Why do we feel the need to start this conversation on ethical fashion within our group of friends and hopefully beyond? We frequently talk of the importance of the food we put in our bodies, but not nearly as much about the clothing we put on our bodies.
Ellie and I believe that all human lives have inherent dignity and should be treated with respect and decency. Unfortunately, the fashion industry has a history of human rights violations and severe environmental impacts. And instead of raising awareness about the mistreatment of people, we have become shoppers that are conditioned to find the deal! We all know the situation: a friend compliments you on an item of clothing and you respond with “only $10 on sale!” But there is more to what we wear than how much we paid. That bargain comes with a cost to quality of life for humans around the globe. We think it’s worth it to start thinking about how our decision to purchase any item affects many other human lives.
First off, let’s consider the extreme social implications.
One in six people worldwide works in the global fashion supply chain. It is the most labor-dependent industry on the planet, yet the people who make our clothes are hidden from us, often at their own expense, one of many symptoms of the broken links across the fashion industry (http://fashionrevolution.org/). There are an estimated 29 million people in slavery in China and Bangladesh, two countries that provide labor for a large part of the clothing industry. These countries are both ranked in the top ten for number of people living as slaves, pointing to conditions that allow factory owners to conscript children and vulnerable women into forced labor (http://www.globalslaveryindex.org/).
Free2Work’s report released in 2012, Apparel Industry Trends from Farm to Factory, examined working conditions in three main phases of apparel production: cut-make-trim manufacturing (CMT), textiles production, and cotton growing and harvesting. Here are their findings about child and/or forced labor in each level of production:
- At the cut-make-trim level, six countries are known to use child and/or forced labor, including China and India — both top-ten global exporters.
- At the textiles level, child and/or forced labor is documented in six countries, but probably exists in many more. While most companies monitor the working conditions in at least some portion of their CMT favorites, the earlier phases of apparel production often remain untraced, unmonitored and out of sight. This significantly contributes the risk of abuse in these production phases.
- Much of the apparel we buy in the United States and around the world contains cotton made by people held in modern-day slavery. Sixteen countries are known to use child and/ or forced labor in cotton production. Of these, Uzbekistan, Brazil, Pakistan and Turkey are all top-ten global producers.
And even when garment workers are not being held in modern day slavery, the demands of production force many into a daily grind of excessive hours, forced overtime, lack of job security, poverty wages, denial of trade union rights, poor health, exhaustion, sexual harassment and hazardous working places (http://www.cleanclothes.org/issues).
Then there are the massive environmental impacts.
The clothing industry is the second most polluting industry in the world, second only to the energy sector (The True Cost*. Dir. Andrew Morgan. 2015.). Because of this toxicity, cancer, asthma and neurological problems associated with chemicals used in clothing manufacturing are on the rise (Toxic Threads: The Big Fashion Stitch-Up, Greenpeace).
That’s not the only environmental concern. According to the EPA, Americans throw away a collective 12.7 million tons of textiles annually, or 68 pounds per person —an estimated 1.6 million tons of which could otherwise be recycled or reused. This reflects back on our incredible overconsumption of clothing: the world currently consumes 400% percent more clothing than it did 20 years ago! And keep in mind that producing the fabric this clothing is made from has its own impact: world fiber production requires 145 million tons of coal and somewhere between 1.5 trillion and 2 trillion gallons of water (Overdressed*, Cline). The cotton that goes into just one T-shirt requires 700-2000 gallons of water and 1/3 lb of pesticide to grow! (http://www.nrdc.org/living/stuff/t-shirt-life-story.asp)
Purchasing the clothing I wear everyday has become a decision that is very difficult to navigate. I have been so overwhelmed by it in the past that I had resigned myself to thrift shopping because I couldn’t dedicate the mind-power to figuring out another solution. It’s time for me to spend some time here, ask all of the questions I have and look for some answers.
Let’s open this conversation and see if we can find our way around.
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