As the pandemic spreads around the globe, shutting down stores and disrupting supply chains, we find ourselves in a crucial moment for the global fashion industry. No matter if we emerge from social isolation two weeks or from months from now, we’ll find a very different world of fashion awaiting us. The question is whether those of us who care will rise to the occasion, and demand that we use this opportunity to build a better world.
If we’re going to be effective, however, we need to have a deeper understanding of both fashion’s history and the possibilities that lay before it. That’s where the following reads from experts and journalists come into play. I recommend you order yourself copies that you can sit with, away from your screen. I hope you enjoy them!
By Rebecca Burgess
As global supply chains shut down, a more localized fashion economy is starting to look pretty good. Rebecca Burgess, founder of the California advocacy group Fibershed, is the expert on what it would take to bring our fashion back home. Her book walks you through efforts to develop regenerative, holistic sheep ranches and cotton farms, grow plants for dying, set weaving mills back up, and push forward toward a positive loop of ecologically sound fashion that nourishes the land as well as our souls. This book is a perfect combination of visionary goals and boots-on-the-ground pragmatism.
by Adam Minter
I’m often frustrated by the unfounded proclamations of sustainable fashion writers who’ve never actually seen what they’re talking about. Not so for Adam Minter, a business journalist who currently lives in Malaysia with his family. For this ambitious book, he traveled the world – from Japan to Arizona to Canada and Ghana – to find out how the shadowy global secondhand trade works. His clear-eyed observations are supported by both fact-checked data and conversations with the people who populate this little-known industry. Not all of it is about fashion, but when he does talk about where our old clothes go, he explodes the dearly-held myths propagated by social media and Western news outlets alike. Before you get into an Instagram argument about whether secondhand fashion has decimated the textile industry in Rwanda, or decide where to drop off your clothing donations so they’ll do the most good, read this book to the end.
by Sven Beckert
Did you know Dhaka in present-day Bangladesh used to be a wealthy port city? Or that the industrial revolution and subsequent labor movements against child labor got their start in cotton spinning mills? These are just a couple examples of the crucial pieces of knowledge you’ll find in this thick history of cotton, which has shaped empires and societies spanning from the Inca of Peru to slavery in the American South. Like Sapiens, its sweeping arc of history can be both thrilling and depressing. It shows how immutable global trade trends can be, and that the powerful at the top will use any means necessary to tamp down on the demands of those laboring at the bottom of a global supply chain – whether they are producing cotton or polyester fast fashion.
by Tara Button
Written by the founder of the online store Buy Me Once, this book is far more than a promotional vehicle. It walks you through the history of “planned obsolescence” or the insidious, industry-wide collusion to sell objects that stop working or lose relevance quickly, so you have to go out and buy more. And it’s full of actionable advice on how to reconnect with companies that take pride in their work and – more importantly – a slower way of life that eases the pressure of landfills and natural resources alike.
by Elizabeth L. Cline
Like Michael Pollan, Elizabeth L. Cline exploded our understanding of the global fashion supply chain back in 2013, by taking us on her personal journey catalyzed by her own overstuffed closet full of cheap, awful fashion. She essentially predicted the Rana Plaza factory collapsed before it happened. Read Overdressed first. Then when you inevitably have the question: But what can I do? pick up The Conscious Closet for advice on how to become a more empathetic participant in the world of fashion.
by Dana Thomas
This book links together scenes in Bangladesh, Paris, the United States and elsewhere to build a narrative about how we got to where we are today, and where we might be going. She jumps from runway shows to run-down garment factories, back-to-the-land cotton growing to 3D printing to keep the reader engaged. Unfortunately, she repeats some easily debunked misinformation about the global fashion industry. But if you just focus on the stories of humans, she gets it just right.
by Kassia St. Clair
I haven’t yet read this new book, but I have it on order from Barnes and Noble. New Yorker says, “Her description of textiles and the people who created and wore them are sensual and moving.” The Wall Street Journal praises St. Claire’s writing, but questions her focus on Western fabrics (what about Asian and indigenous societies?) and some inaccuracies. Still, it sounds like this book tries to correct one large misunderstanding that modern society has about fabric: that it’s unimportant. Textiles have moved nations and still shape our everyday lives. As the global industry unravels (pun intended) this book should give some historical context and perspective for what we’re seeing today.
by Teri Agins
Come for the juicy celebrity gossip, stay for the thoughtful analysis of how the power to dictate trends and styles has passed from designers to celebrity-designers. While Agins doesn’t linger on the ill effects of fast fashion, she does provide much-needed context for how the marketing of fashion trends has changed – necessary reading for anyone looking to change the paradigm in fashion for the better.
BONUS: 101 Ways to Go Zero Waste
by Kathryn Kellogg
OK, this one is not about fashion. And you may think we have bigger things to worry about right now than not creating waste. But with DIY recipes for cleaning and making personal care products, plus tips for storing and making use of all parts of your fresh produce, this book has turned out to be a lifesaver for us as we find ourselves hunkering down in our apartment, spending more time cooking and cleaning than ever, and trying to avoid the grocery store. Not to mention, we would rather not go through the common areas of our apartment building to take out trash any more than we have to! Just today I said to my husband as I pulled a jar of herbs out of the fridge, “Wow, I’m so glad I’ve built up all these sustainable strategies for minimizing waste and storing food. They’re really coming in handy.” Reader, I tell you that he (a man!) agreed.