The evolution of fast fashion has led us to become extremely disconnected with the things we buy. In the 1960’s, more than 95% of US clothing was produced domestically. Present day, this number has dropped down to only 2%, while the rest is manufactured offshore (BoF, 2016). This rise in offshore production has completely shifted the way fashion is produced, consumed and disposed of. As our fashion options have become so cheap and disposable, its ultimately shaped how we think of, and reflect on the things we buy.
Let’s rewind to Rana Plaza in Bangladesh on April 24, 2013. That day, over a thousand people lost their lives in the largest factory collapse in history. Prior to this day, it was extremely easy for brands to get away without saying much about their supply chain. This tragedy truly revealed how the industry was operating with absolutely no regard for the treatment of workers, and it sparked a revolution. Consumers began demanding more transparency and the right to know #whomademyclothes? The reality is that most of what we wear is manufactured in countries such as Bangladesh, India, China, etc. and the workers are literally forced to work in extreme and harsh working conditions, similarly to the unsafe factory of Rana Plaza.
Did you know, that the average worker in the above mentioned countries lives on only $2-3 per day? They are usually paid about 1-3% of the retail price of the garments they make. In other words, the human being who made your $10 t-shirt was most likely paid between $0.10-$0.30 (Labour Behind the Label, 2015). Although many argue that the cost of living is much lower in these countries, these wages are nowhere near enough to even afford basic needs such as food, shelter, water, and medicine. This denies people the opportunity for a decent life. Often, these workers are also forced into incredibly unsafe working conditions (flashback to Rana Plaza), and struggle to make ends meet working anywhere between 10-14 hour days. More often than we care to think about, these workers are children.
And of course, there are also the immense environmental issues. There’s an absurd amount of water used in production, hazardous amounts of toxic chemicals are dumped into the freshwater supply, and pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers are used to grow crops such as cotton. And of course, the carbon dioxide released during transportation, and the operation of big machinery.
Textile waste is another increasingly problematic issue. In North America, over 85% of our clothing ends up in landfill, which is 10.5 million tons of clothing. Elizabeth Cline, the author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, notes that this is five times what it was 25 years ago. And, did you know, 95% of it could be reused or recycled?
As we reflect on these real world issues and think about how we’re contributing to the oppression of workers on the other side of the world, and to the destruction of our planet, we feel uncomfortable, and we begin to think about how our complacency is something that we can question and change. By the taking the time to do research, and ask the right questions, we can make sure that we’re supporting companies that have fair and ethical business practices.
It can definitely feel overwhelming and unsettling to think about these problems and injustices on a global scale, and although most of us desire to ‘do better once we know better’, sometimes it’s really hard to know where to start. However, on the flip side, it also empowers us to create change on an individual level and highlights the opportunity for us to harness this knowledge as power and take action to create a better world.
So, what do we do now? How can we make a difference on an individual level? Next time you shop, consider these tips on how to shop with purpose:
Buy less and buy quality. The statistics mentioned above on textile waste make it evident that overconsumption is a huge problem. Due to the increasing rate of fast fashion, we now see weekly trends, and even daily trends in some stores. But what is important to realize is these garments are of incredibly poor quality. These garments are not made to last, in fact, it’s opposite, they’re made to be disposable so that we’ll reach into our wallets and make another purchase very soon. Next time you are going to buy that $10 t-shirt, ask yourself “Do I really need this new thing?” Buying less of fast fashion means you will have more money to invest your dollars in well-made, quality garments that are ethically produced and have a positive impact!
Get clear on your values. Do you care about animal rights? The environment? Fair Trade? Once you understand where your values lie, it will be easier to align your purchase with your values. Always ask yourself, “does this purchase reflect what I believe?” If it doesn’t, put it down. There are so many good options out there in the marketplace that cater to the socially and environmentally conscious consumer, that with a little research, you should be able to find an option that has you feeling good about where you spend your money, who made your garment and how our planet was affected by its production.
Ask the right questions. The most important question shouldn’t be, will this look cute on me? It should be, who made this and how was it made? Ask yourself, how did this garment get here? What implications did the transportation of this garment have on people, and on the planet? Who made this? Were they paid fairly for their work? Were their working conditions safe? Were they forced to work against their will? What processes were involved in the creation of this garment or accessory? By asking the right questions, you can make informed conscious purchasing decisions that consider humans and our planet.
Aim for progress, not perfection. Perfection doesn't exist and the pursuit of it can be maddening. We can spend a long time searching for the perfect garment, the perfect accessory, or the perfect brand, but they will always fall short. There is no perfect. But once we’re informed and armed with an inquisitive mind, there are certainly MUCH better choices that we can make.
It’s all about learning as we go, making informed decisions and feeling good about the brands that we support with our dollars. It is not enough to speak about change. We must all, in our own way, try to affect change. In the end, fashion is still about being creative, having fun and expressing yourself. But isn’t it better to look fabulous AND feel fabulous about where your garments came from?
About the Author
With a business degree and love for fashion, Cassandra Ciarallo partnered up with artisans in Bali and launched Chic Made Consciously: a company offering fair-trade and eco-accessories from repurposed tire tubes. Her passion is to infuse style and sustainability, as well as bring awareness to how we consume and shift behaviour.