Let me ask you a question. When you look at your wardrobe, or put on your favorite sweater, could you tell me without looking where your clothing came from? Have you ever thought about whose hands dyed the material, or sewed the fabric to make those pants that have been sitting untouched in your dresser drawer for the past year? Have you ever thought that someone may have been harmed in the process? I'm going to take a guess and say that the answer is no, and not too long ago I would have said the exact same thing.
So lets talk about a fashion revolution. And no I am not talking about a new fancy trend, or pop-culture anthem, I'm talking about responsible, ethical fashion, and the role we as consumers play in turning it from the anomaly into the norm.
Whether you are aware or not, (trust me I was not either until a few years ago) our fashion industry today is considered to be "fast fashion" because it literally cannot be created fast enough. What used to be 4 seasons a year, has now turned into 52, and clothing is considered old news by the time it hits its 7th day birthday.
Today there is quite simply very little that is worth less than used clothing, and the 13 million tons of it that make its way into our landfills every year are here to prove it. But how did we get here? How did our consumption of clothing and other textiles somehow turn into an environmental and global health crisis?
Somewhere between our grandparents and ourselves, our viewpoint about clothing shifted. We wanted more, and we wanted it to be cheap. Major retailers began shifting their production overseas to developing countries where labor laws were lax, and negligence in the supply chain could be easily covered up. Textile companies in the USA went away, and sewing classes in school were cut, because "who really needs to know how to make clothes anyway?"
We became disconnected with our clothes, their story, and where they came from in the same way we did our food, and began to prioritize convenience, and cost over quality and supporting our neighborhood tailor. Sound familiar? In the food world the revolution we are experiencing is called farm-to-table or slow-food. You have probably heard of it. Now we have to bring the same passion and energy that we do to our food system to our clothing and consumer goods as well.
So Why Do People Seem To Care More When It Comes To Their Food But Not Their Clothing?
It actually is pretty simple. Our society has begun to think about our food system differently because we feel as though we are directly impacted by it. We also can in many ways easily comprehend the farm-to-table food cycle, and may have visited local farms, farmers markets, or even grown vegetables of our own, so our connection to our food system thus becomes much easier to understand.
Most likely you may have made some type of food from scratch, chosen your ingredients from the super market, and prepared a home cooked meal. You were involved in some capacity in the process and that made you feel connected to your food in a way that is different than most other kinds of consumption.
Now when was the last time you tried to make your own dress, source your fabric, needles and thread, and create something that you would then wear? I am going to guess that the answer is probably never, and this is part of the reason why we are so disconnected from how our clothes are made. It also allows us to unknowingly support so many of the horrific practices that bring us the clothes we wear today.
out with impulse shopping and in with slow-fashion and conscious consumption
I'll admit, I used to LOVE to impulse shop. I would walk through Marshall's or H&M and not think twice about buying a cute $10 dress that was "such a steal". I would take full advantage of the sales at J.Crew and justify an expensive Nordstrom price tag as being an investment. An investment in what? Because it wouldn't be until I would randomly look at the tag while washing my clothes that I would realize that not only did I have no idea where my clothes actually originated from, but none of them were made in the USA, and all of them were made in developing countries like Malaysia, China, Vietnam, Thailand, or Bangladesh.
Yet for some reason my mind would stop there, I wouldn't allow myself to think about why my clothes were being made in developing countries and under what conditions because it was uncomfortable. You know what else is uncomfortable, looking at a sweater sitting in the back of your wardrobe and KNOWING that a child living in extreme poverty made it, how's that for uncomfortable.
For some reason this hands off "if I don't ask don't tell me" mentality was entirely acceptable when it came to my clothes, plus I was constantly giving my "old" clothes to Goodwill, so somehow that meant that my clothing purchases were actually benefiting society right? Wrong!
Here are some facts you aren't going to like. When you donate clothing some do end up in the home of someone in need, but more than half is more likely to end up contributing to the ~13 million tons of textile waste added to landfills each year. They are also likely to be sent overseas through various charity programs, but before you paint a pretty picture in your mind of a poor child wearing your used t-shirt, think again.
What is really happening is something called "charitable dumping" and is a type of aid that has been proven through global health research to have a significant negative impact on local trade industries in the nations receiving aid. This is why even companies such as TOMs shoes have been criticized for the negative impact their social cause based models actually have on further creating a dependance on international charity in the developing world versus economic independence. [1, 2]
The Rana Plaza Garment Factory Collapse
On April 24th, 2013 more than 1100 garment workers in Bangladesh were killed in the Rana Plaza Garment Factory collapse, and more than 2200 were wounded. This incident sparked global interest and for a period of time had consumers like me questioning all over the world "who made their clothes" and what was their responsibility in allowing such a horrific act of negligence to take place. Like many traumatic events, with time the shock and horror faded and while many ethically sourced clothing companies emerged, the problems with fast fashion continued to grow, and little overall was forced to change.
It was at this time however, that I started my Master's Degrees working in International Nutrition and Global Health and no longer was able to turn a blind eye. Through my education and my own personal global health experiences I learned more and more about how large of a part we as consumers play in our global systems. While my transition was slow, eventually I began to shift the way I viewed all of my purchases into the same way I viewed my role in our food system, and once that happened there really was no going back.
So Who Made Your Clothes?
75 million people work to make the clothes that line our wardrobe shelves. More than 80% of these workers are women between the ages of 18-24. However, the vast majority of the women working to make our clothing are unable to afford basic necessities for healthy living. They are abused, subjected to unsafe working conditions, incapable of caring for their children, and work for very little pay that traps them in a world of poverty.
Most of these women also live in the developing world, where labor laws are lax or non-existent, and where large US and European based companies like Nike, Gap, J.Crew, Forever21, the list goes on and on can claim ignorance in their manufacturing and production procedures as a means of removing themselves from the very way their clothing are being made.
If this makes your stomach feel sick, congratulations you are a good human being, mine does too. Not to mention solely speaking as a consumer and stepping off of my global health soap box, it is nauseating to think about all the money that I gave to companies whose defense against their sweat shop and child labor practices is that they "have no idea what goes on in the factories where their clothes are made". WTF I just gave you $90 for my damn jeans and you're telling me you don't know how they are made!!!
So What Can You Do?
After reading this you may be feeling a whole variety of feelings, similar to how I did when I first began to open my eyes to the issues of our global consumption practices, and particularly the fast fashion industry. It can feel overwhelming and we just barely touched the tip of the surface here in terms of so many of the issues associated with how we choose to consume.
But if there is anything that I hope you take away it is that being a conscious consumer is the first step to really impacting the lives of the women, men, and children around the world who work hard to bring us the clothing, food, and home goods that we use daily to live our lives, and who deserve to live better too.
Ask questions, begin to think twice before making an impulse purchase, and use the resources available to help yourself become a more educated and conscious consumer.
Most of all, start recognizing the power your possess every time you make a purchase, and think about the kind of impact you desire to make.
Want To Learn More About The Fast Fashion Revolution?
There are so many incredible resources out there to help people begin to learn more about our global fashion system, also known as "fast fashion" and make it easier for consumers to make purchases that look amazing, and are made in ethical ways that support a healthier life.
I am going to be writing more blog posts about this topic and how I slowly transitioned into becoming a more conscious consumer and how you can too. But in the meantime here are some amazing organizations that are doing incredible work and are worth supporting.
- Fashion Revolution
- The Good Trade
- The True Cost
- Fair Trade International
- Clean Clothes
- Ethical Fashion Forum
Also this week, to remember the Rana Plaza Tragedy take to social media, tell your friends, or call out brands whose clothes you purchase and ask the question...Who Made My Clothes? The more we ask and hold retailers accountable, the more we can help make sure that positive change happens.