When I was young I loved dressing up. As I got older, this developed into a love of fashion.
It was no great surprise to those around me that I ended up in a fashion retail career, travelling the globe in search of trends. I also went looking for the best factories to make the trends into garments as cheaply as possible—thus enabling the companies I worked for to make very large profits.
For many years I enjoyed a wonderful life and did not look too closely at the working practices in the factories. It was easy not to notice. The factory owners always knew we were going to visit, so anything we were not supposed to see was nicely hidden away before the buying teams arrived.
The companies I worked for had a strict policy against child labour; however, in many of the countries we sourced from, it was common-place for children to work. Often, there was no schooling provided by the governments and the extreme poverty meant every family member had to pull their weight.
The conditions of the factories varied. China did offer safer facilities than Bangladesh and India, but even there, the conditions were far from being ideal. Across the continents, very low salaries and long hours were a common denominator.
The average monthly salary for a worker in Bangladesh is just $38.50 USD per month.
I did start to question the appalling pay the workers received and I was always told: “it is an above average salary for this country”.
In my eagerness to maintain my career and my standard of living I convinced myself this was okay. I did not question if that “above-average salary” kept the worker in poverty.
What if after working 60 hours a week, we could still not afford to feed our families?
What if our salary was so low that it meant our children were not afforded the playful childhood they deserved and instead had to go to work to help support the family?
As selling prices became leaner with the introduction of more “discount retailers” in the market-place, my negotiations over prices intensified.
The expectation from the retailers I worked for was to always increase profits not matter what. If we delivered a record year, the expectation was we would have to beat it the following year. Any lost profit from lower selling prices had to be recovered from somewhere: the big corporate retailers were not going to be out-of-pocket. I would spend hours negotiating to get five cents off a t-shirt, but someone paid the price for those extra five cents. It did not appear to be the factory owner.
Somewhere along the road, I started to wake up to the industry. I saw very clearly that I was part of the problem.
It was no coincidence this was the same time in my life I started to practice yoga and immerse myself in the teachings. There could not have been a greater contrast between those teachings and how mainstream clothes were made. I got tired of making a buck off someone else’s hard work. I got tired of turning a blind eye, tired of the stories used to justify the poor wages the workers were paid. Most importantly, I felt increasingly uncomfortable buying these clothes to do my own yoga practice.
It took me a few more years before I actually had the courage to leave.
I knew I did not want to be part of the wheel that caused others to suffer, but for some time I was fearful of leaving a well-paid job behind. I initially started by making smaller changes. I began by trying to shop more ethically, but there were very few retailers that did not manufacture in third-world factories.
Then I found my courage.
I decided I would stop waiting for someone else to make the change. With the support of my partner, I started to work on producing a range of clothing that was made in an ethical way. Soon, I was able to launch my companyDharma Bums. I decided to design and manufacture locally in Australia, using small companies that shared the same ethics as I did on fair working conditions, pay and hours. I pay more for this and my profit is much smaller but it is still enough.
Producing the garments in Australia is more difficult, as the manufacturing base has been virtually wiped out in the last 15 years. We are seeing the skill of sewing and constructing garments disappear from these shores. I am hopeful this can be resurrected; I believe people are ready to change their buying habits.
I hope as yogis we can lead the charge. I am encouraged that I am not the only person trying to do this. There are other companies popping up. We are all relatively small right now, but with the right support this can change.
The yoga apparel industry is a billion-dollar business. With every dollar we spend we cast a vote. As yogis, we read and study the scriptures: we know our yamas and niyamas. Perhaps it is time we applied them when it comes to our choices on what we purchase. After all, yoga gives us the ability to make choices rationally and with self-awareness and it is this ability that is at the heart of what makes us human.
So I would ask all of us to look behind the sleek labels and brand image and start to ask ourselves how our clothing is really made and at what cost?
It is time to walk the talk and take our yoga off the mat to include the choices we make as consumers, so that we can start to make difference.
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