Looking back on a moment
At this point I’ve resorted to positive self-talk to keep me going. Just two more places – you can do this. I want to find the nearest exit…but I came to this place on a mission and can’t procrastinate any longer. Beads of sweat are dripping down various body parts. No doubt due to the massive collection of people, the mistake of wearing a heavy jacket, and the rapid pace at which I’m walking. The lights are bright. The signs shout at me with their bold colours and big type. I make a bee-line to a just-vacated couch and plop down. Several bags in my hands fan out around me as if in protection against the chaos.
It is 2pm on Christmas Eve 2016 at the major mall in town.
In my exhaustion-laden stupor, things starts to slow. Some people look happy. A bunch of people seem frustrated. Eyes are glazed over. There are a lot of bags.
A slew of questions invade my consciousness: What are all these people doing here? What am I doing here – stressing out over buying things? How did I get here? How did we get here? What. Is. Going. On?
Now, this may all sound blown out of proportion and a bit too existential for a shopping trip, so let me bring some context to it all…
Breaking out of a loop
I watched the documentary The True Cost almost a year after Barry had recommended it in July 2015. It’s about the fashion industry. The things we wear, the people who make them, and the impact the industry is having on our society and planet.
So, why did you wait so long after the recommendation? As Clare Press mentions in Wardrobe Crisis, I think part of it had to do with “the sheer scale” of the industry and the problems entangled with it. The largeness of it all caused “ostrich behaviour” – ostriches hide from danger by burying their head in the sand. So, in other words, I was turning a blind eye.
I forget the exact environment and state of mind I was in, but I kept thinking about the documentary (note: hadn’t watched it yet…), the photo I saw at the 2014 World Press Photo exhibit at Brookfield Place in Toronto titled “Final Embrace”, and the wardrobes of myself and people I knew.
So, I finally watched the documentary (in 2016) – and since then it’s been a lot of researching and asking questions.
I don’t think you can watch a film like The True Cost and not be affected in some way.
If you look in my closet you’ll find big brands like Gap, Zara, and Topshop. I worked for a fast-fashion retailer for over a year. I too fawned over the ‘it’ bag Mulberry released in 2010 named Alexa. It caused sales to increase by a massive 35%1.
I get the fascination with clothes. They’re fun to look at, and clothes can be a huge part of human expression/identity. But clothes don’t just magically appear on the racks we shop from – there’s a whole lot that goes on before they end up in our hands.
The road to your closet…and beyond
Each of these topics warrant their own posts – and books. But here are tidbits about each.
Everybody talks about natural vs. synthetic fibres, and how we should lean towards the ‘good’ eco-materials like cotton and linen. However, various studies have suggested that cotton has a greater environmental impact than nylon or polyester. Two sides to every story, right?
In a Cambridge University study, scientists calculated that it took 11 megajoules of energy to manufacture a viscose blouse, and a cotton shirt required 24. Similarly, a black organic cotton top is worth 28 EDUs (Environmental Damage Units), and a polyester 19 EDUs – mainly because polyester yarn is dyed while it’s formed, so you can skip the dyeing process2.
This doesn’t mean everyone should run out and buy synthetics…there’s plenty of studies that argue against them as well.
When companies tell factory owners that they want garments at cheaper price (to one-up their competition), or else they’ll choose a different factory, owners often agree to the lower price. But how do they make clothes at a cheaper cost? The cut usually comes from a worker’s paycheque, which is already small to begin with as many workers do not, or barely, receive a living wage.
Or when a company needs a huge order (say 500 000 units) in a small amount of time – how does that work? The workers work gruelling hours to get it done. These people often “do not have formal employment contracts, leaving them completely vulnerable to exploitation and abuse” 3.
Fashion Revolution estimates that 20% of global industrial water pollution is caused by the treatment and dyeing of textiles.These textiles have been bleached, dyed, printed on, submerged in chemical baths. These chemicals can leach from the clothes/trimmings that end up in landfills and into groundwater. Burning textiles can release those toxins into the air. In the same vein, synthetics are essentially a type of plastic made from petroleum, and will take hundreds of years, if not a thousand, to biodegrade.
What are your boundaries?
There’s a mindlessness with which we go about our lives sometimes. But taking stock of your current state, and the state around you is incredibly eye-opening.
She said this:
“I have determined a set of lines I will not cross. I don’t market to children because they cannot tell advertising from content. I don’t contribute to the objectification of women. I don’t sell tobacco. Those are the firm lines I have, but I audit myself frequently. This means I’m always conscious about what I say and how it could potentially affect people.”
What are your ‘set of lines’? What are your boundaries? When’s the last time you took some time to reflect on your thoughts, words, and actions – are they in sync? And what do those three things say about you to the world, or more importantly, do to the world?
All this is to say – don’t be the ostrich with your head in the sand.
When you learn more, the blinders get pulled up inch by inch (it’s very much like The Matrix). Then you ask yourself, ‘How in the world did I miss all this?!’.
Good vs Bad
“On the surface, the choice seems simple: ‘good clothes’ or ‘evil clothes’. If you choose the ‘good’ clothing you are virtuous; if you choose the ‘evil’ clothing you are evil. Whilst it makes sense to buy the least harmful option when purchasing any product, what about the myriad factors that determine ‘choice’? Class is the primary factor. You buy what you can afford. If you cannot afford a £16 pair of knickers, then it does not matter that they are handcrafted in Britain from organic cotton; you will have to buy five pairs for £3 from Primark – and will probably feel guilty and ashamed for doing so.”
– Stitched Up
As stated above, products considered ethical are often the most expensive, so class plays a huge role. When someone lacks the ability to even choose ethical products, it’s hard to blame them for the destruction of the planet or the existence of sweatshops. There are many factors in play.
I am clearly in a place of privilege since I am able to choose how I go about my consumer habits. I’m not here to be that person that makes low-key-judgey-eyes while you shop, but I am here to ask us to be mindful of our choices in whatever capacity possible.
Let’s go further up the chain
“With the growth of the internet, has come a growth of awareness, and the need for transparency – people are simply more aware of what they’re buying, who they’re buying from, and how the profits are being spent by the companies that they’re investing their money in. Businesses are adapting in response to this global community of conscious consumers.”
– Ethos Magazine, Issue 1
I think we’re all starting to take more second glances these days.
Alain de Botton makes a valid point when he says that we “opt for certain kinds of ease and excitement over others….[i]t’s not companies that primarily degrade the world. It is our appetites, which they merely serve.” 4
But there’s a mind-boggling amount of facets involved in this issue – a whole system that has been built up for decades. Everything is connected.
Yes, of course we should curb our appetites. But let’s also ask – why aren’t all products ethically made? Why does responsibility not lie further up the chain? As Mark Browne asks, “Why can’t we have a productive, accountable textile industry that operates like the medical industry, whereby we have a policy in place that says you are not allowed to put a product to market until it has been adequately tested? That’s what I mean by benign by design.”
On moving forward
“It’s not only about policing your own area because that can turn into its own ego trip. ‘Look at me I’m doing something for the environment!’ Rather than saying, ‘It’s something I have to do because it’s necessary.’ I think we gotta stop being so prideful about the fact that we are doing something that the world needs. It’s not a matter of pride, it’s a matter of dire necessity.”
– Alan Arkin in Wisdom
There are other moments aside from the Christmas mall bonanza of 2016 that cause me to pause and take stock of everything.
Like when I look at my nephews and get that sinking feeling of worry.
I worry about what kind of world they (and all kids) are going to be living in because of what we’re all doing right now. I worry about if my actions are a model of ‘good’ behaviour, of values that I hope they’ll take note of.
This week is Fashion Revolution Week. It was created in remembrance of the Rana Plaza factory collapse, which killed 1138 people and injured many more on April 24th, 2013. This week is all about uniting people and organizations, so we can change “the way our clothes are sourced, produced and consumed, so that our clothing is made in a safe, clean and fair way”. Of course, it isn’t just about this week – it’s about being aware and asking questions and taking action in our daily lives.
This entire article has been a condensed brain-vomit of what I’ve been thinking about for a while. I’m still uncertain about exactly how I want to be more involved in this issue, but this ostrich has her head out of the sand. On a daily basis I’m taking a lot more long and hard looks at things I come across, asking a lot more questions, and seeking out a lot more answers.
Beyond this article
Here are some resources to check out if you want to learn more:
To Die For by Lucy Siegle
Wisdom by Andrew Zuckerman (also in video format)
Wardrobe Crisis by Clare Press
Stitched Up by Tansy E Hoskins
Slave to Fashion by Safia Minney
The Wardrobe To Die For – Lucy Siegle
Benign by Design – Mark Anthony Browne
The High Cost of Our Cheap Fashion – Maxine Bédat
Fast Fashion’s Effect on People, The Planet, & You – Patrick Woodyard
You are what you wear – Christina Dean
And a GIF of course…
1. L. Siegle, To Die For (Fourth Estate, 2011), p.95
2. L. Siegle, To Die For (Fourth Estate, 2011), p.109
3. C. Press, Wardrobe Crisis (Nero, 2016)