Sharing Knowledge in the Fast Fashion Industry

By Grace Kirk
Have you ever browsed a rack of clothes for under $15 at your local Zara, H&M or Topshop, and thought, ‘What a deal!’. Have you ever stopped on your way to the cashier to look at the tag and see where that piece of clothing was made? The clothes you buy may have been made by Cambodian garment workers who are a crucial part of the fast fashion supply chain. Is there a true human cost to getting a bargain?

Fast fashion is the industry term for catwalk trends becoming mass produced garments. With significant focus on the supply chain, these garments are manufactured quickly, so they appear in store at an affordable price.

Investigating fashion, design and sustainability at QUT is researcher, practitioner, activist and sessional academic Lauren Solomon. She has heard first-hand from female Cambodian garment workers about the poor working conditions they experience – where they are unable to visit the toilet during their shift, where transport to work is dangerous and unpredictable, where they spend their entire working life of 20 years packing garments into boxes.

“…where transport to work is dangerous and unpredictable, where they spend their entire working life of 20 years packing garments into boxes.”

Through her Doctorate of Creative Industries project, Empowering Women in the Cambodian Garment Industry, Solomon has presented capacity building workshops to factory worker union representatives in Cambodia, which aim to empower these women to be able to share the skills with their community.

The Cambodian Garment Industry

Solomon explains that while fast fashion occurs across Asia, she chose Cambodia because of its unique history, huge garment industry and accessibility.

Image Credits: Sokummono Khan

The garment and footwear industry is Cambodia’s largest industry, making up 78 per cent of the economy and employing over 600,000 garment workers, of which 85-95% are female.

The nature of fast fashion is temporary, not only in the clothes being produced but all along the supply chain, starting with the factory workers. Ultimately, big business benefits from the cheap labour in Cambodia, and due to the temporary nature of the industry, these workers are at risk of exploitation.

Labor laws exist in order to protect factory workers, however, it’s difficult to ensure that these are always being enforced. For example, a key issue raised in Solomon’s workshop was that the factory workers find it difficult to leave their station to go to the bathroom.

“When you’ve got simple basic rights like that not being respected, it’s problematic,” Solomon says.

“When you’ve got simple basic rights like that not being respected, it’s problematic,” Solomon says.

For the factories working out of Cambodia, the bottom line is the primary concern. Investing time and money into the skill level of their employees is not always a priority. This is where Solomon has seen a huge gap in the industry, one that she has impacted through the six day workshop she ran in Cambodia in January 2017.

The Project: Empowering Women in the Cambodian Garment Industry

One of the biggest obstacles of Solomon’s project was that the factory workers are ‘invisible’. Gaining access to them and their stories is challenging.

Phase One

Phase one of Solomon’s project saw her spend one month of fieldwork in Cambodia in 2015. During this time she met with as many people from the industry as she could. Through this networking (cold calling, emailing, meeting people through networks) she met one of the leaders of the Garment Trade Union.

“I met up with them at their office, and I think it really changed the course of what I was doing,” Solomon says.

“They represent thousands of workers in Cambodia [and] it was an actual insight into what was happening from the workers perspective. Whereas other interviews I’d had were from industry bodies, organisations, lots of social enterprises that are doing really good things, but this was kind of really nitty gritty.”

The Garment Trade Union became partners to the project and were able to connect Solomon with factory workers. Solomon explains how it was the experience of being in Cambodia and talking to a range of stakeholders that she identified the limited skill learning opportunities available to factory workers.

“They’re not provided with any training. They’re given really mundane tasks. There’s all these different things going on, but this part about capacity – about building capacity – that was something I could actually do. So I wanted to look at some sort of intervention method and I thought capacity training could actually change things for those people and it connected with the people in the industry, which is kind of rare,” Solomon says.

Phase Two

Phase two of the project consisted of Solomon and Kiara Bulley, a colleague from QUT, going back to Cambodia in January 2017 to implement the workshops. It was a six-day training course, which is the longest the trade union has ever done.

Image Credits: Sokummono Khan

One of the primary goals of the workshop was for information to be disseminated between factory workers. As the participants were union representatives, there was a total of 13 different garment factories involved.

“For our workshops we were looking at critical thinking and problem solving, which is also something our participants had never learnt or been exposed to before. They’d never done something like that before. So there were lots of challenges, but they came so far in six days,” Solomon explains.

“For our workshops we were looking at critical thinking and problem solving”

There were a number of challenges involved in undertaking a project of this scale. For example, group work was a foreign concept. The participants had never done group work before, and as they were union representatives, they were used to being leaders in their community. The group had to learn to listen to each other.

“It was really incredible to just get to know them, to then see progress and see what they could do with these new skills,” Solomon says.

Documenting the project

Funding from the QUT Creative Lab allowed Solomon to document the experience through film. This part of the project also enabled Solomon to visit some of the workers’ homes in order to get a better idea of their living conditions.

Image Credits: Sokummono Khan

Solomon explained how one participant lives in a dormitory close to the factory with four other workers. Their living conditions are basic, with no access to fresh water. She works at the factory six days a week, in the same job she has done for 20 years, where she packs garments into boxes.

“Before she came to the workshops, she said she was interested in gaining some confidence because she didn’t feel very confident dealing with factory management. Throughout the workshop she started putting her hand up to do presentations and talk in the workshop. She said it had increased her confidence so much, and her ability to network with other leaders,” Solomon says.

“Their living conditions are basic, with no access to fresh water.”

“She said to us that before when someone came to her with a problem she felt really unclear and now it was like someone had given her glasses and she could see clearly,” Solomon says.

Another instance Solomon fondly described was visiting one of the participants who lived on the outskirts of town in the provinces.

“We went and saw her and her family and we were sitting there and she was showing all our training tools to her family and her nieces. That was really exciting to see, because she’d actually picked it up and she could explain it to other people,” Solomon says.

What Can Consumers Do

I was curious as to what Solomon’s recommendations were for local consumers. Solomon’s main suggestion is not to become overwhelmed by the scale of the issue.

“It’s one of those things. We aren’t saying to boycott. What we’re saying is that there are things that could be done to make the situation better for the people,” Solomon says.

She advised how important it is to educate yourself so that when you make purchases they are informed by the information.

About Lauren Solomon

After completing an undergraduate degree in fashion textile design from UTS in Sydney, Solomon went on to work in the creative industries for 9 years. It was during this time of professional practice when Solomon began to raise questions about industry practices.

Consequently, she became involved with a social enterprise called Mayamiko, which is based out of London and works with women in Malawi.

Solomon enjoyed this positive work within the industry and wanted to continue on this path of fashion ethics, sustainability and supply chains. Wanting to explore the mass manufacturing side of supply chains, Solomon knew she would have to go to different places.

After working in London, she came back to Australia where she wanted to get stuck into a project that she could use her existing skill set for.

“I saw the Doctorate of Creative Industries as a really good opportunity to get stuck into research and crossover with academia as well,” Solomon says.

It was talking with colleagues at QUT and her extended network where she first became interested in Cambodia.

“I feel like I’ve always done things by those chance encounters and chance relationships,” Solomon says.

For Solomon this project may be the beginning of many.

“For me, this is definitely a pilot project and because we had such great results there’s heaps of opportunity, and that’s what’s I’d love to do now. I really want to get the word out with brands and stakeholders to actually run more programs,” Solomon says.

I asked if Solomon now felt connected to Cambodia.

“Yeah, it’s funny,” she replied. “I don’t see myself as an activist but it’s kind of happened through this. I do think that just going there, having these experiences, meeting the people. Actually connecting with the people that are doing these roles day in day out, gives meaning to it,” Solomon says.

To discover more about Lauren’s project in Cambodia visit her website, which outlines her current work and the project Facebook page.