It is the second largest polluting industry in the world. It takes thousands of gallons of water to produce just one garment, with approx. 7 trillion of gallons being used in the industry per year as of 2010. Major water sources are consistently polluted with hundreds of chemicals used for dying. Colossal amounts of energy, almost all fossil fuels, are required in manufacturing and production, as well as in the endless merry-go-round of transportation as a product works its way around the world, ironically to even end up where it started months earlier. Of course, we can’t forget the carbon and other toxic pollutants from factories that contaminate the air, operations that are almost all outsourced to third world countries.
Even items still full of life are harmful if made of the wrong materials. As we wash our clothes, tiny, often unnoticeable, fibers disperse off into the water. Much of this grey water leaches into soil, oceans and major waterways, making these synthetic, ( aka plastic), fibers easily consumable by our vegetables, and sea life alike. As conversations arise of “material good enough to eat”, they might seem amusing at first. However, this is something already occurring, and the joke is very much on us. But I digress.
How about labor? You know, the millions of human-beings that work in often unclean, and dangerous conditions so that they can be rewarded in being undervalued and underpaid, only to wake up and do it all again. But this is a hopeful fate. In reality, many are thankful that their children working didn’t leave the shift hurt, or that the abused environments they work in didn’t crumble down upon them, such as the collapse of Rana Plaza, an eight-story factory building in Dhaka, Bangladesh that crumbled in 2013, killing over a thousand, injuring many more.
As you stand in the overwhelming masses of, oftentimes chaos, that present themselves as Zara, H&M, Forever21, and Urban Outfitters, perhaps take a second before you gleefully react to the 40% off sale sign, or the release of the latest designer collaboration. Although broad, ask yourself some seemingly simple questions before you claw it out over the last choker in this season’s style. Picture the last piece of clothing you bought, and remember if any of the questions posed below came to mind.
1. “Why am I buying this?”, and “How long do I plan to keep it?”
2. “Can I picture myself wearing this in 5 years?” and “Will it even last that long?”
3. “Is the price I’m paying really reflective of the true cost of this product?”
4. “What parts of the world are involved in bringing this to life?”
5. “What will happen to this once I am done with it?”
So, the verdict? Did some of these ideas influence your decisions? Did a clear answer resonate for any of these questions? Not to side with pessimism, but I’m assuming the answer is probably no. But they should. And if the answers to the questions above for the garment you’re buying are as fuzzy as your worst hangover, then maybe just don’t. As you refuse junk food clothing, think of the power you are handing yourself, as well as the environment, not to mention the communities around the world that scarcely have that power themselves. And as for designers, the responsibility of this vicious cycle is as equally, if not more, ours.
Many companies are already paving the way to reinventing the industry. In what is being coined as the “Slow Fashion Revolution”, well known designers, and smaller labels alike are committing themselves to ethical and sustainable practices.
Europe hosts many fashion brands implementing slow fashion. Among those are All Sisters, founded in Barcelona, Spain. A company that produces “responsible swimwear”, they work with recycled and OEKO-TEX® certified textiles. This label assures the brand’s facilities work under environmentally and socially responsible conditions. Within the UK, there is the ethically based fashion retailer Gather & See, whose 5 philosophies include “Fair Trade,
Organic, Eco-Friendly, Small Scale Production, and Heritage”. Here you can find a great list of products and designers, (all of which must fit at least two of the principles above).
In California, there are also many labels pushing positive environmental, and ethical boundaries. San Francisco is home to the fashion companies Everlane, and Taylor Stitch. Everlane, whose tagline is “Radical Transparency”, does not fall short to this statement. The company projects all aspects of their supply chain, offering detailed information about the factories they work with; often incubating personal relationships and funds to help these individuals that bring their garments to life. Most of Everlane’s products are made of natural or organic materials, also offering a complete price breakdown of the item you are interested in buying. The products are quality, staple items, made to survive physical wear, as well as vicious fashion trend cycles. Taylor Stitch, another San Francisco native, tailors themselves to enduring, quality mission statements, and long-lasting products that are produced in limited, non-wasteful quantities.
Perhaps most unique, taking a completely in-touch, local approach to the complex fiber/material/garment relationship of our clothing and textiles is Fibershed. Dispersed among Northern California, Fibershed, according to their website, is a collective comprised of local farmers, ranchers, manufacturers, designers and end-users. An attempt to protect natural environments, and economies, Fibershed works to push carbon-farming, and intimate relationships that promote awareness, collaboration, and well-being for every plant, sheep, alpaca, and human involved.
As one of our most basic human needs, fashion and the practices involved around it has implications that run much deeper than our vanity and installed need for change and instant gratification. As designers, and consumers, we all participate as global citizens, and have a responsibility to cast our lines towards creating a more ethical and sustainable industry.
Taylor Relyea is currently a student of the University of California, Davis. Majoring in design, her emphases are fashion, sustainability and public interest. As part of her senior thesis, she explored the possibilities of upcycling, creating her collection from old burlap coffee bags. Passionate about global issues such as supply chains, waste, materials and resource usage, she have supplemented her design education with courses such as environmental sociology, and is completing a minor in textile science. Her work can be found at taylorelyea.com.