational health and safety’. Search for your material and each of these phrases and see what you can find. Some results may be entirely technical, but you may be able to find case studies detailing working environments, accidents or long-term exposure to substances used in the growing and manufacture of materials and their effects on workers’ lives. This search would be helpful, for example, if your item of clothing had been sandblasted.
As before, don’t forget to look both for human stories (e.g. cotton farmers talking about their lives and work) and background information (e.g. International Labour Organisation conventions).
Remember to copy information, quotations and sources into your research document as you do this. Add these details under the title – Tier Two findings – and don’t forget to note down the names of the workers you find, as well as what they say.
You may find what you are looking for quite quickly, but you may also struggle to find what you’re looking for, or be unsure if you have found enough of your garment’s human story. The next step provides some additional additional search tips and resources that may be helpful once this research is well underway.
What this detective work can be like
This … takes time. Try to remember that you are not looking for a full or definitive story, but for glimpses of connection, of the work and lives of people who may have made your item of clothing. You are looking for people talking about their lives and work, as well as broader issues about pay, conditions, human rights, and so on. You may wish to look for other stories from your garment supply chain like those about the work and lives of people working where it’s shipped, warehoused and/or delivered. And you may like to think of questions you would ask the people you find, and the companies that they work for, if you had the chance.
By the end of this detective work task, you should have created a document full of quotations and references which you can organise to bring together connected themes and stories. This will be the document that you draw upon to create your ‘who made my clothes?’ story. That’s what we’re doing next.
Ask yourself whether you have found anything that has surprised you in the stories you have found, and reflect on how satisfied you are with the telling of these stories.
If you have struggled to find enough about who made your chosen garment, you can go back to your [wardrobe], choose another item and start your detective work again. …
Step 5: tell your ‘who made my clothes’ story
This step is about creative and empathetic storytelling through our clothes, how to present them in ways that foreground the relations between the people who make and wear them. Here we’ll pass on some more top tips about how to turn the findings of our detective work into stories that each of us would enjoy telling others.
a. storytelling through clothes
To undertake this task, we will need to reflect on:
- how stories can convey the personal relationships between the makers and wearers of clothes
- how they can achieve the right balance of authenticity, credibility and empathy
- how they can engage their audiences to feel involved and moved by in these connections and relations
A story can take many forms. Your story will depend on what you have discovered, and how you like to express your ideas. It can be written, spoken, drawn, filmed, sung, danced … that’s why our focus is on ‘telling stories’.
To guide this process, we’d like you to familiarise yourself with the our Storytelling Checklist. This should help to shape your own storytelling, and we will use it later when we ask you ask a friend or family member to review the story you’ve created.
Here’s our advice on the ingredients of a good ‘who made my clothes?’ story:
- Include garment photographs – your audience will need a vivid impression of the garment you’re talking about. Include a photo of it on its own and/or of you wearing it – whatever is most appropriate to the story you’re telling.
- Make it short – about 750 words, or a 3 – 4 minute video, or equivalent. Don’t spend time on an introduction or a conclusion. Jump right in! We’ll show you some examples of work in different formats in the next step.
- Make it up to date – use detective work sources published around the time that your item of clothing may have been made, not 20 years before!
- Set it in particular places – in your and their workplaces, homes, etc. – where this item of clothing becomes part of different people’s lives, including your own.
- Make it human – you and your clothing’s makers are equally important, and everyone has something to say. Use quotations from garment workers that you found in newspapers, NGO reports etc. as their voices.
- Make it personal – express yourself in the first person because this story is about you, your clothes, and how they connect you to other people elsewhere in the world who make them. Try to express your story empathetically. Nobody’s voice should be flattened. Nobody should be discussed only as a category.
- Make it lively – with detailed descriptive passages, video footage, cartoons, photographs and other illustrations (see point 9 below).
- Make it authentic – use details from your own life and from the lives of garment workers discovered in your research to show that your story is believable. When you write about garment workers, use more than one source and add your sources’ references in the text and in a reference list at the end to show how you know what you know about them. See the examples in the next step if you’re not sure how to do this.
- Make it legal – please don’t include copyrighted images or video footage. Take your own photos and video, and make sure you have permission from anyone who might appear in them. Search for copyright-free images online, and say where you sourced each image in your work. If you don’t have images to work with, draw your own cartoons or try a free animation service such as Powtoon. Whatever you create, it’s your responsibility to follow copyright law in your country.
- Warn your audience – if your story contains violence, language or images that may disturb others then please alert your audience at the start.
- Do it your way – there’s no single correct way to tell a story like this, so use a format with which you are familiar, that you can imagine working for you and the story that you want to tell. You will not be able to tell the full, definitive story of who made our clothes. The challenge is: what can you create with what you’ve found? …
b) tell your clothes’ story
What ideas and information do you have to work with? How do you like to tell stories? How can you best convey your connections to the garment workers who made your clothes? It’s time to bring together the notes from your detective work, your thoughts from reading the examples in the last step, and the eleven criteria on the Storytelling Checklist [above].
Everyone has different ways of getting a story together. Some plan meticulously what they are going to say before they say it. Others work spontaneously and tidy their work up later through careful editing. Creativity (whether this is writing, making art, etc.) is a thinking process. Trying things out, seeing how they work, where the ideas take you, can be one of the most exciting aspects of the storytelling process. Whatever way you like to work, it’s likely that you will need to draft your story a number of times before it’s ready to share.
You should expect this process to take several hours. Remember, you are not only creating this story for yourself. You are creating it for someone else to be able to appreciate what you have learned and want to say. You want to leave them thinking and feeling something that you have thought and felt.
Think about the ways the examples you looked at in the last task had an effect on you. How could you convey something like that to people who haven’t taken this course, to people who rarely, if ever, think about the people who make their clothes?
That’s your assignment.
… you will need to think about your audience: to whom do you want to tell your story? How can you best reach that audience?
It’s also important to get some feedback on your story before it reaches the outside world. Please share it with friends and/or family members. Ask them to assess it according to the Storytelling Checklist. Then revise your story in response to their comments and post it online on a blog or website, a video or photo sharing platform … [and tag @fash_rev and @followthethings to say what you’ve done].
This text was originally written by Ian Cook, Verity Jones and Kellie Cox.