By Lottie Jackson
In the age of over-consumption, fashion is seen as a luxury and a nice-to-have. We don’t wear 73% of the clothes in our wardrobe; while 300,000 tonnes of used clothing is heading to landfill every year in the UK. But this narrative of excess conceals a very different story that remains untold — 5.5 million adults are going without essential clothing; children are having to take days off school due to unwashed or damaged clothes; schools are being forced to run clothes banks, keep washing machines on site, as well as providing clean underwear for students. This is a human rights issue — one that is concealed by the current emphasis on our unsustainable shopping habits and addiction to disposable fashion.
Recently, the food poverty crisis has shot into the public consciousness. Campaigns like Marcus Rashford’s push for free school meals successfully lobbied the UK Government into a policy U-turn, with the footballer appearing on the cover of British Vogue’s September 2020 issue (the most coveted spot in fashion), declaring: “No child in this country should be going hungry… end of story.” While less discussed than food poverty, clothing poverty is an equally stigmatised issue. A gap that charities and clothes banks are currently being left to plug.
Clothing is a fundamental human right. By law, the right to clothes is a key aspect of our right to an adequate standard of living — outlined by Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), alongside other basic necessities like food and housing. To ensure people don’t slip below the poverty line, a minimum level of clothing is required for survival, hygiene and protection. Those unable to afford weather-appropriate clothing risk falling ill in winter; whilst in the summer months, the combination of sun exposure and a lack of cool clothing will cause life-threatening heat stroke. Or take for instance: facemasks, — this simple piece of cloth offers vital protection from a potentially fatal virus.
However, the right to adequate clothing is more than a physical necessity. What we wear also plays a role in maintaining our wellbeing, self-esteem and our ability to conceive an effective place in society.
Consider the issue of employment: not owning professional wear, or a suitable interview outfit, is a huge barrier facing people seeking work. Employers’ first impressions may be unconsciously — or consciously — influenced by outward appearances. In this context, clothes are non-verbal signifiers of who we are and how we wish to present ourselves to the world. Charitable provision is often the only option for securing appropriate clothing. The social impact charity Smartworks, for instance, provides high quality interview attire for women referred to them from job centres, prisons, care homes, shelters for people experiencing homelessness and mental health charities. Followed by one-to-one interview coaching, 65% of their clients go on to secure employment. Being denied the right to clothes can have a detrimental impact on one’s self-confidence and dignity; but it can also place limits on life and career prospects.
Clothes are also a visible expression of cultural, religious and political identity. The hijab and other forms of Islamic veiling, for example, are worn as symbols of cultural identity, piety and modesty. They are central to the identity of millions of Muslim women. Here clothing poverty could be seen as synonymous with deprivation of freedom of belief and expression. International law protects these vital human rights. This means States must ensure individuals have access to clothing that complies with their religious practice, tradition or particular faith group.
When it comes to disability, clothing poverty also takes on another meaning. For some disabled people, regular clothes can be inaccessible and cause discomfort. Buttons, for instance, are problematic for those with limited motor skills. Adaptive fashion — clothing specifically designed for disabled people — encompasses everything from easy-access magnetic buttons to Velcro fastenings that help with undressing. But currently, adaptivewear is relatively expensive and not widely available to the people who may need it most. The legislation governing our right to clothing must be inclusive, and factor in a range of accessibility requirements. These variations in people’s clothing needs mean that the right to adequate clothing is the least elaborated of all the components of Article 11 of ICESCR.
The Covid economic crisis has plunged almost 700,000 people in the UK into poverty. For many families, this added financial strain will mean clothing becomes less affordable. With Oxfam reporting that its online sales were up 111% in the last week of August 2020, (compared with the same week in 2019), we must ensure that the unworn clothes in our wardrobes are redirected to tackle the clothing poverty crisis. Clothing is vital for survival and an extension of our identity. As a human right that’s deeply connected to our quality of life, clothes can transform lives.