The Darker Side of Fast Fashion

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Tompkins Weekly 1-20-14

By Wendy Skinner

The frontispiece of Alison Lurie’s book “The Language of Clothes” is a cartoon of a nondescript bloke strolling along the sidewalk. His Tshirt says: “I wear this, therefore I am.” Lurie’s book is an analysis of how clothes signal to others who we are and what we care about. Deciding what to wear can be a complex decision, says Lurie, when taking the identifications of social status and attitude into consideration.

In the three decades since Lurie’s book was published, deciding what to wear has also become a moral dilemma. Do we really want the cotton in our jeans coming from a farmer in India who poisoned his land and water? Do we want our trendy top to have been made in a factory that collapsed and killed 1,100 people? Since before the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in 1911, when workers were locked in and couldn’t escape the inferno, we have tolerated exploitative labor and environmental practices for the sake of affordable fashion.

Periodic news stories have recounted the use of child labor, poor safety practices, toxic processes and preventable accidents in factories. It has been hard to connect these abusive conditions to the attractive articles sold for low prices in mall stores. Retailers don’t know much, and consumers know even less.

Author Elizabeth Cline helps reveal how and where our clothing is made. A former “fast fashion” addict, Cline is a prominent spokesperson for ethical shopping. She also keeps a critical eye on the mass-market fashion industry.

The 2013 clothing factory disaster in Bangladesh has inspired many companies to try to clean up their acts. In a recent article in The Nation, Cline reports that some of the world’s largest brands—including H&M, Tommy Hilfiger and Abercrombie & Fitch—have agreed to a fire and safety accord that will dedicate funds to make factories in Bangladesh safer and more humane. Large chain stores, however, among them Gap, Walmart, Macy’s, Sears, Target, L.L. Bean and Kohl’s, have adopted a more dubious approach that directs Bangladesh factories to pay for changes themselves.

While reporting the good and the bad about the clothing industry, Cline wonders how much consumers can be inspired to care. Changing shopping habits isn’t easy. There is an obvious dichotomy between having fun at the mall and the downer of thinking about issues so far removed from our daily lives as to seem unreal.

American consumers are trained to expect low prices and myriad choices. According to one study, the average American buys 68 articles of clothing a year. We are buying more than we need, and we are buying clothing that wears out and/or goes out of vogue very quickly. Where are all the cheap babydoll dresses now? Likely in the dump or shipped to Sub-Saharan Africa, where consumers are hip enough not to want them.

The lure of cheap goods has created a glut of discarded clothing, and don’t kid yourself that your donations to charity thrift shops relieve you of responsibility. This seemingly virtuous step isn’t working as well as it used to. Thrift stores are overwhelmed by the volume of clothing donations and have little choice but to fill dumpsters with what they can’t use or doesn’t sell. Companies only slightly updated from ragpickers have sprung up to handle the overflow, but 85 percent of fiber-based materials goes to landfills.

The key to being a more ethical shopper is to buy less and buy better. Buy used, fair trade and locally made, if you can find it. Make it yourself or make alterations. Fix and mend. But mostly, it’s better to buy a classic coat you can wear in Paris 10 years from now than 20 cheap items that will be left on dorm-room floors, jammed into trash cans or turned into cleaning rags only to hit the dump a few months later.

For a more in-depth discussion of ways to resist the consequences of fast fashion and irresponsible garment manufacturing, the public is invited to a talk based on Cline’s book, “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion,” at the Tompkins County Public Library at noon on Saturday, Jan. 25.

Wendy Skinner is the founder and director of SewGreen, a textile reuse and sewing education program in Ithaca.

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