Detail of a work by Thornton Dial at the Met Breuer
when the truth eludes you
What do you do when the truth eludes you? When you just can’t get the unvarnished truth, when it seems to be almost hiding from you, when you suspect that there’s actually some truth on both sides?
This is the situation I recently found myself in, when I got in between a small, emerging fashion brand based in the United States and a small manufacturer based in Nepal. Here’s a condensed version of the story that grew rapidly and became relatively big, fast.
While scrolling through my Instagram feed last week, I came upon a picture of a small group of Nepalese women, holding signs urging a fashion brand to, essentially, pay up.
The text accompanying the picture said that the brand had ordered, received, and had been selling garments on-line, garments for which the women who made them, presumably the women in the picture, had been waiting for payment in full, for a long time.
These kinds of pictures float through my feed all the time and fairly often, I repost them. I don’t do so mindlessly. I read the accompanying text, pay attention to which brand, designer, or manufacturer is being accused of what. I do some research myself, or I make sure I know and can trust those who have, and I take into account how well documented the alleged, egregious behavior is.
Calling people, companies, politicians, organizations, and even governments out is one aspect of social media I believe in.
I believe also that one has to be careful in the way they do the “calling out.” I did, and still do feel fine about reposting the Nepalese women’s post. I have no problem pointing out that too often this is how the business of fashion, especially fast fashion, works and the kinds of things it’s guilty of.
Go to a poor, “third world” country, find a manufacturer who works fast and cheap, don’t ask too many questions about how the women are treated and paid, and you have yourself a “relationship.”
If you want, you can even “greenwash” the situation.
You can tell your customers that every aspect of manufacture is done ethically and sustainably, the workers are housed in nice dorms, in the lovely countryside, the
working conditions are good, the pay fair, and hey, you’re a real saint. And if you’re a small designer, one who can’t get an order filled by a large offshore company, you go to a small “woman’s coop.”
In this situation, you can both “greenwash” and “virtue signal.” Now you’re a real activist, a feminist, someone concerned with the lives of poor women and children, and you may even up for some kind of humanitarian award!
Another good thing about social media platforms, like Instagram, is that people can actually “talk” to each other. They can also contradict each other and argue, vociferously, and that’s what ensued after I reposted the picture of the Nepalese women.
The brand’s designer herself “replied” to the post and denied the accusation.
I’ll spare you the details that each side subsequently listed regarding: the time frame of the agreement, the payments paid, the state of the clothes received, the amount still due, the lies told, the designs sold etc. They’re not necessary to understand, in general, what was going on here.
After the designer posted her reply, an advocate for the women posted her account of the story, an account that adamantly refuted the brand’s story.
More dates, amounts, and denials were listed by the advocate.
Then, a good friend of mine, someone both educated in and truly knowledgeable about how these kinds of business relationships, between manufacturers in poor countries and fashion brands from the U.S. work, asked some very good, detailed questions.
So now I’m neck-deep into this Instagram “storm” and, as you can imagine, it’s both interesting and disconcerting. I’m a feminist and a slow and ethical fashion advocate concerned about the rights of women, especially poor women, and I’m an admirer and supporter of small and emerging, high quality, sustainable brands, especially brands owned by women.
After the back and forth, after re-reading the comments, after a lot of thought, and even taking into consideration both the “posh” lifestyle of the designer and the uneasy look on the women’s faces in the picture, I approached the designer. I explained to her that it was a difficult decision for me to make, but I was offering to delete my post. She replied, as I assumed she would, that she would very much appreciate it.
I hit delete.
I had never deleted a post before, but the truth was eluding me. I’m not trying to prove anything here, I’m not sure I have any wise words or lessons to pass on. I can’t even tell you yet what it is I learned from this experience.
I still hate much of the fashion business, hate greenwashing, believe in women’s rights, and am fascinated by how social media works.
“The two fundamental parts of anything that is next to your skin right now is nature and labour.”