While I have been interested in fair trade food for many years, it wasn’t until I moved to the UK that I became aware that it was possible to buy fair trade clothing. I’m not sure why the thought never struck me, but once I heard about fair trade cotton I was intrigued.
Conversations with friends like Ineke and Carla continued to push my thinking on who was making my clothing and what they were sacrificing for me to have the latest in fashion.
As this interest grew I began to find more and more information about the clothing industry and the impact of fashion on our fellow human beings and on the environment. I watched documentaries showing the conditions abroad and in the UK of the workers who put together garments, particularly those for the ‘fast fashion’ stores.
Earlier this year I read a fantastic article in the Guardian about ‘disposable fashion’ (sadly I can’t find the link). Stores like Zara bringing out new lines so quickly that they are changing the production chain and stores like Tesco and Primark that are reproducing them so cheaply that people are throwing their clothes away rather than wash them.
I remember a tweet by Livia Firth with a picture of the price tag on a Primark shirt (just a few pounds) and the question of “What did it cost the person who made it?”. My stomach heaved.
I had the same heaving stomach when I went into Primark with a friend and it was full of well dressed women with carts heaving with clothes. This was not a case of people too poor to buy their clothes elsewhere. These people had exchanged quality for quantity.
In the midst of all of this I discovered the book Eco Chic by Matilda Lee and Katherine Hamnett. I started reading the book on the train ride to see my friend Carla, since was my ‘buddy’ in scoping out fair trade clothing. The book was so educational on issues like the processes used to make clothes and the pros and cons of each kind of fibre used.
It took me a long time to read this book and this is why. It stressed me out. The more I read, the more it felt like there were no good options. Cotton? Turns out it’s overprocessed, overdyed, mostly not organic and kills everything it touches. Man made fibres? Even worse. Silk? Horrible for the people making it. It looked like going naked was really the only option.
The book presents a particularly depressing look at the clothing industry in the first half. The impact of mass buying and the quick turnover of clothing lines have done nothing good for the industry. The second half of the book is more uplifting, looking at some of the positive glimmers of hope.
If for nothing else, the book is useful for the directory at the back of stores, producers and designers which they deem to be forward thinking in their approach to sustainable fashion. The book is slightly out of date, but the information is still really helpful (though this section is mostly applicable to the UK market).
After having the chance to slowly read the book and do my own thinking, here is my conclusion:
I will buy the clothes that I need. Whenever possible I will buy the highest quality clothes that I can afford in order to be able to wear them as long as possible. I will stay informed about the practices of clothing stores and make my best attempt to frequent those stores with good labor and environmental policies. I will also attempt to by at charity shops when possible in order to take my money out of the ‘high street’ fashion pot. When I am no longer able to wear my clothes, I will give them to charity shops.
In the same way that I was horrified to discover that my ‘comfort food’ chocolate was often produced by slaves, I am horrified that what seemed like a harmless thing (buying many more clothes than I might have needed) is actually so incredibly destructive.
I would urge people to get informed about how your clothes are made and what impact your fashion choices are having on other people and on the earth. Our current path will not last forever.