Working at the Source of Fast Fashion: Interning in an Indian Garment Factory

Today’s society often feels dominated by a culture in which people define their self-worth by the things they possess; the furniture in their homes, the make and model of their car and of course, the clothes they wear. Fast Fashion is a responsive system which directly feeds this possessive desire by turning high-cost luxury fashion trends into low-cost high street alternatives which can be made available for purchase in a matter of weeks. More recently fast fashion has gained a lot of media attention through the rise of high-profile campaigns including War on Want’s Love Fashion Hate Sweatshops and Fashion Revolution which have sought to expose the systems use of unfair labour and sweatshops in their production process.

These are important issues effecting many people’s lives but there are many other issues that arise from fast fashion’s disposable culture which include numerous environmental issues. During 2014, I undertook a month long internship with a small, independently owned garment factory in central Jaipur, the centre of India’s textile industry, to delve deeper into the production of the garments we purchase and find out more about how the clothes we wear effect the people who make them and the environment they live in.

Situated only a short Auto Rickshaw ride from Jaipur’s famous ‘Pink City’ centre, the factory operated six days a week producing garments to order for numerous international brands and running their own children’s and ladies fashion label. A continuous buzz of activity run by a core team of highly specialised individuals the factory was clean, tidy and overall a well maintained professional environment with purified drinking water on tap and ceiling fans for those hot muggy days.

Tasked with researching the latest catwalk trends to help bulk out the latest season’s collection ready for the upcoming sale on a US online store, I developed several designs which were then transformed into ready to wear designs. Passing my completed designs to ‘The Master’ my simple sketches were transformed into complicated pattern pieces before being passed to a sampler maker who made the design into a reality. These were highly skilled craftsmen who had honed their skills over many years and key members of the production process which I expect many people who bought the clothes they produced would never realise the tremendous input and skills they had applied to the production of their purchase.

As someone who takes a very practical approach to the purchase of my clothing, it was a challenge to produce appealing designs for a fast fashion market. The company’s own brand was mostly sold online through their own website and other discount portals, their main concern being that the garments produced mimicked current fashion trends and would look appealing when viewed online. Promoted through flash sales and on discount sites these designs were all about catching the eye of the impulse ‘feel good’ buyer who doesn’t take such practicalities into consideration.

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Although some of the factory’s clients came directly to them, there are a number of agents working across the industry who assist international brands in finding factories who can produce their garments to a specified budget. With low, often sometimes unrealistic budgets, it is down to a team of experts who take time to source fabrics and find alternative cheaper ways to produce the garment as close as possible to the designer’s specifications but at a more cost effective price. Another overlooked part of the production process which all has to happen before a team of skilled machinists can produce the final garments.

A common misconception is that all of our garment production happens in a factory environment, but when big orders are received by smaller operations like the factory I worked in, the work is often outsourced to local towns and villages where workers are able to work from home. Although many international brands do not allow their orders to be outsourced in this way as it doesn’t allow for them to monitor working conditions, it is a method often preferred amongst Indian communities as it allows them to work at a time suitable to them whilst caring for children or elderly relatives and all without incurring any travel costs.

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Group working in the Vadj community in Ahmedabad, Gujarat

There are much bigger factories operating on a vast scale based on the outskirts of the city in the purpose built RICO industrial estate where the vast amount of wastage produced by fast fashion’s production process can really be seen. Taking a whistle-stop tour around one of the estate’s medium sized factory’s, I was taken into a large room with floor to ceiling shelves packed with rolls of fabric which was surplus from past production runs. A veritable hoard of fabric, the factory stored such waste to produce other items at a later date, but the company they manufactured the items for saw this as a by-product of their order.

As well as fabric, there is usually a percentage of overrun factored into the production run of an order which help bigger factories to ensure they can meet the quality control standards of orders. Usually factored into the cost of production and written off as waste at the end, instead of being disposed of these items are purchased on weight by local tradesmen who sell them at the local market. Although technically none of this waste goes to landfill and is re-purposed imagine the difference that could be made if a charity was given all of these garment overruns and excess fabric to help clothe those in need? Ideas like this always sound like a great solution but the reality of implementing this sort of scheme needs the backing and support of the company who placed the original order.

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A cow resting on waste fabric in Jaipur city centre

The Director of the company was very supportive during my internship and encouraged me to visit local museums and organisations away from the factory including the town of Sanganer on the outskirts of Jaipur. Synonymous with the craft of block printing Sanganer has evolved from a textile market town to producing product for international catwalks in an invasion of mass production which has culminated in the town’s water supply being contaminated beyond repair with a potent mixture of chemicals. When product quality cannot be compromised the shortcuts are taken in the disposal of contaminated water or through the use of cheaper chemical inks rather than natural environmentally friendly options. It is this sort of damage that wasteful consumer habits seem not to pick up on and for which no one seems to want to take responsibility.

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Screen Printing in Sanganeer, Jaipur

With such a vast and complicated tangled web of issues to tackle all which have no simple solution to them, changing consumer attitudes and creating a true transparency to the supply chain will be a long and arduous task which no doubt will take time and the effort of many. I hope to use the knowledge and experience gained during my research trip to help aid this mission through my practice as an artist. By finding ways to highlight fast fashion’s issue of waste, find alternative sustainable buying habits for the consumers’ incessant desire to purchase, or provide alternatives for those who want to change I hope to help re-establish the relationship between the consumer and the maker which remains embroiled in the tangled web of consumerism.