Ranong sits at a hand-strung wooden loom, running her fingers through the weft to make sure everything is level. She’s making a pink and white scarf from cotton threads she spun herself. The fabric she and the women in her rural village in Loei province create preserves a traditional Thai craft passed down through generations.
“Weaving bonds this community together,” she says.
It also provides them with a much-needed supplementary income. Ranong and her peers sell their fabric to Passawee Kodaka, who launched her brand Folkcharm in 2015. The brand creates organic handmade clothes; women elders like Ranong who are involved in the manufacture receive 55 per cent of the final retail cost.
This high percentage is hardly commonplace, but Passawee is a social entrepreneur: part of a growing community of business owners developing and implementing solutions to social, cultural, or environmental issues. This is an emerging trend in Thailand, albeit a slow one.
“For many entrepreneurs, considering their social impact just isn’t something that instinctively comes to mind. If success is economically measured, then cheap labour costs are ‘just good business’,” says Passawee. She is also a co-country coordinator for Fashion Revolution, a global movement that campaigns for greater reform and transparency in the garment supply chain.
In December 2019, Thailand became the first country in Asia to adopt a National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights. However, it’s clear the problem of unethical practices in the garment industry requires a systemic reform of attitudes.
Pushed by social pressures and social media, consumers’ thirst for new, trend-driven clothing at cut-throat prices means that the global garment industry is responsible for countless gross infringements and violations on human rights. Thailand is home to over 2,000 garment companies that employ up to 1 million workers, many of whom are migrants who can face being paid far less than the minimum wage.
Last year, an investigation by the Thomson Reuters Foundation found that a garment factory in Mae Sot supplying the likes of Starbucks was paying migrant workers from Myanmar less than the daily minimum wage of 310 baht. This is in alignment with global trends; a report by the University of Sheffield states that despite big promises, many garment companies continue to fall short when it comes to actioning their commitments to paying living wages.
Underpayment is not the only issue. Many mainstream fashion brands stock clothes that have been manufactured under dangerous conditions. The 2013 Rana Plaza complex incident in Dhaka, Bangladesh is oft-cited as the deadliest garment factory disaster in history. The collapse of this factory building led to the needless deaths of 1,134 people, more than half of whom were women and a number of whom were children. Despite this incident and the spike in demand for greater supply chain transparency that followed, many fast-fashion producers still do not publicly disclose which factories produce their branded clothes.
The very word ‘fashion’ has become synonymous with the garment industry. Fashion refers not only to expression or behaviour relating to a certain time and context, but it also makes up a huge part of popular culture. Fashion is as much about aesthetics as it is about collectivity.
But this collectivity can be harnessed for good.
This is something Nakarin Yano knows firsthand. Of the 300 people in Chiang Mai district who embroider clothes, home décor, and souvenirs for his eponymous brand, a proportion work from inside prisons. “When I first started my business, the fact I was working with local communities was not a selling point,” he says. “It was only later that I saw how my customers’ interests were changing. They started to ask more questions about how the products were made. They wanted to support products that are more than just beautiful or functional; they wanted to create social good too.”
If customers continue to demand greater transparency around production – especially from big corporations like H&M, or Inditex that owns Zara, Pull&Bear, Bershka, Massimo Dutti, and others – this can lead to the systemic reform the industry desperately needs.
Other aspects that need to be addressed in the fashion industry include needless waste. Despite the long hours of labour that go into manufacture – not to mention the huge carbon-cost of shipping – millions of tons of clothes end up in landfills every year making clothing one of the fastest-growing categories of waste in the world.
Fashion Revolution is countering this by encouraging a culture of buying second-hand and vintage clothes. To help promote socially conscious consumerism, Fashion Revolution hosts regular clothing swaps and events in Bangkok.
The group says it has seen growing interest in Thailand around swapping which also helps create less demand for new clothing.
“We can easily forget how big our power as consumers can be,” Passawee says. “Ultimately, we need to ask ourselves: is it all the stuff that we have, or is it our interactions with others that truly define us?”[Photo Credit: Mailee Osten-Tan]