“Ethical fashion is not the new black. (It’s Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights).” A Beautiful Refuge
I am the offspring of fast fashion.
My generation grew up begging for Gap hip-hugger jeans and Old Navy screen tees, whose closets made the leap from “enough” to “enormous” sometime in the period of middle school when Hollister and Abercrombie were as cool as it got. In sixth grade, I remember feeling perfectly content with five long-sleeved shirts — one for every day of the week. Fast forward three years to my freshman year of high school, as I begin the addicting exploration of new and exotic stores like Forever 21 and H&M. Their low prices and dizzying kaleidoscope of trendy options had me hook, line, and sinker. I could be anybody! I could wear anything! And for only $8.99!
At sixteen, I get my first job at a clothing resale store where I can buy these same items for a third of the price — plus my employee discount. There, I feel pretty smug about my thrifty buying habits — compared to the coworker who owns over 100 pairs of jeans, or the customers who swap out their entire wardrobe every four months. Yet in two years when I quit and head to college, I have to leave half of my clothes at home for my sister to quietly “borrow.” By the time I return for Christmas break, I’ve bought more $10 sweaters and I can’t even remember what I’ve left behind.
It eats at me for years — guilt over how many clothes I’m purchasing, hauling, organizing, washing; frustration as yet another shirt pills after its second wash, or stretches into a baggy mess. Through similar experiences with “higher quality” brands, I’m taught anyone offering me cotton t-shirts or a pair of jeans for more than $20 is royally ripping me off. So I continue buying and throwing away $4.99 H&M tops, $14.99 JCPenney dresses, $12.99 Target sandals. And every morning I look at my closet and think, “I have everything and nothing to wear.”
Somehow I was under the impression that the world had always been this way, because this was all I knew. After college, I struggled transitioning into the professional world where clothing expectations seemed higher. I couldn’t bear the thought of “wasting” so much money on high-brand clothing. There are homeless people sitting there on my drive to work every day — how could I possibly spend $69 on a blouse that I’ll probably spill something on?
Everything suddenly changed when I sat down and began to research the history of clothing production in the past 50 years. I had no idea that before the rise of Gap and other casual, mass-produced clothing lines, most people’s wardrobes looked a whole lot different. Like Frankenstein’s monster, what once seemed like a good idea — affordable & accessible fashion — has now gone awry and we, the innocent bystanders, are at the mercy of the giant behemoth that is fast fashion.
For example, it’s actually pretty true that more expensive brands like Ralph Lauren are often just as poor quality as a polo you’d buy at, say, Marshalls or Target. These companies use similar products with high markups associated with their luxury branding, making many of us suspicious of higher priced clothing. It’s also true that the breakneck speed at which companies like H&M are producing and offering new styles are the result of ever-increasing competition between clothing companies that is now coming to a head after decades of gaining momentum.
To get ahead in such a competitive market, clothing companies have had to do two things: reduce quality and increase quantity. And we, the consumer, have adapted accordingly, snatching up more & more “deals” so good we don’t actually care if they only last 6 months or a year. In response, trends are changing faster and faster and we eat it up like we’ve never seen legwarmers or high waists or overalls before. Wait, hasn’t it only been, like, 30 years since those were cool? Maybe only 10 since they were hideous and only acceptable on school spirit days?
American consumerism, however, is only one small part of the problem. The larger issue is the enormous amount of damage our thirst for good deals is doing, and we don’t even know it.
These are realities for many developing nations around the world. Our insatiable appetite for shopping is literally changing the landscape of our planet and driving the economic future of communities. Meanwhile, those at the top of the fashion industry are growing richer and more powerful.
Think I’m being a little extreme? Consider the plight of thousands of garment factory workers every day — 12+ hour shifts with few to none breaks (even to use the bathroom), intensely high quotas, abusive managers, no sick time, exposure to deadly chemicals and dangerous conditions, and still barely making enough money to keep their family alive. The pressure from the top of the chain — fast fashion — trickles down to the factory owners, who then do whatever’s necessary to turn that order around faster than anybody else. And people are dying because of it.
I don’t know about you, but a good deal on a t-shirt I don’t actually need doesn’t seem worth someone risking their life to me. And yet this whole system, this massive behemoth we’ve created, is barreling down on thousands of innocent lives and we either don’t know or we don’t really care.
Or, we decide to do something about it.
Kevin Bales put it well in his latest book on the connection between industry and exploitation: “It seems improbable, even impossible, that we could actually effect change at the global level, but no one can seriously doubt the influence of American consumers on the rest of the world.”
So here’s to clothing made with dignity, a symbolism of beauty and identity all the way down the production line. Here’s to eco-friendly dyes and waste management which not only helps the planet, but drastically improves the living conditions for millions of people worldwide.
Here’s to kindness, to gratitude, to the freedom to be generous instead of thrifty, open hearted instead of needy.
The almighty dollar really does speak. We accidentally created this monster with our insatiable thirst for More and Cheap. Now, it’s up to us to get ourselves out of it.