Style Seeking Sustainability
College Students Strive to Make Sustainable Fashion Choices
Colorful canopies and tarps shade the sidewalks of the Los Angeles Fashion District. Under them, vendors display racks of clothing, tables of sparkling jewelry, and shelves of flashing toys. The casual shopper can buy discounted clothes before (or after) they hit department store racks, some even made right down the street. If it looks too good to be true, it just may be. Browsers looking for discounts on fashionable brands are rarely asked to consider the struggle for better working conditions groups such as the Garment Workers Center of Los Angeles are waging in the factories that surround these bustling, open-air markets.
The Los Angeles Fashion Industry earns approximately $18 billion in revenue, generating $6.4 billion in worker income. This industry employs approximately 97,384 workers in Southern California alone, twice as much as New York. Yet, 82 percent of these workers have never had safety training while 60 percent may be exposed to unsafe environments heat and dust create. In 2017, the United States Labor Department found that out of the 77 factories it investigated, 85 percent cheated workers out of fair minimum wages.
On top of poor workplace conditions, the fashion industry contributes 8.1 percent of carbon emissions and this pollution is expected to increase by 60 percent by 2030. Fast fashion brands are often the cheapest and most stylish options for students on a budget.
Los Angeles is often depicted in media as glitzy red carpets and stylish strolls along Melrose Avenue or Rodeo Drive for high-end shopping sprees, but fashion production and consumption is often a grittier story. How are students, often unwittingly, buying into this industry?
In 2017, the United States Labor Department found that out of the 77 factories they investigated, 85 percent cheated workers out of fair minimum wages.
The fashion industry and responsible fashion have interested Kaden Symes for nearly four years. When Assistant Professor of Political Science Sara Angevine assigned her Media and Political Process class a project on environmental issues for Environmental Protection Agency Action Day, Symes took the opportunity to bring his passion to the student body.
In a survey of 102 Whittier College students conductded for a political science class focusing on environmental impacts, Kaden Symes found that 17.6 percent of those surveyed buy new clothes every other week and 30.4 precent of respondents buy new clothes about once a month. Additionally, 45.1 percent of students’ purchases are at fast fashion retail stores.
What shocks Symes the most is that “a lot of people are really unaware” of the impact of the fashion industry and “that kind of general ignorance of it is one of the biggest factors of why it has taken people so long to come around to it.” While Symes notices thrifting and donating unwanted clothes becoming a trend — the thrifting market growing 21% faster than the regular retail market — his survey of the student body shows that the desire to own new clothes may override awareness of the fashion-industry’s ethical breaches.
“One of the biggest issues is that a lot of people will go into a store and just see a shirt for relatively cheap and think it’s a good deal, but are unaware of [the conditions that] make it a good deal,” says Symes, who thinks newly liberated college students, especially those coming from private schools with dress codes, are eager to express themselves through clothing consumption.
Given the time and financial pressures associated with being a college student, it’s not altogether surprising that Symes’ survey also showed that nearly 50 percent of respondents either do not think deeply about, are very unaware, or slightly unaware of the effects of the fashion industry.
As Associate Professor of Religious Studies Jake Carbine points out, “It is, at times, difficult to be an informed and conscientious consumer — whether in regard to clothes, tech, food, or other ‘global’ products — because the supply chains are often obscure to consumers.”
Even conscientious consumer often can’t afford ethical options. So, how can cash-strapped students make more responsible, sustainable fashion decisions? Some Whittier students are asking that very question.
Scout Mucher is the President of Whittier College’s Sustainability Club. Unsustainable fashion sparked Mucher’s interest in environmentalism when she was in middle school. That was when Mucher began sewing her own clothes with an eye toward getting into the industry. She was dissuaded once she learned of the exploitation and pollution rooted in fashion production and manufacturing. Since then, Mucher channels her interest in fashion and design into advocacy for more conscientious practices, especially among students.
Recently, the Sustainability Club participated in the My Earth, My Home even on November 21, hosting a clothing swap through which students could exchange unwanted clothing for newer items to use in their wardrobe. “The My Earth, My Home clothing swap was put on to show students how easy it is to add new items to your wardrobe without hurting the environment,” says Mucher. “As students, we often feel powerless. We know that these big companies are polluting our planet, so what can one person who is not even in the workforce do? Events that promote sustainable lifestyles are designed to empower students and let them know their voice matters more than they know.”
Mucher shares her love of sustainable, ethical fashion by bringing it to campus and students. “The best way to get new clothes with zero impact is not to get new clothes,” says Mucher. Instead, she directs students to thrift stores, consignment stores, and suggests students even swap clothes with friends to avoid feeding into the negative impact of fashion.
“The best way to get new clothes with zero impact is not to get new clothes.” — Scout Mucher
For Mucher, though, sustainability is about more than environmental conditions. She points to eco-friendly, pseudo-‘woke’ companies that still exploit employees — primarily women of color — while branding themselves with phrases such as This is what a feminist looks like or The future is female. “Fashion companies are picking up on the fact that sustainability is what sells now, just like they did with female empowerment and diversity,” says Mucher. “These are great causes but take a minute to see if the company actually cares.”
Mucher suggests that the most responsible way to consume fashion is to educate yourself.
Addison Crane wears a maroon wrap dress and faded Birkenstocks that are hanging together by a thread when she flows into the stuffy third-floor Turner Hall study room overlooking a parking lot packed with student cars. Crane is a fourth-year who has gone from passively participating in fast fashion consumption to consciously deciding to switch to more sustainable options.
Crane says frequent trips to the Free People showroom, where her sister worked, once filled her closet. Free People is a brand that presents itself as a good choice for conscientious consumers. It is, however, owned by URBN, which also owns in Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie. Good On You, a fashion-industry sustainability watchdog blog, gives the brand mixed reviews, saying that while it’s made “progress” on environmental impacts and signs onto ethical working-condition agreements such as the Responsible Sourcing Network, it does so with a lack of transparency and a few caveats. This means that while their conditions may comply with local wage and labor rights, they still may not be livable and, thus, ‘free.’
Crane used to justify her shopping habits because of her sister’s employee discount. Once she learned more about the impacts of the fast-fashion industry, she began looking for alternatives. Still, her wardrobe includes items collected over the years, including the Free People dress she keeps unconsciously smoothing wrinkles from as we speak. It’s another example of how the best way to consume ethically is to reduce consumption.
“Even when I turned away from fast fashion, I made an effort to keep clothes from fast-fashion brands and make them last,” says Crane. “Getting rid of [fast fashion items] just adds to the problem.”
Supporting thrift stores and sustainable brands are the first steps that Crane, Mucher, and Symes all emphasize, but they also promote awareness of consumer habits within these shopping trends. While something may appear to be a better alternative, it may have unintended consequence.
“How can I, as a small person, make a small step that hopefully, along with everyone else’s small step, will make a big difference?”
In an article in The Wesleyan Argus, Kate Livingston points out the trend of more wealthy consumers shopping at thrift stores. She says seeing thrifting as a trend “interacts with physical goods that are traditionally reserved for people in need […] While there are, arguably enough clothes to go around with all of the discarded excess[es] that thrift shops collect, anyone who has spent a good 30 minutes in [a thrift store] can tell there is a shortage of quality clothing.”
Additionally, the trendiness of thrift shopping impacts the availability of plus-sized options. Crane says she sees girls tailoring clothing items too big for them to fit because it’s “trendy.” While thrifting is a sustainable and more ethical option, Crane says students should still be aware of how their purchases affect other communities.
Supporting sustainable brands with ethical manufacturing processes may be the best option, but such clothing often comes with a steep price tag. Sykes says, “There is a privilege of being able to afford sustainable fashion brands […] and you often can’t afford to spend $100 on jeans that are made [sustainably] when you could to TJ Max and get them for $15.”
This puts outright sustainable fashion out of reach for the average consumer and most cash-strapped students. Perhaps students cannot be perfect consumers, but its never too soon to start thinking about how to be better ones. “[Responsible consumerism] starts with each person deciding they want to learn more about it and once you become invested in it and thinking about how you can make changes yourself,” says Symes, glancing towards a student clanking coins into a vending machine for a bottle of soda. “How can I, as a small person, make a small step that hopefully, along with everyone else’s small step, will make a big difference?”