In honor of Fashion Revolution Week, which starts today, I’m going to get you fashion woke.
Founded in 2014 to commemorate the April 24th 2013 Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh, which killed over 1,100 garment workers, this week brings attention to fact that conventional fashion forces female garment workers into unsafe, exploitative, and toxic situations.
On Wednesday of last week, I was invited to speak on a panel hosted by StyleLend, a start-up which lets you lend out your upscale clothing to consumers for a few nights, or vice versa. The audience was bright, engaged, and incredibly sweet. I was excited to meet several of you, dear readers, there! But the questions that popped up inspired me to write this post. Consumers are starting to wake up to the fashion industry’s negative impact. But it’s a complex, nuanced, frustrating issue, which belies simple solutions, however well-meaning they may be.
Here are some things I hear over and over, that I want to correct:
1. If you donate your old clothes to the “right” charity, they will find their way into the hands of an appreciative low-income American.
Repeat after me: No matter where you donate, it all goes to the same place. No matter where you donate, it all goes to the same place.
Most people still believe when they donate clothing, they’re donating much-needed garments that people in need will gratefully take and wear with pride. But the fact is, Americans donate far too much clothing for the underprivileged in America to absorb, and much of it, as fast fashion has taken hold, is worthless and falling apart. Homeless and women’s shelters don’t even want your old clothing. They want bras, new underwear, coats, basic personal care products, and tampons. If you drop off a bag of your old Forever 21 clothing, it’s equivalent to you dropping off your bag of household waste, and expecting them to be thankful for the opportunity to sort through it and take out the bottles with deposits. That is how worthless and disposable old clothing is at this point.
The way clothing charities work, they take in your clothing, and then extract as much value as they can from it in order to run their operations. They’ll resale about 20 to 40% of it to the public. The rest is bundled up and resold for pennies on the pound to a recycler who will downcycle some of it into insulation or wiping rags, and will send the rest to developing countries to resell for a couple dollars. If you donate to Goodwill, Salvation Army, Housing Works, the Greenmarket textile collections, that church down the street, all of them go through this exact same process. So whether your clothing finds a second life depends not on where you donate it, but the quality of the clothing itself. If it’s well-made, timeless, and in good condition, someone, somewhere, will wear it again. If you bought it for $15 originally or it has a stain, it will be downcycled.
So the lesson here is not to worry about where you donate your old clothes – just pick a charity whose mission you support. And worry more about what clothing you’re buying in the first place, and whether it will have a long life. Oh, and if something has tears or stains, cut it up and use it for rags around your house.
You can read more about this issue in my article for Newsweek.
2. Your secondhand clothing is ruining clothing manufacturing in developing countries.
The truth about this is even more complex than the last myth. As the “common knowledge” goes, when your old clothing goes to Africa, the people who live there buy it and wear it instead of buying clothing that is made there, thus devastating the textile and garment industries. But that may not be true, as I found out when I interviewed a couple of researchers on the topic.
Let’s take East Africa, for example. When the economies were opened up for international trade in the 1980s, two things happened simultaneously. First, East Africans started importing secondhand Western clothing and reselling it in large markets, because it was seen as high quality, and it was a way for East Africans to get that cool American style – Nike, Adidas, etc – for a few dollars. Second, the East African textile industry suddenly had to compete with the international market, and because they were inefficient and had poor infrastructure, factories started closing down. The fact that these two things happened simultaneously gave rise to the myth that the secondhand market caused the factories to shut down.
The East African governments proposed banning secondhand clothing, but only Rwanda followed through with tariffs. And just as I predicted last year, Rwandans did not go back to buying Rwandan-made clothing. They’re buying more cheap Chinese imports instead. So the textile industry hasn’t benefitted at all.
Secondhand clothing, domestic clothing manufacturers and Asian imports all fill separate needs for East African consumers, who want to be fashionable, just like you and me. Plus, secondhand markets provide income to many East Africans, and support tailoring jobs as well.
Now, I should caveat this by saying that Haiti actually manufactures the same stuff that we cast off, like t-shirts. So it may be that our secondhand clothing negatively affects their economy, though Haiti has so many economic troubles, it’s hard to separate out any one culprit. But I can tell you that when I was visiting the Dominican Republic earlier this year, I discovered that they have a thriving market for secondhand clothing, but also a huge clothing manufacturing base – it’s the third biggest economic sector after remittances and tourism, bigger even than agriculture. It has experienced a decline in the past decade, but according to this analysis, it was because of “high electricity costs, domestic cargo costs, maritime transport costs, and customs charges. But the most important factor contributing to the change in fortune was the phasing-out of the Multi-Fibre Arrangement (MFA) which… set limits, called quotas, on the amount of foreign-made apparel and textiles [the U.S. and Canada] would allow into their countries from any specific producing country. Once the MFA expired, the Dominican Republic was unable to compete with the cheaper clothing assemble in China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Bangladesh, and it lost much of its share in the US garments market.” Notice the secondhand market for clothing is not listed as a culprit. But fast fashion is.
3. Only the privileged can partake in the sustainable fashion movement.
While we are on the subject of secondhand clothing, let’s address this charge, which I most often hear shouted in the comment section of Refinery29 at me. Yup, I am privileged. But I also know of about 25 stores in the city where you can get high-quality, sustainable fashion for $5 to $30: Beacon’s Closet, Buffalo Exchange, 10 Ft. by Stella Dallas, Housing Works, Goodwill, Salvation Army, Second Time Around… yes, I’m talking secondhand stores. Secondhand fashion is a great way to get affordable and quadruple-ethical and sustainable fashion:
- Your money is going to a charity or local business instead of a fast fashion company.
- No resources are being extracted to make your clothing.
- Nobody was exploited to get that fashion to you.
- It’s probably local fashion, brought in by someone in the same neighborhood or city, so transportation emissions are almost nil.
- You’re keeping something out of the landfill.
And I promise, this is not crap fashion. Stores like Beacon’s and Buffalo Exchange are extremely picky about what they take. They reject anything with stains and tears, anything out of fashion, and even cheap fast fashion. I’ll often stop in to see what they have and walk out with some beautiful blouses, or super fun, trendy items for a vacation with the tags still on, all for the same price as fast fashion. Really, beggars can be choosers.
In addition, when I tell people how to overhaul their wardrobe to be more sustainable, my first four steps do not involve spending money. In fact, they involve saving money! It’s only in the final step do I tell them to go shopping, and to do it mindfully, with cost-per-wear and resale value in mind.
Lona from StyleLend once shared with me a saying: “I’m too poor to buy cheap things.” It means that it’s a waste of money to buy things that will fall apart after a few uses. So buy high-quality, secondhand, timeless fashion, and not only are you super sustainable, you’re also super budget savvy.
4. Fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world.
5. If companies just manufactured in the U.S., then all these problems would be solved.
Yes, manufacturing is the U.S. is superior when it comes to environmental protections. Our EPA enforcement is far from perfect (the European Union is surpassing us in many ways) but it’s much, much more robust than in any Asian country, where rivers in garment manufacturing districts are devoid of life and foamy with poisonous runoff. But there’s a catch: U.S. garment manufacturing is not only much more expensive, because of our minimum wage, it also has a reputation for fashion industry insiders for being poor quality. Many a well-meaning fashion startup has struggled to produce in the U.S., got a lot of flack from customers for the inconsistent, poor quality goods, and then finally given up and moved onto Vietnam or Latin America, where they can get higher quality accessories and garments made for a lower price. Or they simply found success and outgrew New York’s or LA’s manufacturing capacity.
Plus, what would happen to the millions of Asian women who work in the garment industry in Asia if we somehow reshored all our manufacturing? Those jobs, as dirty and dangerous and exploitative as they are, represent a step up from rural poverty and forced marriages for many of these young women. They represent a dream. The answer is not to pull out of Asia entirely, but to figure out how to improve the working conditions and pay in these countries.
6. Fashion made in China is low quality and cheap.
Speaking of, this used to be true. But it isn’t any longer. Wages in China have risen to the point where it’s actually midrange, upscale and even luxury clothing that is now being manufactured in China, which has invested heavily in the latest technology necessary to create elaborate and quality garments and accessories. Larger ethical sustainable brands struggle with this fact, because they have found the responsible factories there, and yet customers get angry at what they perceive as a greedy, unethical brand choice. Yes, the environmental protections are still not great in China, but if you flip a tag over and see “Made in China” you can no longer assume that it represents the bottom of the barrel.
7. Vegan leather is eco-friendly.
Not necessarily. It could be quite toxic, and is definitely synthetic in some way. There are some eco-friendly vegan options like cork, Pinatex, and waxed canvas. But always look closer and ask questions.
8. Fashion made of natural fibers can be composted.
Very rarely is this true. Cotton, linen, silk, and other natural fibers go through an intense process whereby they are dyed with toxic dyes, scoured with chemicals, and finished with more toxic chemicals. You do not want to put them in the compost pile for use in your garden unless it is 100% natural material, is a natural color like beige or off-white, comes from a transparently sustainable company, and is Oeko-Tex certified. So, like, burlap.
9. Companies with one-for-one models or give-back elements are eco-friendly.
These are two entirely different concepts. One is a brand that donates money or items to people in need. The other is a piece of fashion that is less toxic, involves fewer greenhouse gas emissions, lasts a long time, is manufactured in an ethical way, and can be disposed of responsibly. A brand can donate a portion of its proceeds to a women’s organization, and still sell cheap, toxic, PVC accessories that are made in a sweatshop in Cambodia. And there’s mounting evidence the one-for-one model doesn’t always work.
10. Because it is a petroleum, a synthetic product, we should cut out polyester completely from our outfits.
I wish you the best of luck on your quest.
11. You have the power, as a consumer, to change the fashion industry for the better. (Subtext: this is your fault.)
People say, “Every purchase is a moral act” and “You have the power, as consumers, to change the industry.” This assumes two things: That you are able to make the more eco-friendly and ethical choice, and that companies will notice that you are making the eco-friendly choice.
I think we’ve established already that we don’t, as consumers, always know the most eco-friendly choice. It’s hard to keep up with all the information coming out of the fast-moving industry. Is Nike good or bad? What about H&M? Wait, fashion contributes to rainforest deforestation? There are sweatshops in Los Angeles? Vegan leather can be toxic? Natural fibers can be toxic? Arg!
Plus, 98% of what we are presented with is not eco-friendly. We have to make ourselves impervious to advertising and seek out the eco-friendly choice, which is a constant struggle.
And, how are brands supposed to know that you are avoiding them because they aren’t eco-friendly? Do you walk in stores and say, “I was going to shop here, but I see your items are made in Bangladesh!” Do you think that when you pepper a sales associate with questions, she gets in touch with the CEO and is like, “Hey, so this one customer today was asking me about where our clothes were made and I think we should work on this.” Do you think Forever 21 notices when you leave a snarky comment on their Instagram, between a flood of 185 comments saying, “wooow” and “I NEED THESE PANTS.” Forever 21 literally does not give a shit what you think.
I think companies will notice today that some customers care, as they feeds get flooded with #whomademyclothes tags. But we’re at a weird point right now. I don’t think conscious consumerism really works, but I don’t have an alternative. There’s no legislation proposed that you can call your representatives about. There’s no nonprofit you can donate to, except kind of Greenpeace and NRDC, because a small part of their funding goes to working on fixing fashion. The power, right now, lies with government and multinationals. Full stop. The only way this will improve is if more companies join the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, the governments in Southeast Asia stop being so corrupt and invest in infrastructure, Western governments figure out how to incentivize and legislate sustainable fashion practices into the norm, and the relevant NGOs start attacking these issues with the same ferocity as they do other environmental issues.
Which is all to say, this is not your fault, so do not feel guilty that you aren’t singlehandedly saving the world.
12. The only thing preventing companies from paying garment workers more is greed.
“What about tapping into the millions they spend on advertising?” This was a tweet sent to me when I tweeted about H&M’s challenges in bringing up the wage of garment workers in Southeast Asia. Underneath of that tweet is an assertion that H&M can transfer advertising money into their manufacturing budget, and therefore can pay garment workers more.
This would be true if H&M owned their factories. (Which is an issue I would like to explore more.) But they don’t. They often share factories with multiple brands. So while they can influence wages, they cannot legally mandate them. They could say, “Hey factory owner, we would like you to pay your workers more, so we will pay you a dollar more per clothing item.” Maybe the factory would lower the per-day piece quota for its workers, but only when they’re sewing H&M clothing and not when they’re sewing Walmart, Children’s Place, Forever21 clothing. H&M’s supplier factories do on average pay more than the minimum wage across all nine supplier countries. It’s also possible that the factory owner (because they are no angels, see: Rana Plaza owner) would pocket that money and continue to pay its workers what is legally required and no more, or pocket that money and subcontract out to another exploitative factory anyway.
H&M’s strategy, then, as outlined in its Sustainability Report, is to work with governments and other large brands to raise and enforce the minimum wage, educate workers on their rights, and encourage unionization and collective bargaining. It’s the difficult, detailed, complex work that belies a simple solution.
13. In fact, all large fashion corporations are evil and that is why they haven’t gone sustainable.
14. Sustainable fashion is ugly.
Really? Have you ever been on this site before? Girl, please.