By Asfar Alim (18S03J), Liu Enqi (19A01C), and Rachel Lee (19A01D)
Photos courtesy of Michael Chow (18A13A) and Liu Xinyu (18S05A) from Raffles Photographic Society
While running to Chill to grab a quick snack before tutorials, some of us would have seen the curious-looking blackboard located in the canteen, featuring the Earth being made out of clothes. This curious-looking display belonged to none other than “Wardrobe Malfunction”, the initiative put together by Raffles Interact to shed light on what goes on behind the scenes of the fashion industry.
The issue of unethical child labour in the fashion industry is one that is rarely discussed. Many of us patronise renowned fashion brands including H&M, Zara, and Forever 21. However, very few of us know about the true origins of our clothing, particularly those of fast fashion brands. Such brands may have a tag on their products labelling them as being ‘Made in Bangladesh’ or ‘Made in Brazil’. In these poverty-stricken countries, a total of 260 million children are being exploited to work under poor conditions, such as working in dilapidated buildings to make materials for our clothes, and being exposed to toxic dyes in cotton mills.
To further promote and raise awareness about child labour in the fashion industry, Interact held several events from 11 to 13 April. They hoped to urge students to patronise more ethical clothing brands, and in so doing, stop supporting fashion brands that produce using child labour.
Throughout the week, there were exhibit boards placed in the canteen walkway that provided some background information on child labour in the fashion industry. Some examples of the poor working conditions that the children employed faced were given, such as how some child workers tragically died when one the the run-down buildings they were working in collapsed. One board also gave an example of how these children have many dreams for what they would want to do in the future, but are instead employed in an unethical industry. On the whole, these posters were simple but were able to convey their points succinctly and effectively.
To kickstart the initiative, Interact collaborated with Raffles Runway to hold a canteen catwalk on Wednesday, the first day of the event. Models showcased unique outfits composed of upcycled clothing (clothes made out of old and discarded materials). This drew a large crowd that flanked both sides of the canteen walkway. The outfits were observed by many to look just as good as those from pricier brands, helping to serve the purpose of encouraging people to upcycle old clothing by making them look trendy.
There was also an origami pledge booth featured prominently among the other exhibits lining the canteen walkway, drawing nonchalant students’ eyes to the fairy lights and the origami shirts pinned up on boards. Students were encouraged to visit the booth and fold origami shirts, writing down a pledge in support of the cause.
An Interact member we spoke to told us that the folding of origami shirts symbolised the “experience of a child labourer producing clothes” but in a more simplified manner.
Notably, there were a few school members who went beyond writing the standard phrase of just pledging to support brands that produce clothing ethically. One student wrote that “inaction is also action” and encouraged others to “stop wearing clothes at the expense of children’s livelihoods”. Responses like these suggest that there are students who have gained something valuable from these initiatives, and will hopefully carry out with whatever they pledge. Hearteningly, more and more origami shirts filled up the board as the week passed by.
The final initiative to complement all these efforts was the dazzling pop-up store to donate clothes. With the words “I Made Your Clothes” in big block letters, the donated clothes were arranged in a simple display representing the arrangement of a real clothes shop. All the clothes collected would be donated to thrift stores run by the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (MINDS), which serves as an alternative place to purchase second-hand clothing. A generous amount of clothes were collected by the pop-up store, reflecting the general success of this initiative.
Throughout the school week, members of the school population were interviewed on their opinions and observations of the event. They commented on its effectiveness, noting that it had been executed well. Many were impressed by the ingenuity of the collaboration with Runway, with one interviewee calling it “a very innovative way to draw attention to the issue of clothes and mass production, perhaps through the exact contrast of turning something mass produced into something more unique.”
One student also remarked that the impact of the outreach could be observed from conversations that she was privy to, in which those around her discussed the unethical use of sweatshops by prominent brands such as H&M and Forever21. While it was good that students were starting to become more aware of brands that utilised unethical labour, perhaps there could have been examples of such brands in a list so that students would be more discerning when shopping.
Wardrobe Malfunction is definitely one-of-a-kind with the unique angle it took – child labour in the fashion industries is not a cause that is traditionally advocated for. While the various exhibits have since been disassembled, it can be seen from the school population’s response that this issue will continue to linger at the back of students’ minds, signifying its impact.