Perhaps we need to rediscover our historic witness against poverty, injustice and exploitation through clothing choices and forms of dress. Historically, Friends used to wear distinctive ‘plain’ clothing, standing out for their rejection of changing fashions and the consumer tendencies of ‘the world’. We are called, historically, to ‘live in the world but not of it’. Perhaps we need to rekindle our public witness against the consumerist values of the wider capitalist society, remembering that ‘a simpler life can be a richer life’. Do we want to perpetuate an economic system that keeps the poorest in poverty? John Woolman entreated us to ‘look upon our treasure, the furniture of our houses, and our garments’, and try to discover whether ‘the seeds of war have nourishment in these our possessions’.
Personal choices Are we prepared to make the drastic changes in our lives that Friends at Yearly Meeting Gathering called for when they said: ‘We can no longer ignore the fact that our planet is a finite… the time to act is now… What is God calling us as Quakers to be and do? Early Quakers were seen as radical religious extremists, living beyond the ordinary in their simplicity and their direct engagement with the divine. Are we, on the other hand, sliding into ordinariness?’ This urgency about the exploitation of the earth can equally be applied to the urgency required in tackling the exploitation of people.
We may be required to stand out from the crowd, like plain-dressing Friends of the past and those who wore undyed clothing. But this does not have to be a burden and may be an enriching way of living in the spirit and witnessing to our spirit-discerned testimonies.
There are many alternatives to some of the problems we have described. Alternative fibres, such as bamboo, are significantly more environmentally friendly than cotton owing to bamboo’s speedy growth and low water consumption. Organic cotton production and organic cotton dyes are also kinder on the environment. Supporting socially enterprising clothing retailers normally ensures that a proportion of the companies’ profits go back to the communities to support the development of schools and local services. Some Quakers, particularly in the USA, make their own clothes or commission seamstresses. Donating to charity shops or recycling unwanted clothing can lower the carbon footprint of our wardrobes.
Even if all Friends stopped buying new clothes and stopped participating in exploitation in the high street clothing industry, this would not change the situation for garment workers.
Friends could write to their MP asking for legislation that makes companies legally responsible for ensuring fair pay and working conditions for their overseas workers. Ask in high street stores whether they have any clothing that has Fairtrade organic cotton, dyed with organic dyes and made under fair conditions. (Unfortunately, the Fairtrade certification, which only applies to the cultivation of raw materials, such as cotton, can be misleadingly used to suggest the whole garment was produced under Fairtrade conditions.) Ask what the average working and living conditions are for garment workers. Or write to the head office of your department store and ask for a living wage (also known as the ‘Asia Floor Wage’) to be introduced for overseas workers. Garment workers across Asia support the introduction of the Asia Floor Wage, a campaign founded in Delhi.
There are many Quakers who already limit their clothes consumption or only buy from charity shops or socially enterprising retailers. However, buying ethically-minded clothing is made more difficult by: the limited range of ‘ethical-eco’ clothing; its poor visibility in the marketplace (it is mostly available online); the exceptionally high price some retailers of ethical clothing charge; the relatively poor quality of affordable clothing these days requiring more frequent replacement; the speed with which clothing looks ‘out of date’; and the pressures to conform to certain attire at work, in social situations and so on.
However, as Quakers we are called to witness against social, economic and environmental injustices. As a committee, we have been inspired by Yearly Meeting Gathering’s epistle 2011: Between us we have already made changes with which we are comfortable: now is the time to make uncomfortable changes.