Ethical Fashion Respects Workers and the Environment

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Tompkins Weekly 11-16-15

By Wendy Skinner

Millions of consumers enjoy shopping for clothing in large chain stores full of inexpensive frippery. There is so much to be had, for so little money! The truth behind most mass market clothing is less attractive.

For example, Joe Fresh is a brand of trendy clothing sold in hundreds of stores across North America. Joe Fresh is the brand that was being made the day of the 2013 factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,100 workers. Many other companies’ clothing lines are made in factories in Asia where workers, who are mostly women, sew in dangerous conditions for low wages.

A 2014 study by an Asian labor relations board lists the prevailing minimum wage for garment workers in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Cambodia at less than $1000 a year. An American consumer on a mall splurge may spend that much in a day, despite the quality of mass market clothing, which is intended to wear out in a season.

The majority of large “fast fashion” companies don’t know where their clothing is produced because of a convoluted contractual process. This implies a system that is difficult to unravel. It also implies a lack of accountability. The most immediate solution is to become accountable as consumers.

The US is the world’s top consumer of clothing. Widespread availability of cheap garments has led to a glut, most obvious in cluttered closets and perhaps least obvious in the garbage bags of unwanted clothing stuffed in trash cans. Americans send over ten million tons of unwanted clothing to landfills every year, even as thrift stores swell with second-hand garments.

As more facts about the global clothing trade come to light – for instance, in a dozen countries, child labor and slave labor are used to grow and harvest cotton – discerning consumers want to know where their clothes come from and how they are made. They want vendors to assure them of ethical and sustainable practices in the design, materials, production, trade and transport of clothing.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the greenest choice in clothing consumption is reuse because it adds very little new environmental impact. When buying new garments, consumers can look for clothing that is locally-made, Fair Trade, or US-made from organic or sustainably produced fibers. They can sew their own clothes, or have them made by a local seamstress or tailor. They can limit their purchases to higher quality classic styles. Buying garments that are well made and long-lasting can tame the crowded closet and result in fewer items going to the landfill.

How do you know what’s behind your fashion choices? Several apps for android and iOS technologies allow you to scan the barcode on clothing labels and get answers about the product’s environmental and social impact. Or you can be old-school and ask the retailer about the brands they carry. If they don’t know or don’t care, maybe you should shop elsewhere.

Not every standard can be met in every garment, but simply having an awareness of what we are buying makes a difference. Ithaca is fortunate to have a variety of retailers who offer second-hand clothing, as well as a few stores offering true ethical fashion choices.

Wendy Skinner is the director of SewGreen, a sustainable sewing store which now carries ethical fashions.




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