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Sustainable What? Part 1

Self sewn Clyde jumpsuit from the recently released Elizabeth Suzann patterns
Backpack: Clare V Agnes
     I sat down to write about a jumpsuit and over 1,300 words later I instead have this post and nothing about the jumpsuit, so more about that garment will come in a to-be-written Part 2.  
      Back in April of 2013, a garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed resulting in the injury of over 2,500 people and the death of over 1,000. You might have read about the Rana Plaza collapse, either at the time or in one of the many think pieces written about it since then, calling into question the true price of fast fashion. Several well known brands did business with this factory, including Primark, Zara, Mango and Walmart. The building had been deemed unsafe and yet garment workers were sent back into the factory to keep production going. 
     At the time I was living in New York and a good part of my clothing was made up of fast fashion purchases. I was developing an interest in learning where my clothing was made, and by whom (which was then and is now still surprisingly hard to discern as there is a real lack of transparency from brands), as well as having more disposable income than I had had in the past and I remember Rana Plaza making a big impression on me. Starting in 2014 I began tracking my clothing purchases in a spreadsheet, so I could get a better idea of what I purchased and from where. It wasn't driven by ethical concerns, exactly, but rather to help me answer questions I didn't know the answer to. How much money was I spending in a year? Were the clothes new or used? How long did the clothes I buy last? How happy was I with those purchases after a year or two? 
     This practice has helped me significantly reduce new fast fashion from my life. Ethical concerns aside the pieces often didn't make the grade: falling apart more quickly or having poorer fit or more uncomfortable fabrics. It has also caused me to more deeply grapple with the idea of sustainability and fashion. The design, production, manufacturing, marketing, and selling of clothes has costs and I believe that when clothes are cheap for me the consumer, it does not mean that those clothes are in fact "cheap", instead it just means that someone else in the supply chain is paying the price in order for them to be that way. 
      I struggle with the idea that there is such a thing as "sustainable" or "ethical" fashion, at all. My desire to write out my thoughts on the matter bubbled over recently because I think companies use those words too liberally when marketing clothes to women (in particular it was a swimsuit ad) and it seems like there has been an uptick in brands casually referencing their items this way. Part of my struggle over sustainable fashion is that whenever someone uses those words, it feels like there is still an important part of the sentence missing. I'm not sure "this is sustainable" is a true standalone statement when you are talking about new clothes. A shirt or swimsuit, for example, might be made in a way that is more ethical toward the people who produce it or more friendly to the planet, or it might be made in a way that is morally defensible but I don't think that means that the production of the shirt or swimsuit somehow supports long-term ecological balance on our planet. It's tough because answers here aren't simple. While I'm against the way people are treated as disposable in these factories and think that we should pressure companies to raise the floor on the conditions there, it isn't as simple as just moving all production to the US (if they are a US brand) or shutting down these overseas factories. There is no denying that working in the garment industry is a way out of extreme poverty in a lot of communities and is vital to their economies. A recent WSJ article mentions that clothing production makes up nearly "...85% of Bangladesh’s export earnings, and the sector employs four million people there."
    To add to the list of things to consider, a company that otherwise has a transparent supply chain or offsets their carbon footprint can also be one that is plagued by other problems such as a lack of diversity in their leadership or employees in general, or sexist practices or founders, just to name a few. As such, they might be more eco-conscious but still not be a company you want to support with your dollars.

     Pausing for a moment: I'm not saying any of this to make you feel bad (or good, really) about your current practices. For me, learning about the issues surrounding the ecological harm fashion can cause and human costs it perpetuates has been like pulling on a thread, and it just keeps going and going and I learn more and more and I wanted to write it out because I figured I'm probably not the only person out there who feels like they are trying to wade through it all. I think asking these questions is worthwhile and can result in changed habits. How I shop now is very different from how I did a decade ago. What else can I be changing about my fashion habits over the next decade? (Much less my meat-eating or flying habits, both of which thankfully fall outside the purview of this blog.) I'm in a position where I am someone who is lucky enough to have the opportunity to shop for clothes accordingly to my value system. I am not the shopper who is desperately trying to figure out how to get their child a winter coat or shoes that fit, or the shopper whose choices are so limited in an elitist and size-est business that I can only shop at a handful of places. I have the privilege of being able to shop second hand because I like and I want to do so. As such, I think when I shop against my value system it stems from ignorance or laziness, so I feel I have a responsibility to ask myself questions, educate myself on things I don't know about, and track what I'm doing so I have a better shot at seeing when I am being lazy or ignorant.  
     Why is it so difficult to determine the conditions under which the clothing from major brands are produced, anyway? I think we should have more transparency and regulation in a fashion system that is not, for all intents and purposes, designed to clothe us. What I mean is that I don't think the primary reason more and more clothes are produced every year (much less every season) is to combat nakedness. This leads me to the heart of my struggle, because I love clothes. I love everything about them, from the way a killer outfit elevates my mood, comforts me, or expresses something about me, to how it feels to connect with someone else about clothing you both love, to the dopamine hit that I get when I score a great deal or a rare piece. I am not interested in a future where I stop my clothes consumption entirely, so I have to figure something else out. 
     For me, right now that means the following: (1) fewer overall purchases (the new sewing habit and pandemic have helped deflate this number but I have only purchased 8 garments in 2020 so far), (2) donating or reselling my old clothes except in cases where it would be inappropriate to do so (holes, stains you can't get out, etc.), (3) increasing my secondhand purchases, so at least I know I am helping old garments to find new homes and keep them out of the landfill a little bit longer, (4) buying clothing made in the USA when possible (which I used to think ensured a fair wage, although recently on that point the NYT had an expose that disabused me of that notion), so for now we'll say it is an indicator of a fair wage in many cases, (5) keep seeking out and reading articles that educate me on brands, fabrics, etc., and (6) not shying away from buying a piece that I would normally think of as too expensive if it supports businesses that prioritize things like a living wage or non toxic materials or that are owned and operated by women and or people of color. 

Hopefully this list will be even longer by next year. Anything you'd add or think I missed completely? Thanks for stopping by.

2 comments

  1. I've also been thinking a lot about these things, in particular how empty and meaningless some of the common representations from larger companies about their "ethical" or "sustainable" manufacturing are. (I'm thinking of Everlane and various other retailers for which I've, at times in past years, uncritically accepted and repeated their fairly shallow claims of being more "ethical" or "sustainable" than their competitors.) Part of the issue is that I don't think I have or can gain enough knowledge about clothing manufacturing to even come close to reliably verifying their claims for myself...

    I can't think of anything to add to your list of ways to try and shop more sustainably! I think it's a good list, and I try to do most of those things.

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    1. Totally. I think Everlane was also early in marketing that way so at the time even the transparency they were providing felt like a radical shift. It is such a black box and, while I hope it does, I'm not sure if that is going to change too much in the short term.

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