The US alone discards 21 billion pounds of clothes per year. That’s the weight of 656,000 sperm whales. Which is about triple the amount of sperm whales there actually are. And their numbers continue to dwindle. But this isn’t an article on sperm whales or the degrading environment.
Textiles and you
The textile industry is estimated to be responsible for about 20% of global water pollution and while this is an oversimplified example of how our clothing choices as consumers affects the global ecosystem, it illustrates the impact our fashion demands have on other living beings. If you’re not particularly interested in sperm whale survival (and honestly how can we be if their impact on human well-being is many steps removed), then at least consider the available clean water for families in developing nations. Or even in the U.S. (I’m looking at you, California, your aquifers look like the inspiration to Yeezy season’s color palette). So, what are we to do as lowly individual consumers just trying to sport the hottest, loudest, subtlest, freshest, most innovative, boundary pushing and expressive pieces? That’s tricky. While communities of artists have emerged around physical epicenters of design, the manufacturing process continues to lie elsewhere, making intelligent consumption and aesthetic clothes appear to be mutually exclusive.
But my store brands…
Not only do companies not disclose all information in easy to find places, they don’t have to. Urban Outfitters and it’s larger corporate umbrella URBN, for example, do not have to say where they sourced their cotton or what parts of a country their fabrics are sewn. While I am sure there are creative and kind hearted designers working with the company, the process of bringing an idea from a creator’s mind to the consumer is isolated in each step due to the supply chains.
So manufacturing and retail can be completely separate moving pieces and people wash their hands free of responsibility. Zara for example, a giant in the flash fashion game that brings the equivalent of high speed internet between runways and in-store items, has been under fire for having a modern day slave labor within its supply chain. Though exploiting near free labor was not a conscious choice Zara made, the speed and flexibility with which they create collections pushes those who operate in the manufacturing side of the supply chain to extremes just to meet Zara’s expectations. It creates a highly competitive environment for the factories that Zara sources to which gets every corner cut with Zara having not clear legal responsibility. The most they did was promise to “monitor the supply chain more closely”, and even that failed when years later the same problems arose. I don’t mean to antagonize Zara as a standalone villain – these practices are widespread and we all have at least a vague idea of sweatshop horror stories. Imagine the damp, dangerous factories much stitching is done versus the clean cut, air conditioned stores we buy them in.
Who watches the watchers?
It’s easy to write these things off; out of sight, out of mind. Plus everyone is wrapped up in their own daily struggles that worrying about where our clothes come from might tip us over the stress edge. But wait, let’s inch a step further. On top of sustainable and ethical practices being far below the radar for most people, watchdog organizations that attempt to rank companies by their sustainable practices rarely come up with the same results. For example, the Corporate Knights’ 2016 Global 100 Most Sustainable Corporations in the World Index (what a mouthful), ranked H&M and adidas as the most sustainable, while Morgan Stanley conducted a study in which Nike came out first and H&M and adidas didn’t even make the list. Of course there’s the question of why a financial service company would conduct sustainability studies on their own clients but that’s another rabbit hole.
Now what? Well, all is not lost, and despite the profound dirtiness within the textile industry we can still make educated decisions about how we consume products. And we’re very equipped to do so. We can bring the same awareness we use for aesthetic and cultural fashion choices to the responsibility with which the clothes are made.
What choices do you make?
The meeting point of social conscientiousness, environmentalism, and fashion is a blurry yet logical one. There are individuals and communities that seek to exit the globalized marketplace and reduce their part in exploiting cheap labor and resources. They are counter-culture. They approach their ideology differently than streetwear enthusiasts but to the same passionate extent. They like small. The like local. They want limited supply and quality fabrics.
Environmentalism factors directly into this in that these consumer goods are often less impactful on the biosphere at all stages of production. Businesses like Seamly, local to Denver, CO, respond to the demand with “green” practices of locally sourcing and sewing. They mean to mitigate pollution through choosing better materials, better production practices and a more fairly treated workforce. DEDICATED is a brand in Stockholm, Sweden, that works only with organic fair trade cotton certified by GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) which strives to spread sustainable and ethical development of supply chains. Brands wear these certifications as badges that show consumers they are responsible and aware of their impact and contribution to our globalized world. And while not all badges and reports have proven to be equal, it is a step in the right direction when it comes to savvy consumer choices as fashion enthusiasts.
Is choosing the most environmentally friendly and ethically manufactured clothes difficult? Sometimes. Can the freedom of having a great design and outfit be sacrificed in the name of morals? Sometimes. Is there a middle ground between the two? Yes. Chances are, if you’re still reading this then you care about your fashion choices in both the realm of aesthetics and morals. While making decisions on what to buy can be difficult, it is my hope that arming yourself with knowledge can positively impact your choices as a consumer and improve at least one element in the global ecosystem of fashion goods. Happy hunting.