It's Fall. It's Fashion Week. I'm conflicted. I love fashion as much as the next gal, but there are some serious issues within the conventional fashion industry that I can no longer ignore. Fashion, driven by consumerism, has displayed appalling abuse of workers and a lack of stewardship for animals and the environment. Truthfully, I've held these concerns in the back of my mind for a while, but never really knew how to address what seems to be an insurmountable problem. Where do I find ethical options? How do I know they are ethical? What IS ethical? These are hard questions to answer. What makes something 'ethical' is pretty subjective and to address all of the issues is difficult for both consumers and companies. Some more than others. Companies slow or unwilling to change labor under the assumption that their charity makes up for their lack of ethics. The Buy One, Give One model make us feel good, but is also not a viable solution. A new and better model for corporate social responsibility (CSR) is about integrating change into your business – sourcing, production, and processes take into account communities, employees, and consumers. And exciting new corporations, called B Corps, use the power of business to help solve social and environmental problems.
Nine out of ten global consumers say they want companies to go beyond the minimum standards required by law to operate responsibly and address social and environmental issues, according to the 2013 Cone Communications/Echo Global CSR Study.
But companies don't always make these changes willingly; it's up to us to shop with our dollars when and if we truly need something. I'm not talking boycotts here, because abrupt change can actually further harm unprotected workers in unstable markets. I'm talking mind-shift. I'm talking all of us making small informed changes that will make a difference. Making huge changes all at once are not, in general, sustainable and so I'm asking you first to open your hearts and minds and just consider the impact your existence has on the world. Many people have touched the goods that you possess. People trying to earn enough to feed, shelter and clothe their own families. Animals and the environment have been disrupted so that these goods may exist. Some of the information below will be shocking and possibly heartbreaking to you. I hope that you will press on. I hope that you will learn something. I hope that you will become energized with the possibility of making change happen in the world.
Let's first look at the issues behind the conventional fashion industry and I'll tell you what I'm going to do to address each issue.
Besides going in to debt and drowning in our own possessions, those sewing machine operators in the developing world are not often paid a living wage. A living wage should cover the cost of nutritious food and clean water, shelter, clothes, education, health care and transport, as well as discretionary income or savings. Being financially at the mercy of their jobs, workers are susceptible to exploitation and mistreatment. They often endure long work hours, lack of benefits or representation, hazardous conditions, and physical abuse. Child labor and even human trafficking are used by the worst offenders. These conditions are not limited to developing countries and may take advantage of undocumented workers in industrialized nations. Lack of basic safety measures like fire exits and extinguishers have led to deaths in factories in Bangladesh. Slim margins keep factory owners from making safety upgrades while wealthy multinationals refuse to help. Again, boycotting is not the solution for these workers. An organization called the Clean Clothes Campaign encourages communication between retailers and suppliers in a way that doesn’t put intolerable pressure on workers and that builds long-term, stable relationships with time to improve conditions. What will I do? I've made it a habit to look at the 'about' pages of brands and retailers. If they are doing things ethically, they are sure to tell you. If that information is not included, I'll make it clear to brands that I'm aware of these issues by being informed and asking questions.
The Clean Clothes Campaign considers these good questions to ask of brands:
- What do you do to ensure decent working conditions in the factories where your clothes are made?
- How do you support workers being able to negotiate their own working conditions?
- Are you confident that the price you pay for your garments is enough to ensure that the workers who make them earn a sufficient wage to support themselves and their family?
In addition, I can take pledges and encourage policy changes and tougher laws regarding business practices. Most of all, I will consider the people who make my goods and make better decisions for all of us.
This short film was made by The Apparel Truth to present findings of labour-law violations in the garment industry in Bangladesh and Cambodia. Whilst appearing on the surface to adhere to labour laws the garment factories subcontract work to other factories where the laws are ignored and abuse is apparent.
I think because they have no agency of their own, the treatment of animals bothers me a lot. Starting, ironically, while I lived in China, my meat consumption decreased based on the cultural norms there. Meat is not the main event of the meal, although that is changing. Since returning to the U.S. four years ago and learning the benefits of a plant-based diet, I have gradually turned to a vegetarian lifestyle. Naturally, I have begun thinking about the animals that are part of the fashion industry as fur and leather.
I have actually never been okay with new fur, but have entertained the possibility of vintage. I think that option is closed for me, as I don't even want to promote the fashion of fur now (though I do own a faux fur coat that is quite warm). Animals farmed for their fur are subjected to life in tiny wire cages with no bedding, often going long periods without food or water. They are often handled roughly and their death is brutal, with methods including suffocation, electrocution, gas, and poison. More than half the fur in the U.S. comes from China, where millions of dogs and cats (deliberately mislabeled as other animals) are bludgeoned, hanged, bled to death, and often skinned alive for their fur. This link will provide you with more information on the Chinese fur industry, but I want to warn you about the video there; I honestly felt faint from the gruesomeness of it. If you don't believe that animals suffer for materials that we don't really require to keep warm, then this is the video for you.
Moving on. What will I do? I think the answer is pretty simple for this one: I won't buy it. Vegan leather has come a long way and is a viable alternative. Vintage may be my saving grace when it comes to something like boots or sneakers. And isn't that better than adding to the pool of new goods, even if they are vegan? I do think this one is going to prove harder than it seems and I will definitely share the obstacles I encounter along the way.
Stella McCartney has been called out as a disappointment to the movement because her parent group, Gucci, still uses fur. I think this is somewhat out of her control and this is a good video nonetheless.
The story of the average t-shirt is used over and over to demonstrate the environmental abuse of the textile industry. Cotton accounts for 90% of all natural fibers used in the textile industry and is used in 40% of all apparel produced globally. As the world's dirtiest crop, conventional cotton uses many of the most hazardous pesticides on the market. Five of the top nine pesticides used in U.S. cotton farming are known to be carcinogenic and all of them contaminate fresh groundwater. The World Health Organization estimates that three million people are poisoned by pesticides each year. Pesticides leak into the environment and chronic poisoning can affect entire communities. Symptoms include numbness or weakness of arms, legs, feet, or hands; lethargy; anxiety; and loss of memory and concentration. Young women are particularly vulnerable—exposure to pesticides can affect the reproductive system, causing infertility and spontaneous abortion. Synthetic pesticides cause pests to build up a resistance causing farmers to use more pesticides each year. The cost of seeds and pesticides reduces the profit margin for farmers as well as the global market for cotton. The U.S. heavily subsidizes its cotton production, making it difficult for exporting countries to compete. To make ends meet, some farmers have to use their children as workers.
Water is another major component of the fashion industry; some 14.4% of an apparel retailer's total water footprint relates to manufacturing. Cotton plants, grown in hot, arid environments, need a lot of this vital resource and pesticides increase that need. It takes over 2,000 liters of water to produce the average T-shirt with conventional cotton! Organic cotton grown without pesticides reduces water consumption, but the dying of textiles also requires a lot of water and creates chemical wastewater. An estimated 20% of industrial water pollution comes from textile dyeing and treatment and an estimated 8,000 synthetic chemicals are used throughout the world to turn raw materials into textiles, many of which will be released into freshwater sources. This when there are natural dyes and even naturally colored cotton! Check out this excellent Greenpeace photo essay contrasting the experiences of farmers in India growing genetically modified or organic cotton.
There is so much to consider when making decisions based on environmental concerns, but there some easy ways to help. What will I do? Encourage organic cotton farming and movements like the Better Cotton Initiative. Buy vintage, organic, or fair-trade cotton. Even better, buy a more sustainable textile like organic linen, hemp, or bamboo. The following video nicely sums up the issues with cotton.
The recent collapse of Bangladeshi Rana Plaza and my fledgling vegetarianism have refocused me and I've decided to find out what I can do to be a more 'conscious consumer'. More than that, I want to be a better global citizen. Luckily, I'm not the only one on this mission, so there is a plethora of information and resources to learn from. And believe me, it will be a learning experience. I've likely already overloaded you with information (and possibly depression). I promise I'll return with some lighter posts on resources, shopping, and DIYs. In the meantime, absorb this information and consider what I'm doing, what you can do, and what we can do together.
Now, who's with me?
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