Livia Firth campaigns for a more ethical fashion industry
She believes wages for garment workers are kept low by "fast fashion" companies
She wants to see an international agreement that would see global workers paid a living wage
“These businesses have created an evil system that works so well for them, and they’re not accountable,” says Livia Firth.
The wife of British actor Colin Firth, Livia is a passionate campaigner for a more ethical fashion industry. The businesses she’s referring to are “fast fashion” companies – the global retail chains that sell mass market clothes at low prices.
The creative director of “sustainability brand consultancy” Eco Age, Firth started the Green Carpet Challenge, which asks top designers to dress celebrities for the red carpet in clothes that are ecologically friendly and socially responsible.
One of her chief concerns is the “poverty wages” paid to workers in developing countries who make the garments sold in fashion stores in the West.
“In Bangladesh you see women who work 12 to 16 hours a day to produce our clothes in factories which have bars on the windows and guards at the doors,” she says. “They are paid very little. Even if it’s the national minimum wage, it’s really a poverty wage.”
The minimum monthly wage in Bangladesh is $68.
The country’s garment industry came under scrutiny in April 2013, when more than 1,000 people died when a nine-story factory building collapsed in the capital, Dhaka. The majority of those killed or injured were textile workers.
’Fashion brands make the rules’
Firth says wages are kept low by the huge buying power of fast fashion brands, which want clothes that are cheap and quick to make.
“The fast fashion companies are like drug pushers: they go to these countries promising to lift millions out of poverty, they get the business, and then once they start production in that country they start pushing prices down,” says Firth.
“They can always impose the lowest wages and local governments and entire countries are enslaved by that. Say you are in Bangladesh, if you are too expensive they’ll go to Vietnam or Myanmar, which they are doing.”
She argues that there’s an urgent need for a transnational agreement on wages, which would see workers around the world paid a living wage.
At the Trust Women conference, held in London on 17-18 November, Firth announced a “ground-breaking study to establish the legalities for a global standard on wages.”
She hopes a paper will be published in May 2016 that will establish the “legal fundamental rights for a living wage across all borders.”
’Wear it at least 30 times’
Another target of her ire is the way fast fashion brands have created an attitude to clothing as a “disposable” product. She blames the way their stores bring out several collections each month, at low prices that can only be maintained by low wages for the people who make the clothes.
“Twice a week they put a new collection in the store,” she says. “There’s a new thing that we can buy – “Oh my God! It’s only $12, €13, £20, I’ll buy it, who cares?
“In the name of democratizing fashion they addicted us, like a sugar rush, to consume that. Who needs all these clothes? Who needs all this crap?”
In response to this throwaway culture she has started the “#30 Wears” campaign, which asks that people commit to wearing clothes at least 30 times.
Firth explains: “By treating them [clothes] as disposable we are endorsing the slavery in another part of the world, where someone is producing them for nothing.
“So how about telling that woman in Vietnam, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Myanmar, that we actually know she exists and we care for her? So when we buy something, let’s wear it at least 30 times, in respect for her.”
The annual Trust Women conference, which devoted a day to the issue of modern-day slavery, also saw Monique Villa, CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, announce a new Stop Slavery Award, to recognize companies that are leading the fight against slavery in their supply chains.
The inaugural award will be presented next year, with the winner receiving a sculpture designed by British sculptor Anish Kapoor.
“The goal is to create a virtuous circle, so that once one company in an industry has that award, others will want to join in,” said Villa.
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