I work in two of the biggest international trade industries that exist today. One of them is also the third most unsustainable industry in the world. While Fair Trade and conscious business owners have made progress in leaps and bounds on this front in the world of coffee, fashion has been left pathetically in the dust. The more people that I talk to about this issue, the more I realize that very few people are aware of the impacts of clothing beyond the impacts on their own bodies. Friends don’t let friends go to Starbucks, but your friends don’t care if you’re wearing Abercrombie & Fitch, American Apparel, or Walmart.
So, let’s talk about it. Clothes are expensive. You might not have paid a lot for that shirt you’re wearing, but the fibers it contains were grown on a farm (or synthesized in a lab), processed and refined, woven, dyed, cut, and sewn into a pattern that someone spent hours designing. It was probably then shipped across an ocean and placed in a storefront and sold to you by a college freshman who couldn’t find a better job. Every step of the way there were material costs and dozens of people had to be paid to do the tasks that would result in the end product of a personal statement that you wear on your back. Regardless of economies of scale, when you think of it this way it’s clear that clothing is expensive.
Maybe you’ve thought about this a little bit. You try to wear natural fibers, are somewhat educated on the ethics of the companies you buy from, or simply try to buy fewer and higher quality items so that you contribute less to waste. If this is you, then hallelujah! You’re on the right track. But if we’re being honest, 99% of the time our choices about clothing are utterly selfish. It’s about appearance or the money we have in our pockets and not about the bigger issue. Heck, I’m the one writing this blog and doing a ton of research for my own business purposes and yet when I have to choose between the $50 black work jeans from Levi’s and the $10 ones from H&M, I go for the cheaper option. It’s hard to make good purchasing decisions when we are being pulled in so many different directions toward equally admirable causes, and especially hard when we don’t even know where to start on this issue. It’s not like clothing brands at the mall have Fair Trade stamps yet. But we have so much information at our fingertips and society has taken such huge steps toward healthy, ethical practices in our personal lives that I believe we can make a change on a wider scale.
I could go on for pages about the impacts of fashion. How manufacturing a single t-shirt can take up to 800 gallons of precious fresh water. How 98% of clothing bought in the US was imported, resulting in pounds of transport CO2 emissions for each item. How synthetic fibers like nylon and polyester are petroleum-based and emit nitrous oxide and volatile organic compounds that are hundreds of times more potent than CO2s.
If you’re still reading this, hopefully you have a spark of interest in taking responsibility for the clothes you purchase and wear every day. I’m still trying to figure out how to push back against the harmful impacts of fast fashion (and all of my research is going straight towards my business plan for a fashion line that I will be launching hopefully sooner than later), but I do have a few ideas to share with you.
- Invest in Slow Fashion – Think of fast v. slow food. Eating fast food is bad for you, bad for the environment, bad for everyone. Same with fast fashion. This goes hand-in-hand with buying less, and it’s about finding brands that are transparent about manufacturing processes and are committed to ethical practices. And if you’re worried about finding those brands, think of it this way: they are putting a ton of extra money and effort into making their business ethical and sustainable, so they’re going to let you know. Brands like The Reformation, Patagonia, Amour Vert are going the extra mile. Want to take it a step further? Have something custom made that will last you actually forever.
- Buy less – Still having trouble finding good brands? Just buy less, or secondhand. It might seem weird to hear this from someone who is trying to become a designer and will want you to buy clothes from them, but I’m not too worried about losing my market of people who need clothing. In the long run, it is both economically smart and more sustainable to buy fewer, higher quality clothing items and learn to be happy with that. Consider building a capsule wardrobe! It’s hip and a huge personal contribution to solving the fast fashion problem.
- Look at the tag – I’m definitely more aware of fabric and clothing qualities than people who aren’t in fashion, but you can be intentional about your buying habits by looking for a few key things. You could simply look at the country of origin, and if it’s made in your country then you know exactly what the labor laws are, you’re supporting local workers, and you’re eliminating transportation emissions. The other thing to look for is the materials. You could go for natural fibers (no polyester or nylon), and that would be a huge step. You could take it further and avoid cotton, because the cotton industry is really bad about pesticides and water waste. Instead, look for hemp, linen, bamboo, or rayon blends. Someone recently asked me what the fabric of the future is and I immediately thought of Tencel (also called lyocell and modal). It’s a semi-synthetic fiber made from wood pulp and it’s absolutely heavenly. I’ve been seeing it around more and more, which is awesome because it’s quite sustainable, comfortable to wear, and great to work with as a designer.
I feel like there’s so much more to say, but hopefully it’s enough to make you think about this issue and want to educate yourself. Once more of us are aware of the issue a revolution will follow, and I want to be on the front lines of the push against fast fashion.