Last summer, I found myself standing in the middle of a denim sewing factory outside of Bengaluru, India, watching lines of young women in saris bent in concentration over sewing machines. The women were sewing jeans, and as they worked snippets of denim fabric and thread flew around the factory. Finished jeans accumulated into mountainous stacks at the end of each factory aisle. Each garment worker sewed only a very small section of the jeans, rushing to fulfill production targets for the day, hoping with their frenetic, constant motions to earn bonuses to augment their low wages.
As I watched them, I was electrified by the experience of being inside a factory. Growing up buying clothes in suburban Indianapolis, I only became aware of the people, animals, and places impacted by my purchases in my mid-twenties. Before that, shopping was about just two things: my preferences and my budget. I shopped to express myself, and I had only a dim sense that my purchases might be harmful. I even thought my clothes, shoes, and other apparel were largely made by machines instead of people. Because Western fashion brands generally give us very little information about the human or environmental impact of our clothing, it’s easy to understand why I could grow up in a bubble. Shopping in a J.Crew or a Forever 21 or almost any other major fashion retailer, we are inundated by advertising that rarely includes imagery of where or how our apparel is made. As I stood amidst the din of the factory floor watching young women make clothes for Westerners, I felt like I was peeking behind an impenetrable wall or barrier.
At its heart, my visit to the denim factory was an attempt to translate my personal revelations about fashion—the need to promote transparency, living wages, and sustainability—to other consumers. I wanted to find a way to allow Western shoppers and garment workers to connect, hoping that this act of connection would build empathy and contribute to the growing movement within fashion to buy fewer and less harmful things. To this end, I teamed up with new media artist and professor Sarah Nelson Wright to create Invisible Seams, an augmented reality walking tour of SoHo, NYC centered on the globalization of the fashion industry. Users of the Invisible Seams app will be invited to walk the streets of SoHo, listening to a narrative that blends the voices of garment workers, fashion activists, and cultural theorists with soundscapes from factories abroad. At designated storefront locations users will use their smartphones to superimpose videos and images directly on the storefronts of major fashion brands. For example, an H & M logo will trigger footage of a garment worker in Sri Lanka, superimposed on the H&M storefront, speaking directly to the participant about making clothes for Western brands. Throughout the walk, participants will learn about the history of SoHo, the globalization of the fashion industry, the rise of fast fashion, and the ethical and environmental considerations of purchasing clothes. Invisible Seams aims to give shoppers in SoHo an experience such as the one I had in the denim factory: a visceral, embodied sense of where our mass-produced apparel comes from.
In order to gather material for Invisible Seams, Sarah and I visited India and Sri Lanka to tour factories and interview garment workers. Faced with this firsthand exposure to the problems of globalized fashion, I came to see that shopping for apparel with smaller companies allows consumers to bypass some of the worst abuses of multinational retailers. In Sri Lanka, Sarah and I spoke with the Head of Sustainability for a garment manufacturer. He explained to us that, contrary to popular belief, in some cases well-intended consumer pressure does not trickle down to substantial changes in factories. He cited the Greenpeace Toxic Threads Campaign, which stirred up consumer protest surrounding the fashion industry’s large-scale use of toxic chemicals. Scared off by mounting piles of bad press, fashion retailers created new chemical compliance codes designed to remove toxic chemicals from their supply chains. However sometimes these compliance codes were out of touch with conditions in factories. For example, brands might order products—say, a neon pink sports bra— that can’t be made without using toxic chemicals. Often brands are unwilling to pay a higher cost to achieve the colors they want in a less toxic way. We were told that sometimes chemical compliance codes are signed even when manufacturers can’t demonstrate they’ve followed them, because it’s not possible for the manufacturers to know the origins of chemicals purchased in deregulated markets within the country of origin. Ultimately some of the changes imposed by brands because of the Greenpeace campaign turned out to be out of tune with the realities within factories.
Hearing this and other similar stories on our trip made me realize that the monolithic nature of globalized fashion, where huge corporations manage long supply chains in many countries, makes substantial changes slow and difficult. Buying from smaller companies that can clearly elucidate their values and demonstrate their commitment to protecting the planet and their workers provides a more direct solution to the problem of ethical consumption. As the political theorist Leopold Kohr pointed out in The Breakdown of Nations, any system that gets large enough, regardless of the qualities or mechanisms of that system, becomes oppressive—or as he put it so well, “whatever outgrows certain limits begins to suffer from the irrepressible problem of unmanageable proportions.” Shopping from companies that keep their supply chains on what Kohr would called the “human scale” is one way to make sure one’s values as a consumer are fulfilled. Sarah and I hope that our Invisible Seams app will make consumers more interested in the origins of their clothes and by extension lead to them seeking out ethically-made apparel, which often, though not always, means seeking out less obvious choices than those found at a mall.