Originally published on Dec 30, 2015 on my (now defunct) personal blog.
Like most people, I had an inkling that most of the clothes in my closet probably came from sweatshops, but it wasnāt something I thought much about, mainly because it wasnāt something I wanted to think about. I certainly didnāt know the problem was so catastrophic. After watching The True Cost documentary on fast fashion (itās currently on Netflix), and reading books like Magnifeco, Naked Fashion and To Die For, Iāve decided to only buy clothes that are ethically made.
Fashion is supposed to be fun. We should feel good when we wear nice clothes. I realized that fashion, for me, is about respect: respect for myself by dressing in lovely and well-made clothes, respect for others by presenting my best side, respect for designers by admiring and supporting their creative vision, respect for workers and artisans by rewarding them for their sublime work, and respect for the environment from which we derive resources to make what we wear.
The reality is that the new fashion business model is just plain disrespectful in every regard.
Fast fashion retailers like Forever21, Mango, Primark, Joe Fresh, H&M, and Zara do not respect us, the consumers, because their entire business model is built on overconsumption and making us feel out of style. Instead of the standard 2 to 4 collections per year presented by designers, some fast fashion retailers release up to 52 collections a year. Every time we step into their stores, weāre presented with the latest fads, cheaply priced and produced, so that weāre tempted to buy impulsively. Worst of all, the clothes are designed to fall apart, so we would go back and buy more.
They really donāt respect workers who make their clothes. 97% of our clothes are now outsourced to developing countries, and big companies face the most challenges in controlling their supply chains. Many of the vulnerable factory workers are exploited, physically and verbally abused, paid in slave wages, and work in extremely unsafe environments. When fires break out and buildings collapse, the fashion companies can easily blame their suppliers and feign ignorance to the malpractices of that particular factory, then move their business to another factory that continues to exploit workers.
Their disrespect for the environment is so bad that the fashion industry is now the second most polluting industry in the world, just after the oil industry. (2017 update: fashion is the 5th polluting industry). Ā We buy 80 billion garments every year. Clearly, weāre treating clothes like disposable products. Most of the textile waste are not biodegradable, so they just sit on our landfills for 200+ years, releasing harmful gases.
Cotton is the dirtiest crop on the planet due to the high volume of pesticides it uses. Farmers, workers and children are dying, or developing cancers or mental illnesses from being exposed to the toxic chemicals; entire villages are being poisoned due to toxic dyes and chemicals being dumped in their waters; and babies are being born with birth defects and mental or physical handicaps.
I can go on with more depressing facts. Thereās a Norwegian mini-series called Sweatshop I want to watch, but Iām not ready for it right now because it sounds too sad. You get the picture.Ā You can see how I can no longer turn a blind eye to this stuff. Everyone plays a role in how the fashion industry became this way: fashion companies, stockholders, buyers, suppliers, the media, celebrities with their endorsement, and usāme. Fast fashion wouldnāt exist if you and I didnāt buy so much and insisted on spending as little as possible on clothes. The system currently works for the companies. Why would they change their practices when itās so profitable? Zaraās owner is the second richest person in the world.
As a consumer, I have purchasing power, and I can do something about it. Some companies, like H&M and Gap, are at least making an effort in making their businesses more ethical and sustainable. Itās not good enough for me right now, but Iām open to shopping from them again when they get it together. You can check Project JUSTĀ for the latest updates about your favourite retailers on how they are performing. Until then, I will:
- Shop from ethical fashion labels and companies. Iāve discovered some really awesome indie labels and ethical fashion retailers. I was surprised that so many ethical fashion companies existed, and I really had to narrow it down to my favourite ones.Ā See my picksĀ here:
- Slow down on the consumption. Whenever I see something I like, Iāll ask myself if this is something I can wear at least 2 ways. How often will I wear this? Will I want to wear this three years from now? Will I still like it even if the media deem it to be out of style tomorrow?
- Buy organic cotton whenever possible. (2017 update: and sustainable fabrics like tencel, bamboo, organic wool, and recycled fabrics.)
- Buy vintage. Actually I started doing this last year when I couldnāt find skirts and dresses that were long enough to cover my bum, or clothes made from decent material. I bought pieces from Value Villageāgranny dresses, 80ās dresses with bad elbow padsāand got them tailored to look modern and fit me perfectly. The tailoring cost the most. In the end, they turned out to be cheaper than dresses fromĀ Zara and better quality too.
- Buy high fashion. I know not everyone can afford luxury labels, but Iām going to take cost-per-wear into account. If itās something like a handbag, a cashmere sweater or a coatāpieces I can wear year after year, I will splurge. Whenever I clean out my closet, the things I have no problem parting with areĀ from Forever21, H&M and Zara. The stuff I paid a premium for? Iāll hold on to it until it is literally falling apart.
Some high fashion companies do outsource to developing countries, and they might also run into the problem of not having control over their supply chains, so I do check labels to see where the products are made and I try to find out as much as I can about their business practices and code of ethics. Itās common for luxury labels to produce certains items locally and outsource other items overseas. Recently I emailed an emerging luxury fashion label sold on Net-a-Porter to ask if their factories in Asia were ethical because I really wanted to buy one of their dress. They emailed me back and straight up told me they were not an ethical company. At least they were honest.
I am a member of āthe mediaā now. Recently, I joined the Ethical Writers Coalition, a band of writers and journalists who share the mission of promoting ethical and sustainable living. New ethical fashion companies are popping up all the time, and I will happily promote them and be part of the fashion revolution. The industry is not perfect, but at least companies are trying, and I can write about people who are making a positive impact. Instead of exploiting workers, these companies are collaborating with them so they can harness their talents and work in dignity for a living wage.
I was a student once, so I do understand the appeal of a $10 dress thatās on trend. These fast fashion companies are everywhere, with enticing window displays too. We get such a high from buying something new and shiny. But I will say this: if you do buy something from one of these stores, please please please love it. Somebody in a downtrodden factory handmade it for you. Maybe not with love, but with blood, sweat and tears. So please respect it and wear it often.
Check out what other members of the EWC are doingĀ to improve their lives in the new year:
Alden Wicker ā My painfully Honest New Years Resolution
Andrea Plell ā Bye 2016
Elizabeth Stilwell āĀ My One Big Resolution for 2016
Faye Lessler āĀ Shedding Layers for a Mindful 2016
Hannah Baror-Padilla āĀ Why making unresolutions are better
Hannah Thiesen ā Resolutions
Holly Rose āĀ Gone Green 2016
Kamea Chang āĀ 4 New Yearās Resolutions You Need for a Meaningful 2016
Kasi Martin āĀ A Year of Wardrobe Resolutions
Leah Wise āĀ Ā Year in Review and Ethical Resolutions
Sarah Weinreb ā 2016 Resolutions