Have you ever noticed when you go through your grandmother’s old clothes they all feel so much different than yours? The fabrics are thicker and the hemlines are straighter, they seem like they were made with quality in mind.
Over the last two years I have been an Ambassador with Noonday Collection, a fair trade jewelry company. While I love having a ridiculously large jewelry collection at my disposal, what I am even more grateful for is the education I have received. The fashion industry has undergone some devastating changes in my lifetime and yet most have happened out of sight and are easily overlooked.
Did you know that 80 billion pieces of clothing are produced every year? This is 400% more than only 20 years ago. Women now have four times as many clothing items in their closets than they did in the 80’s and they get rid of equal amounts of clothing each year as they buy new.
While the 50’s brought the boom of fast food, the 80’s brought the explosion of fast fashion. In years past most American clothes were made in the USA, where for the most part, (certainly there are and were significant exceptions) workplaces were regulated enough to maintain basic safety standards and workers made at least minimum wage.
In the 80’s clothing producers began moving overseas which allowed them to cut costs. Now let’s pause and think about it, the factory is the same, the fabric the same, so the main place where companies are saving money is in . . . yep you got it . . . salary paid to their workers.
Additionally retailers realized that by making lots of new items, at lower prices, with styles that changed often, they could get us spending more than if they kept on making only a few high quality classic pieces every year.
Fast fashion was born. Retailers now get new merchandise daily. Fashion is about trends that change every few months. Clothing is cheap and replaceable. We were encouraged to buy, wear and get rid of it making room for the next new style.
Think about this, when we buy a top at Forever 21 for 4.95 we know two things. First it was made in China and second the company is making a profit ( 3.9 billion dollars in 2014) or they wouldn’t be selling it. So that $4.95 needs to make a profit plus cover the costs of running the store, shipping from China, the fabric and materials and the salary of the people involved in producing it. So when a top sells for only $4.95 we can figure there must be corners being cut somewhere (I mean I can’t even mail the same top from Texas to my sister in Colorado for $4.95, let alone ship it across the globe). Looking for those corners can take us to some unpleasant information.
(I have mixed feelings about singling out Forever 21, there are lots of companies that need to improve, though this one in particular is known for its unethical treatment of workers and resistance to make any changes)
Here are a few thoughts:
1. Clothes have to be made of something.
Polyester is the most popular fabric in the US. It is plastic, derived from petroleum. Processing it in its final stages is likely toxic to humans and creates an environmentally toxic waste. Plus it decomposes at the same rate as a plastic water bottle.
Of course there is good old fashioned cotton, completely natural, right? Unfortunately most cotton used in clothing production is grown overseas and is genetically modified. The seeds are produced and sold by Monsanto (the giant chemical company responsible for creating and selling all sorts of things but best known for taking over American farms with genetically modified soy beans). Cotton is known to be one of the most pesticide heavy crops and we are growing twice as much of it than we were in 1960.
Plus the cotton industry is notorious for using slave labor. The government of Uzbekistan for example requires its citizens to pick cotton without payment.
2. Clothes are still made by hand.
We open up a shopping bag, tags attached, clothes with that sort of chemically smell which lets us know they are new. It is easy to forget that those stitches were made by hand, the buttons sewn on, the threads trimmed by someone’s tiny scissors.
Typically the brands that we know subcontract out the production of their clothes. This means contracts often go to the lowest bidder. Now imagine you own a factory in Indonesia and are trying to earn as much as you can off of this contract. You don’t have OSHA knocking at your doors, there is no requirement to pay a minimum wage or to give lunch breaks or even bathroom breaks. And you have unlimited labor, mostly women traveling from small villages looking for work and children whose parents can’t afford to pay for school and hoping they can bring in a little extra income.
Certainly there are good business owners who treat their employees well. But there are others who when a new worker arrives ask for their personal papers essentially stripping them of their identity. They withhold payments or pay so little that workers can’t get ahead, can’t pay enough to cover the cost of the room they are renting and so they are stuck. They have to keep working because they can’t keep up with the debts they are accumulating. Most of these workers are women without any protections from harassment, abuse and even rape. There isn’t a policeman to talk to, or shelter to go to, there is no 1-800-000 hotline listed in the bathroom. In fact they may literally be unable to leave. The doors may be locked, like this case in 2012 when a broiler exploded and caught fire in Pakistan and 289 workers died, locked in a factory that had just passed inspection.
The list of atrocities goes on, did you ever stop to think that someone may have died to make your sand blasted or acid washed jeans? I hadn’t, but the hazards of these processes are significant and most people doing them aren’t informed of the dangers and many don’t have the freedom to leave their positions even if they wanted to.
No piece of clothing is worth someone’s life.
3. Our clothes end up somewhere.
We feel good don’t we? When we clean out our closets those big bags piled up and ready for the Goodwill?
What I didn’t realize is that most of those clothes don’t end up going to support charity. There are just too many.
What doesn’t sell at the Goodwill may be sold and shipped overseas mostly to Sub-Saharan Africa where it is re-sold at thrift shops. The idea doesn’t seem so bad except that the economic data shows that our free clothes are undermining any effort for these countries to develop their own clothing manufacturing infrastructure, a business which could potentially create jobs and help these struggling economies.
Still most of our old clothing ends up in landfills at the rate of 14 million tons of textile waste per year.
4. It’s not just clothes.
These same principles apply to everything we purchase, housewares, food and toys. We live in an age where cheap and fast is what sells even if it means exploitation and pollution.
5. It is not too late to change.
The encouraging part of this story is your choices matter. We as consumers have 100% of the power to change this. We vote with every dollar we spend. If we decide that these practices are unacceptable and make it clear that we are not putting our money towards them anymore things will change.
The other good news is that there are lots of companies that still make their products in America and many others that utilize a Fair Trade business practice which provide a transparent shopping experience and work towards sustainable and safe job development overseas.
Taking all this in initially can seem overwhelming, at least it was for me. But what else can we do but recognize what is going on around us and begin to make choices that work towards good? I hope this is encouraging and I have another post in the works with some more specific ideas about how we can shop responsibly. Thanks for reading.
If you found this post helpful you may also enjoy: Some Thoughts on Fashion, Clothing Swap: Free Fashion You Can Feel Good About.