Unpacking backpacktivism: Facing fair-trade fashion

Today marks one month before I embark on my first trip to Bangladesh.

In December 2016, I graduated from a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Fashion) and Bachelor of Business (Marketing). My degree took me in many unexpected directions, beginning with a dream to become a wedding dress designer but instead, finding a passion for ethical supply chain management. In my final year of study, I focused my graduate collection on educating consumers about some of the issues in fashion production and consumption, such as cotton production, dye waste and workers’ rights.

However, I had never been afforded the opportunity to see any of these processes firsthand.

In July this year, I found out I was the recipient of a QUT Graduate Prize and I knew I wanted to use the prize money to help fully immerse myself in an environment I want to pursue as my career. I started my research and came across an amazing organisation; Operation Groundswell (OG). Simply put, OG is an ethical travel company. They call themselves ‘backpacktivists’: a group of travellers who are socially, environmentally, and politically aware of their impact in the places that they travel to and live in. Among the countries and issues they explore, fashion in Bangladesh was one.

So, this November, I’ll be joining them for a two-week program, Fashion in Flux, to experience first-hand the production of fair trade fashion; to witness both its harmful nature and its empowering potential. OG has put together a comprehensive itinerary with an educational focus, centering on the issue of fashion production in Bangladesh. We’ll spend a few days in Dhaka, learning about Bangladeshi history and culture, as well as the legal situation regarding the garment industry. Then, we’ll take a long bus trip to the Thanapara Village where we’ll spend most of our time with Swallows, Bangladesh’s first fair trade women’s collective. They’re involved in every stage of fair trade garment production using only local materials: dying, design, weaving, sewing, embroidery and more. Profits from their sales are then used to build the community’s school and medical centre. We’ll be able to learn from the women; both about how to dye and weave, as well as about their experience in the industry. We’ll also be living with them – Bangladeshi style! I’m really looking forward to this unique opportunity to truly integrate and absorb as much about their culture as possible, even if it does mean cold bucket showers and erratic electricity!

I hope that by spending time with these women (and getting involved in dying and weaving alongside them), I’ll be able to gain a better understanding of a sustainable, ethical alternative to the fast fashion industry. I hope an experience like this will help me better focus my goals and educate others on not only some of the negative conditions of the fashion workforce, but also on the hope for the industry in the future. I’m really passionate about this industry and its’ ability to affect positive change, especially for women in third-world countries. I know at times I’ll feel challenged in such an unfamiliar environment but I look forward to learning from these workers, and eventually sharing my knowledge and experience.

If you want to learn a little more about the issues facing the garment industry, a great way to get acquainted is by watching the critically acclaimed documentary, The True Cost (it’s on Netflix!). I was so pleased to find out People Tree, one of the featured fair trade brands in the film, source their products from Swallows.

All images sourced from Operation Groundswell Fashion in Flux Alumni

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