“Value human life over excessive profit – simple as that”
In 2013, Anna Lee was cast in TV show Reality Trip, a social experiment which saw five Kiwi 20-somethings placed in the poorest parts of the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh in order to see first-hand where our consumables come from, and to meet the people who make them.
From Manila’s Smokey Mountain slum, where 25,000 people live on the city’s largest dumpsite, to the site of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, where 1129 people had died in a garment factory collapse just months before, it was a harrowing experience for Anna, and one that completely changed her life. “I arrived in New Zealand after a long flight from Bangladesh, slid into a taxi and bawled my eyes out the whole way home,” she says. “I vowed to call it quits on shopping.”
At the time, Anna was an editorial assistant at New Zealand Herald fashion and lifestyle publication Viva. It became increasingly difficult, she says, to work for a large media corporation whose commercial interests were frequently at odds with her values and beliefs. But she made the most of the situation. “I realised I was in the perfect position to get my message across. There was a platform at my fingertips that enabled me to speak to thousands of people.”
She praises her former editor, Amanda Linnell, for seeing the value in the conversation that she wanted to have and offering her a weekly “Ethical Living” column that enabled her to educate readers on the realities of where their clothing came from, and familiarise them with stylish, ethical alternatives. Ultimately, though, she knew she could make a bigger impact elsewhere, and in February 2016 she left her one-time dream job for good.
Today, Anna is pursuing a law degree with a focus on human rights. “I hope to increase my knowledge of this area, which will hopefully make me a better writer on the topic and better able to represent those who don’t have a voice,” she says, explaining that her long-term goal is to move to Bangladesh to provide legal aid to garment workers like those who perished at Rana Plaza.
Meanwhile, she is running a consultancy business that assists local and international brands who want to improve their overseas supply chains, and, in her free-time, using social media to call out those who are falling short. She’s adamant that the excuses designers come up with for not embracing ethical and sustainable practices – including that it’s ‘too expensive’ – are unacceptable. “Value human life over excessive profit – simple as that.”
With the help of organisations such as Baptist World Aid, whose annual Ethical Fashion Guide grades brands on their supply chain knowledge, auditing processes and worker empowerment, Anna says that we can make brands take accountability and action.
“I want people to ask those questions that brands find so hard to answer, and push them for answers. We hold so much power as consumers, so let’s use it to help others.” She points out that something as simple as shopping from our own wardrobes next time we have an event to dress up for is another way each of us can make a difference. “If you wear an amazing dress, I’m still going to think it’s amazing the next time I see you in it,” she laughs.
For her part, Anna says she’s “by no means a perfect consumer”, but it’s about small changes and building momentum. “It only takes a small spark to light a wildfire. We can choose not to engage with the obvious consequences of our consumer behaviour, convince ourselves we aren’t contributing to a slave-trade economy and ignore the catastrophic environmental effects, or we can address it.
You make a difference. So be passionate, compassionate, rattle the world and do something. Even if you help just one person, isn’t that better than nothing?”
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