BBC Three’s new four part series successfully represents the contemporary paradox that anti consumption trends are best expressed by well off shopaholics. ‘Clothes have never been more disposable, with the throwaway fashion phenomenon taking our High Street by storm’, we are told, but rather than celebrate the possibility of looking good on the cheap, this series takes us on the ultimate guilt trip.
Six young fashionistas head for the grim reality of backstreet workshops in India to make clothes for the British high street. In the first episode, the six start at the top, working for Shahi Enterprises in New Dehli, a multi-million pound factory that makes clothes for some of the biggest names on the UK high street. Some of the six are would be fashion designers, yet what is remarkable is their incapacity to sew, Tara being the honourable exception, and their phenomenal capacity to cry to camera at the mildest ticking off.
The Indian workers are not impressed by the witless Westerners, but the problem with the show is that it’s not about the Indian workers. It’s not about their hopes and dreams; it’s about six British youngsters coping on a poverty tourism trip. The sanctimonious spoilt brats are after all here to be taught a lesson that their throwaway fashion fads are brought to the shops by the sweat of the Indian poor who earn less than £2 a day, and, as Richard constantly points out, live in a ‘shit hole.’ While we can wince at the desperate living standards and low wages, what Indian workers think and are doing about it is not even asked. Their poverty is on display to earn our pity and big up the guilt. This is a classic ethical tale instructing us on the outcomes of our wasteful habits. There is even an accompanying online fashion magazine - Thread – to accompany the series, offering tips on how to achieve an eco-glam look through a mix of shopping for new or vintage clothes, to swapping clothes with friends and customising existing clothes.
In their first week in the factory, because they can’t sew in a straight line despite training, three of the six are demoted. Richard, who earns fifty grand a year as a young ad exec back home, is probably the most obnoxious of the lot, assuming people who don’t make it in the UK are lazy and Indians are just dirty. Yet he does the worst of everyone in the factory and can just about manage to do up buttons. He is told off for turning round and talking, and Georgina for leaving her station without permission - and the tears keep coming. For Amrita, who suffers an identity crisis as a Brit Asian, it’s all too much. One of their hosts, factory worker Lalita, tells them the work force is not impressed by their lack of discipline and rudeness. A heady mix of Brat Camp-style give-them-a-hiding-and-take-away-their-luxuries, the incompetence of Alan Sugar’s Apprentice wannabes and the close ups on tears of Pop Idol, this is a clever, repugnant tale for our time.
Solidarity is evidently off the agenda, ‘how we feel’ is in, and what we do with our shopping trolleys is all. But before reaching for an ethical catalogue, let us consider what Indian workers want, and that is to have what we have. No amount of tears or ethical shopping will make that possible, it may even make things worse, demeaning the aspirations of our Indian peers and demonising productive industry and growth.
The shift from rural subsistence life to factories, sweatshops and slums makes for a grim life. Yet for millions in India life is improving, and no thanks to Western guilt, ethical eco-hemp wear, or clothes sharing and recycling. To develop an infrastructure capable of taking away the ‘smell’ Richard hates so much requires far more growth and productive industry. Celebrating and supporting India beginning to make it may do our peers more favours than ‘sharing’ and wallowing in their poverty.
From Tuesday 22 April 2008 on BBC3 at 9pm. Two new films by WORLDwrite, presenting a positive perspective on immigration, will be launched at the Vibe Bar in London at 6pm on Sunday 20 April 2008. For details, see London Behind the Scenes.