By Crysta Coburn
Drought, poverty, worker exploitation. The poisoning of the air, ground water, and soil. These are just a few of the crises facing our world today. We see them everywhere and they seem overwhelming. What can the average person — people like us — do to combat them? We can start with a decision we make every morning: what we choose to wear.
The way Americans view clothing has changed dramatically over the past hundred years. One need only look at the size of the closets of the average home built in the 1940s compared with modern construction to see this. The lack of a walk-in closet is a deal breaker for many homebuyers nowadays, and the popularity of shoe closets is on the rise. An entire closet devoted just to shoes would have been virtually unthinkable to the average American fifty years ago.
Much of what we buy now is what is known as "fast fashion," or clothing that is designed and manufactured quickly so that consumers may buy the "current trends" immediately. Fast fashion is cheap — sometimes ridiculously so — allowing even lower income households to keep up. Examples of fast fashion retailers include Wal-Mart, Meijer, Target, Kohl’s, and just about every clothing store you will find at shopping malls like Briarwood in Ann Arbor, including H&M (more on them later).
In the book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion (Portfolio, 2013), author Elizabeth L. Cline points out that “Americans spend more money on eating out in restaurants every year than they do on clothes.” She then postulates: “It's not that we can't pay more... we just don't see any reason to,” adding “with the same or similar products available at so many different stores, we presume whoever offers us the lowest price is being fair and we give them our business.”
So, who is responsible for our addiction to good deals and cheap clothes? We are. Who fuels the fashion industry that exploits workers and cuts corners in order to lower prices of an increasingly inferior product? We do. Every day. With our purchases, we consumers vote on which fabrics we prefer our clothing to be made from, what quality of garment we find acceptable, and at what prices we are willing to purchase them. Consumers determine the market, not manufacturers. Consumers demanded a cheaper product, and they were answered. At what cost?
Yes, clothing is sold for cheaper prices today than it was fifteen years ago, but it's made so cheaply that the average manufacturer only expects a lifespan of two months for a woman’s top. But who cares when that top only cost $8? What a deal! Michigan's state minimum wage is $8.15. You can be sure that with prices this low, the countless number of people who helped make that $8 shirt were not being paid minimum wage.
Looking again at Cline, we learn that “raw materials account for 25 to 50 percent of the cost of producing an item of clothing, while labor ranges from 20 to 40 percent.” This is why very little clothing is made in the United States (Nike shoes, hardly a cheap brand, have never been made here), and why many of the pieces are manufactured by companies that exploit their workers by ignoring labor laws, the minimum wage, and/or requiring their laborers to work incredible hours to meet all-but-impossible production goals. American garment workers who do earn minimum wage make approximately 38 times their Bangladeshi counterparts. In order to keep costs low — as we consumers insist they must — it just makes sense to move operations overseas.
Tragically, some workers are not being compensated at all for their labor. In early 2014, the Target Corporation in particular was under fire from international anti-slavery group Walk Free for using cotton grown in Uzbekistan where citizens are forced by the government to harvest cotton. With zero percent labor cost, the price to consumers drops even lower.
Though workers abroad may be paid less than they would be in the U.S., this does not necessarily mean they are being exploited. After all, it does make some sense to weave fabric from locally grown plants (cotton, bamboo, and so on). Many smaller clothing companies, in fact, choose to keep their costs down by importing cloth made overseas and assembling their items here because most overseas factories will only take on especially large orders. Regardless of how the company chooses to operate, at every step of the process is the opportunity to treat laborers fairly with adequate breaks and fair pay here in the U.S. and abroad.
Now let’s look at the environmental cost to our fast fashion addiction. Those sewing machines aren’t conjuring cotton out of thin air, after all. To quote Ecouterre, a website whose “mission is to inform, inspire, and encourage innovation” in the global fashion industry: “To ignore the apparel industry’s environmental and social impact would be negligent, not to mention foolhardy.” Ecouterre also points out that “$2 billion of hazardous pesticides are used every year to grow cotton — more than any other agricultural crop.” That means more chemicals are being put into our clothing than into our food. Many Americans are worried about the pesticides that show up in our food supply. We wear our clothes countless hours more than we spend eating.
Though many people enjoy the breathability of garments made from natural fiber, the plants these fabrics come from, like cotton, bamboo, and hemp, are quite thirsty! They also tend to get treated with a hefty amount of pesticides. Rayon, another popular clothing material, one that you may find in fair trade stores, comes from wood pulp, and contributes to global deforestation.
In order to avoid issues of water-usage, pesticides, slave labor in the fields, and so on, many sustainable or eco fashion followers prefer to wear garments made of nylon, spandex, acetate, acrylic, and polyester, all of which are durable, man-made products that can be made into a wide variety of textures and tend to hold their colors better than their plant-based counterparts. Greta Eagan, sustainable fashion blogger and author of Wear No Evil: How to Change the World with Your Wardrobe (Running Press, 2014), does caution that such fabrics may contain Perfluorinated Compounds, or PFCs, which are cancer-causing and can leech into our ground water and soil, thus it is recommended that these garments be washed at least three times before being worn.
This isn’t all as dire as it may sound. There are solutions. Cotton, for example, can be grown organically. Eagan claims that organic and fair trade farming practices can actually reduce the amount of water required to grow cotton by 60 percent. It can also be bought and sold under fair trade conditions. As for rayon, the Canadian forest conservation nonprofit group Canopy has launched Fashion Loved By Forest, which aims to end the fashion industry’s involvement in deforestation by asking companies to commit to sustainably sourced fibers rather than sourcing from ancient trees and rain forests. So far a number of big names have hopped on board, such as Levi Strauss & Co., Patagonia, and international fast fashion guru H&M.
There’s that name again. In case you haven’t heard of H&M, they are a multinational retail company based in Sweden that specializes in the newest and coolest clothes. With stores in 55 countries around the globe, H&M is the second largest clothing retailer in the world, and they are known for both their hip styles and reasonable prices. Depending on the style, a pair of women’s jeans can be purchased for as little as $10 and as high as $50. (Remember, Michigan’s minimum wage is $8.15.)
In H&M’s case, the company has shown itself to be committed to inexpensive products as well as a more sustainable future. They’ve already allied themselves with the Fashion Loved By Forest campaign. Recently, they also launched the Garment Collecting program in stores around the world, including right here in Ann Arbor at the Briarwood Mall. Every customer who brings unwanted clothing back to the store to be collected in bins by the registers will receive a discount on their new clothing purchases.
According to H&M’s website, there are three ways to repurpose the unwanted garments: rewear (second-hand), reuse (or repurpose), and recycle. It turns out that natural fibers, in addition to being biodegradable, can be recycled. Author Greta Eagan explains that natural fiber clothing “can either be shredded back to their fiber state and respun into a repurposed yarn (typically with added virgin fiber for strength) and woven or knitted into a new fabric, or they can be down-cycled into something else (like stuffing for a dog bed or insulation).”
H&M also claims that “of the thousands of tonnes of textiles thrown away every year, 95% could be re-worn or recycled.” Their goal as a company is to “reduce waste and create fashion in a closed loop.” H&M promotes itself as a conscious company and details many of its sustainability and fair wage goals on its website. Even so, it is still fast fashion. So what do we do?
In her various writing on eco fashion, Eagan tries to find the balance between the current reality of America’s fast fashion addiction and a commitment to sustainability. She proposes a system called the Integrity Index, comprised of sixteen points. When considering purchasing an item of clothing, ask yourself: 1) does it use natural/low impact dyes? 2) is it made from natural fibers? 3) organic? 4) fair trade? 5) recycled/upcycled? 6) second-hand? 7) local? 8) social/for a cause? 9) zero waste? 10) convertible? 11) vegan? 12) have a low water footprint? 13) transparent company model/sourcing? 14) cradle to cradle? 15) slow fashion? and 16) stylish?
Eagan especially stresses a garment’s style, asserting that if it doesn’t fit or flatter you, don’t bother. (Sage advice.) Using that as your base, she then advises everyone to choose three of the most personally important items from the list (rather than memorizing all sixteen) and choosing their clothes with these criteria in mind. Be as picky as you want. Maybe a shirt is stylish, donates 10 percent of the proceeds to charity, but is a cotton/polyester blend. Whether or not that is acceptable is up to the person considering the purchase. Are some of these considerations going to factor into the price? Yes, which is why items like second-hand and recycled are included in the list. Also, items that are convertible, or serve more than one purpose, are especially helpful in extending one’s wardrobe.
Between growing consumer consciousness and industry response, the future of eco fashion looks bright. The biggest hurdle is convincing people to change how they view clothes and adjust their shopping habits. Eagan’s guidelines help, but we need to go further. We need to accept that we get what we pay for; and for good quality, ethically-sourced clothing, we need to pay a little more. No more impulse buying just because it’s a good deal. Plan ahead. Take stock of what is already in the closet before heading to the store. When shopping at places like H&M or a thrift shop, bring along old clothes to donate — don’t just throw them away. Check websites like Ecouterre and Eco Fashion World that keep lists of designers and companies who create sustainable clothing.
And spread the word! If you find a great organic cotton dress, tell people. When you see fair trade slacks, let all of your buddies know. Each one of us can choose to make the difference. Every day.
Here is brief list of places to find eco fashion around Ann Arbor:
Perpetua Boutique Organique
The Himalayan Bazaar
Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tearoom