“You can recycle your waste, grow your own food and drive a fuel-efficient car. But being socially responsible isn’t so easy when it comes to the clothes on your back.”—Anne D’Innocenzio, The Associated Press
As I write this post, I’m wearing items from the GAP, Banana Republic, Victoria’s Secret, and Target, as well as a pair of free sandals and a ring from a local vendor that I bought on a trip to Ireland. I write this to preface that the journey into ethical, sustainable clothing is something that is new for me. I’m just beginning, but the more I learn, the more pressed I feel to create positive changes in my lifestyle and climb out from under my rock of ignorance.
In my previous post, A Lesson in Money, I touched on the positive outcomes of becoming a better manager of my money. As I’ve been focused on saving and paying debt off, I have not been buying clothes, and have had the opportunity to think about what I’m purchasing, who my money is supporting, and what it’s doing to the environment. I’ve been delving into the types of companies I’d like to purchase items from in the future — when buying clothes is once again an option. This is a topic with a seemingly unending bunny trail: from consumer pocket books to the raw materials that are grown to create clothing to the hands that make them.
On May 2, NPR highlighted the Bangladesh garment factory tragedy in an article titled “Ethical Fashion: Is the Tragedy in Bangladesh a Final Straw?” They touched on the collapse of the factory, the acceleration of style changes, NAFTA, fashionable clothing, and shopping ethically on a budget. On May 8, Time LightBox put out a brief article accompanying a haunting image of two victims in the rubble of the collapse.
In Juliet Schor’s most recent book, Plenitude, she also discusses the fashion industry in the larger context of sustainability, calling it a McFashion world. Consumption of clothing has shifted from durable and versatile wardrobes to indulging in novelty items at cheap prices and frequent design changes, a trend the industry calls FMCGs (fast-moving consumer goods). “The more new pieces consumers purchase, the more used ones they give away. Households have also been putting a larger quantity of apparel into the waste stream. In 2007, textiles made up approximately 4.7 percent of the annual municipal waste stream of 254 million tons, which amounted to 78 pounds of textile discards per person.” (p. 39, Plenitude) Schor also points out that the United States has increased its export of worn clothes to other countries from 316 million pounds in 1991 to 1.1 billion pounds in 2004.
In Anne D’Innocenzio’s Associated Press article, “Shoppers face hurdles in finding ethical clothing,” which was picked up by multiple media outlets, she gave a short overview on the many issues and obstacles people come across when trying to shop more ethically for their clothing and accessories. From the humanistic perspective, her article discusses the building collapse in Bangladesh that “killed hundreds of clothing factoring workers [putting a spotlight] on the sobering fact that the people in poor countries often risk their lives working in unsafe factories to make the cheap T-shirts and underwear that Westerners covet.” Apparently we only covet them for a while, and then dispose of them to move onto the newest item.
At the end of D’Innocenzio’s article, she highlighted American Apparel being a hopeful option: “Los Angeles-based American Apparel, which says it knits, dyes, cuts and sews all of its products in-house in California, touts on its website that the working conditions are ‘sweatshop free.’ The company highlights how it pays decent wages, offers subsidized lunches, free onsite massages and an onsite medical clinic.” And yet, I recently finished reading Ethical Chic: The Inside Story of the Companies We Think We Love by Fran Hawthorne, which explores the complexities behind ethical production. It covers companies like Tom’s of Maine, Timberland, Starbucks, American Apparel, Trader Joes and Apple. Take, for example, a company that pays their workers a fair wage, with their product being made in the United States, yet its bosses are facing sexual harassment charges from many female workers. The company? American Apparel. Can we really call a company ethical if it meets most standards? I’m not so sure.
I dug a bit deeper this week for some ethical companies with a style I loved. I’m yet to purchase anything (want to pay off my remaining debt first and do a bit more research), but I’ve started my wish list. Because it’s difficult to track each product, I’d like to put a disclaimer here that this is purely off of information on the companies’ websites. That being said, one of my favorite resources for numerous eco-friendly, sustainable brands is StyleWithHeart. You can search by eco-ethical criteria (fair-trade, organic, eco-friendly, ethical, recycled, vintage and DIY), department, boutique and brand. It was here I found the companies Lowie, Maiya, Monkeegenes, and Liv, among many others. Below are a few that are on my radar.
Lowie: Based in London, it started in 2002 with the philosophy to create “beautiful clothing people want to wear as ethically as possible without jeopardizing design.” The company uses soft wools, organic cottons, eco-friendly leathers (with minimal chemicals in the tanning process) and is working toward making sure its products have a low impact on the environment and that the worker-wage is fair. Prices are steep for my budget, but very comparable to Anthropologie’s prices. I found a skirt for 58 lbs. This will be a store I wait on for sales! http://ilovelowie.com/
Monkeegenes: Also based in the UK, and started in 2006, I fell in love with this product line immediately. I especially love the owner’s video on the home page, addressing the higher cost of their jeans compared to mainstream brands. “If you go for fast food, you expect what you expect. You get something that’s totally forgettable. If you go for a proper meal, you get something you remember and you tell your friends about it. That’s what I hope you think when you get your pair of Monkeegenes.” The company also impressingly has accreditations from The Soil Association and the Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS). About 60lbs. for a pair of Skinny Jeans. www.Monkeegenes.co.uk
Maiya: Based in the UK, Maiya uses a “wide range of sustainable materials such as natural silk, hemp/silk, organic herringbone weave cotton, fair-trade hand-loomed cotton/wool, fair-trade/organic cotton twill, organic cotton printed with low-impact, organic dyes and vintage/end of roll ‘upcycled’ faric. All fabric is sourced in the UK and use 100% natural and thus fully biodegradable.” The company also re-employs experienced machinists and offers employment/training to those in deprived areas of South Wales, with the goal to create quality products while safeguarding livelihoods and retaining specialist craftsmanship skills. My top pick: The Rachel Dress—Straw 90 lbs. Maiyafashion.co.uk
Liv: I love the spring/summer 2013 collection “Ray of Light” because of its classy, fresh, simple look. Based in the UK, Liv uses fair trade through an Indian partner factory and 100-percent organic and fairly traded cotton, supporting human rights and safe working conditions with no child labor. They also meet the standards for The Soil Association and the Global Organic Textile Standards. I love the Island Top (55 lbs) and Drift Dress (75lbs). www.liv-uk.com
My goal is to be confidently informed about where my materials/products come from. This will likely mean that I’ll spend more on one pair of pants than I have on two in the past, but I’m hoping it will balance out as I purchase less. Despite my love of clothing, and some odd satisfaction of having a closet packed with an array of choices, I’m feeling my priorities begin to shift: The truth that everything has a cost is sinking in. When I look in my closet, do I want to see stacks of clothes that have been easy on my pocket book, made by people that have poor working conditions, and ruin the environment? Or would I rather know those items are helping to support a sustainable, healthy industry and the livelihood of those who crafted them?
Yes, this will be a process, just as learning about what’s in my food and where it comes from has been a process (and continues to be). But I think every little step forward counts.
Schor, J. (2010) Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth. New York: The Penguin Press.