My friend Fiona has an Inner Activist, and it has been making itself known recently. What business she has engaging with it I don’t know, she has her hands full with 3 boys, including a 9 month old, and is preparing to return to work. We should be talking about that in the car on the way home from a No More Traffik seminar, not her Inner Activist, but there it is – disturbing the peace, making her itch.
Me? If I have an inner activist it is buried, very deeply, underneath the pile of crap at the side of my bed. Underneath the pieces of paper and books and unopened envelopes and bags and boxes. Underneath the heap of dirty laundry and the pile of babygrows waiting to be put away.
I think we get brownie points enough just for attending a seminar during these busy days. Don’t we? And, yes, for chatting a wee bit about how unbelievable it all is in the car on the way home. I get points just for listening, for keeping myself informed. And I am happy to signpost, happy to point people in the direction of Gemma Ruth Wilson. She’s an Activist, you know. Good For Her.
But please, Fiona, keep that Inner Activist at bay, we have enough to do. We have small souls in our care everyday, and that’s Important too. This is our season, this is our patch. There is laundry calling.
I am folding babygrows daily. Pink and purple and turquoise. Red. Yellow. Lime green. Stripes and dots and cats and dogs. I am fastening dungarees – loud, flowery dungarees – perhaps the best clothes in the world. Little vests and colourful socks and t-shirts and leggings and dribble-bibs are going in and out of our hands, over heads and on and off feet, in and out of the washing machine and drawers, like a never-ending conveyor belt. So many colours and fabrics and designs for 2 very little girls. Sleeping bags and blankies and hats with ear-flaps. Elephants and owls and giraffes and nymphs. Every shade of pink known to man. Boxes going up and down from the roof-space. Bags of hand-me-down clothes emptied and sorted. Charity bags and recycling boxes filled. This piece or that piece put away for a friend. Some of these coloured scraps of cotton are held in my hand for a bit longer, full of memories and nostalgia, hard to part with.
I get points just for listening, don’t I? But the problem is, Fiona. The problem is, Gemma. The problem is, this video Gemma posted:
You see after they tell us, Gemma and her fellow rabble-rousers say: Now you know. Now it’s your responsibility too. And I shift in my seat and think, later.
I watch that video one night over supper. And I hear it again: Today I bestow this responsibility on you. Suzanne Kim and Carolyn Kitto are telling the stories of girls as young as 14 who are trapped in factories in the the Tamil Nadu region of India to work in the cotton industry. They are ‘recruited’ through the Sumangali scheme with false promises of an apprenticeship and money. Suzanne Kim and Carolyn Kitto tell stories of the abuses, exploitation and long term health effects which are the reality of this scheme. It’s worth watching over supper.
These stories are part of the garment supply chain and apparently it’s my responsibility too. They are asking us to wonder about where our clothes come from and to ask retailers the same thing. They say the supply chain of a garment is long and complex and that certifiers who look for abuses look largely at the planting and harvesting part of the supply chain. Retailers and fashion houses, if they look at all, look at the end closest to the rack. It’s in between these 2 ends of the supply chain that these abuses take place. There is currently no way of knowing whether clothes we buy are free from human-trafficking and most retailers don’t know either, or choose not to tell us. So the advice is not to boycott companies but to demand they be transparent about how they source their material and how they get their clothes made.
I decide to have another slice of toast and google the Make Fashion Traffik-Free campaign. I get points for googling don’t I? Maybe I could send a letter. But fashion sounds so far removed from my life right now. The problem seems too big and the actions seem so small… and Gemma will be doing something. I go to bed.
The next day I am folding babygrows and suddenly I get it. The problem is in my hands. And drying on the radiator. And in piles I’m sorting all over the bed.
I think this doesn’t relate to my life right now? I’m struggling to make this my story? This story is in my laundry basket. I am dressing my girls in ignorance. I do not know if somebody else’s girls were trafficked in the process of making their clothes. And I think I’m too tired to find out?
A lot of my life is shaped these days by my daughters. And I realise I have a problem. Because I know, now, about Indian daughters far from home losing childhoods, womanhood and health in these spinning, dying and weaving mills. And I know what it is to have daughters. And if I really take it all in, well, what mother could bear it? Can we bear a trafficked child to dress our own? We can’t. I start to feel Fiona’s itch. I imagine an army of mothers mobilised by the contents of their children’s wardrobes.
One of my favourite things about Gemma’s story is that when she became educated AND heartbroken about slavery and she did not know what to do or where to start, she says “I worked my patch.” She started where she was.
So I am starting where I am, with very small things. I invited some mum-friends in my community round to watch the video. For me this means friendships that started at yoga, antenatal class, Jo Jingles and church. This is my patch.
A few of us met on Friday night and started to wonder about where our clothes come from and to wonder about what we can do. We are starting with our kids’ clothes – the clothes that threaten to overtake our houses. We admit we are confused. We admit we don’t always feel like thinking hard about the complexities of this. We were already trying to be counter-culture by not spending too much on clothes, by trying to keep their volume at bay, by dressing our kids in hand-me-downs. And we wonder will a letter or postcard from us have any influence on a global brand? But we trust the Activists and Campaigners, and we can do this. So we have started emailing and sending letters to the CEOs of our favourite and most-worn baby/children’s labels (even if they come to us second-hand or are bought by Nanas and honorary Aunties, as most of my girls’ clothes are). So for me this means Polarn O. Pyret, Boden, Marks & Spencer, Next and Asda. To start with.
We are trying to think more creatively too and maybe we will come up with more ideas, but in the meantime, I’m telling Johnnie Boden that I am a mother who loves dressing her daughters in Mini Boden but I am extremely concerned about the trafficking of young women in the cotton supply chain. I would like to be able to buy his clothes knowing they are free form this. I would like to be able to recommend his brand to family and friends. Will he map and report on his cotton supply chain? Will he commit to Stop the Traffik’s Protocol? I’m not prepared to dress my girls in clothes that other girls have been exploited for.
Suzanne Kim says that ‘they say that stories don’t really have an impact on you unless you’re connected, but if you really think about it we are connected’.
These stories are in my laundry basket. I hope you hear them, wherever they are for you. And I hope we all join Gemma, working our patch, in some small way.