Tag Archives: Ethical Fashion

2013: Accentuate the Positive: A Year in Ethical Fashion

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Macklemore & Ryan Lewis at a Thrift Shop

 Maybe it’s the New Year’s Eve champagne talking, but I must admit that I feel somewhat hopeful about the direction discussions about fashion and clothing production have taken this past year. For New Year’s, a list seems appropriate. Here are some stories from 2013 that have given me reason to hope that the fashion industry and our own patterns of consumption are changing as we head into 2014.

1. Trendsetter of 2013? Goodwill.  I appreciate Guy Trebay’s insight about the relationship between secondhand shopping and internet culture from his end-of-the-year assessment of pop culture in fashion, “We live in a thrift shop culture, compelled by daily, hourly and constantly refreshed trips to the Goodwill outlet that is the web. There we find all the stuff for assembling the “curated” selves who experts say are the new American trendsetters, D.I.Y. solipsists. Like Macklemore, we repurpose, we mash up, we grab things off the sale rack and try it on for size.” Trebay is referring, of course, to the Thrift Shop by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, the music video that celebrates secondhand culture.

Trebay goes onto say, “It was as though, in the past year, beleaguered consumers decided to take back fashion, to follow Macklemore’s lead and scour the cultural sale rack for what’s already hanging around. In the process they rediscovered the durable qualities of Made in U.S.A. labels like Filson and also only-in-America garments like Daisy Dukes.” And what’s great is the more we satisfy the shopping craving with secondhand, the less that goes into the landfill.

Pie chart of country-of-origin of my students' clothing

Pie chart of country-of-origin of my students’ clothing

I observed this tendency of appreciating secondhand and re-discovering clothing made in the USA in the project we conducted in my Introduction to Human Society course of counting our clothing. Here’s a pie chart of the country-of-origin for where my students’ clothing comes from. We weren’t surprised by China (in purple) taking up the largest wedge, but we were surprised that USA (in granny-smith apple green) was the second largest piece of the pie. The reason, we discovered, is that most of us were not participating in the fast fashion trend of impulse purchases and quick disposal. We were holding onto our clothing, including older items that were made in the USA, purchased when retailers like Urban Outfitters had more such options.

2.         Clothing Production Returning to the United States. In 2012, the story that the US. Olympic team uniforms were outsourced made news (for the 2014 Winter Olympics, they will be made in the USA). In 2013, the New York Times has been reporting that at least some clothing production – even if it remains priced at the luxury end – is returning to the U.S.

In fact, here in Minnesota, there are not quite enough trained garment workers to meet the new demand as a wave of sewing jobs pile up at U.S. factories. Why I find this hopeful is not really a matter of patriotism– I’m happy to see clothing production return to wherever its home consumers live. What matters to me is that this should mean clothing is being produced in better working conditions and for higher wages.

3.         Planet Money’s T-Shirt Project.  National Public Radio’s Planet Money produced a short video series that tracked the production of a Planet Money t-shirt from start to finish. The series begins with the harvesting of cotton in Mississippi to the weaving of cotton into fabric to the sewing of the t-shirts in Bangladesh and Columbia to shipping the t-shirts back to the U.S. I found the chapter on those who sew our t-shirts most compelling, and was intrigued to learn that some believe garment industry wages can only go up because Bangladesh is as low as a company can go in trying to attain well-enough-made cheap clothing. Planet Money also reports that no one – not even Bangladeshi workers’ rights advocates – want the garment industry to leave Bangladesh.

4.         H & M commits to more sustainably produced fashion. It’s great that small producers and luxury brands are able to return production to the U.S. But as I noted in The Conscientious Consumer and the Guilty Closet, it’s difficult for most people to have a completely fair-trade closet. That’s why it’s so important that the big brands of fast fashion get on the sustainability path. I’m sure H & M has a long way to go, but I appreciate that they’ve started the journey.

5.         I’ll end with a wish for 2014. My wish is that fashion brands become more accountable to their workers in terms of paying livable wages and requiring them to work in safe conditions, wherever their brands are produced. Just yesterday, the New York Times reported that companies are dodging responsibility for their contribution to the fast pace that led to safety concerns being ignored before the Rana Plaza factory collapse. Here in the U.S. there is talk about raising the minimum wage  and providing workers with more livable wages– whether they are those sewing the clothing or those selling it in the malls. My wish for 2014 is a tall one – that higher wages and safer working conditions becomes a reality, worldwide.

Happy New Year!

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Filed under Ethical Fashion, Fashion Trends, Made in USA

The Conscientious Consumer and the Guilty Closet

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me, pleased with myself and my morning coffee

I’m sipping a locally-roasted latte, with creamy milk sourced from a local farm (Autumnwood Farm) in paper cup with a “25% post-consumer recycled content lid”, purchased from a local coffee roaster (Dogwood Coffee) from a local independent coffee shop (Groundswell). I’m wearing a vintage dress, a 1960s black-and-white floral with French darts that I purchased from a local shop (Up 6), accessorized with a vintage pin and earrings from another local vintage shop (Blacklist Vintage). My black sandals are my last pair standing, after half the summer left two others in a bag, waiting to go to shoe repair.

Do I sound like a virtuous, ethical consumer? I immediately think, “If I were more virtuous, I would have brought my own mug to the coffee shop so that I’m not wasting paper,” and “I should have bought these sandals secondhand, but I think I got them at Herbergers.”

There are many vintage, secondhand items in my closet. Some, like my Skunkfunk dresses and skirts, are from brands that claim to produce with sustainability in mind. I also have dresses that were made in the USA, ones I’ve sewn myself, or purchased from local independent boutiques and Etsy.

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me, not pleased with my history of unethical purchases

Also hanging in my closet there are…..ummmm…..gulp………clothes from Target. I’ll also sheepishly admit that I am typing on a desk from Target, my mouse rests on a Target mousepad, and a tall Target shelf stands to my right. Heavy chagrinned sigh.

I could have furnished my office with antiques, I could have gotten a mousepad from the “please take” table at my college, but the stuff from Target was easy (there’s a superstore 5 blocks from my house), attractive enough, and cheap.

I hold no illusions about the ethics of these purchases; I don’t try to justify it with Target’s charitable donations (after all, I know about their political donations as well). They were items whose low price was made possible by paying people next to nothing in poor factory conditions. I can’t pretend these objects were made with practices meant to reduce their environmental impact. And yet there they are in my home.

The road to ethical consumer-dom is a straight and narrow one, with guilty purchases strewn about, littering its shoulders like road kill.

I’m afraid I am what sociologist Keith R. Brown calls a “conscientious consumer” in his new book Buying into Fair Trade: Culture, Morality and Consumption.  Brown interviewed people who buy fair-trade coffee from independent coffee shops and fair-trade gifts from Ten Thousand Villages. The “conscientious consumers” he interviewed were “somewhat critical of the belief that shopping can change the world but still willing to shop for a cause….acutely aware of the widespread contradictions between their professed values and their everyday shopping patterns” (ch. 4). For most who shop with social awareness in mind, the fair-trade coffee, the organic food from the co-op and the thrifted clothing is almost always interspersed with other items from Target and the Gap.

Only a small proportion of shoppers take ethics into consideration for almost every daily purchase. And even the most thoughtful ethical consumers still face difficulty making purchases from companies that completely align with their values, as this excellent post on “Questioning the Meaning of Ethical Fashion” by A l’allure garconniere discusses.

The rest of us mostly feel guilty and seek ways to rationalize our consumer behavior when it falls short of our ideals. We muddle through, perhaps comforting ourselves that we’re at least doing more for a better consumer world than the average Walmart shopper (Walmart seemed to be the one place where most of Brown’s research subjects drew the line that they would not cross).

And here’s some food for thought: our ethical purchases might be precisely what we use to license our unethical shopping. Like the man on a diet who feels he has a pass to eat an entire pizza because he went on a five-mile run, buying the occasional fair trade, local, organic, eco or thrifted item can serve to relieve guilt about the Target t-shirts and home decor.

And yet, Brown found evidence that consumers’ behavior is changing. In the final chapter of Buying into Fair Trade he describes market research conducted at Home Deport that found that those who shopped the eco-aisle were becoming more mindful of the social impact of their purchases. And buying fair trade does make a small difference – particularly to the producers who supply fair-trade products. Brown concludes, “We will never be able to shop our way out of the huge social problems associated with over-consumption. Nevertheless, if we are going to continue to shop, we can do it in a better way.”

  • Nancy L. Fischer

Photos by Nancy Fischer

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Filed under Ethical Fashion, Good Books

The Ethics of Vintage

Photo of bales of used clothing at a rag grading facility, Whitehouse and Shapiro

This week, I have been mulling over a March 16 editorial I read in The Observer. Lucy Siegle asks, “Are vintage clothes more ethical?

The immediate answer is yes, as Siegle aptly explains:

If we think of a hierarchy of ethical ways of dressing, vintage should be near the top. It is the antithesis of throwaway fashion, being rare, covetable and tradable. Rewearing old clothes also displaces the need to make new virgin fibres – manufactured with oil-based petroleum or using cotton – both with hulking environmental impacts (also add in dyeing, finishing and the use of factories with dubious ethics).

Thus, from an environmental standpoint, wearing vintage and contemporary secondhand garments keeps clothing out of landfills, and just as importantly, does not necessarily require the use existing resources like water or petroleum.

Siegle then goes on to question the ethics of how vintage clothing is sourced today:

Unfortunately we now need to ask a few more questions of vintage sellers….There are far more now who don’t give a fig for crystal beading and built-in corsetry. They just buy and sell clothing by the kilo, rebranding them as vintage or retro.

Here the business model begins to resemble fast fashion. It’s a global market (as is the second-hand trade in textiles), and we now see outsourcing of collection and supply. There have also been unofficial reports of exploitation in sorting factories. International traders deal in huge quantities – the biggest in the US sorts 35 tonnes every day of printed T-shirts and nearly 8 million kg of “vintage” every year for export. Buyers often buy bales “blind”. Vintage becomes about trucks and containers and trading “rag” by the kilo.

Here is where my reaction to her piece on the ethics of vintage clothing becomes more complicated.

First let me state that if sorting facilities in the U.S. (or other countries) are engaged in unethical labor practices, that is a concern that I share with Siegle.

Yet my view of large-scale sorting facilities – they are known as “rag graders” – is tempered by my knowledge of where they fit in the U.S. recycling picture.  Few Americans know about rag graders and what they do, so I’ll devote a portion of this post to what I’ve learned so far about the U.S. rag grading industry before coming back to the ethical questions.

Rag grading is a centuries-old industry. Rag grading facilities sort and “grade” used textiles to determine their quality and what the next stage will be in textile’s “life cycle.” For example, textiles which are unlikely to be used again (stained, ripped, unwearable) or that have a certain fiber content are recycled for use in packing materials, insulation, cleaning cloths, etc.  Clothes that are still wearable but have proven to be unsellable in the U.S. (these are often the unsold garments of charity shops) are sorted, baled and shipped to countries where they may find a wearable life again. [Check out Karen Tranberg Hansen’s book Salaula for an excellent anthropological account of the secondhand clothing trade of these bales in Zambia – her book also delves into the ethical questions surrounding this trade.]

Clothing that is from decades past is  graded as “vintage,” baled, and is sold back to vintage-clothing sellers who are looking for more supply. All of these graded textiles are baled and sold by weight, and the grades determine the price per pound, with vintage clothes most likely commanding a higher price.

Rag graders were once mostly local facilities, with nearly every second-tier city having a local rag-grader. As with the clothing industry as a whole, over the last three decades, the industry has become more centralized, consolidated and operates under larger economies of scale, which means there are some large sorting facilities that process tons of used clothing. That said, according to National Geographic, there are 2000 sorting facilities in the U.S., and most are family-owned.

Now back to the ethics. As long as a rag grading facility pays fair wages and has good working conditions, I do not view the clothing obtained from them as inherently unethical, as Siegle seems to imply.

In the U.S. these sorting facilities are a key component of clothing recycling. According to National Geographic, Americans on average discard 68 pounds of clothing a year, and only purchase 1o pounds of recycled clothing. To the best of my knowledge, the U.S. does not have government- subsidized clothing recycling. This means that someone – in this case, rag-graders – must be able to make a profit in order for the recycling of textiles to exist here in any large-scale way. The U.S. used-clothing recycling industry employs 17,000 workers in the U.S. and keeps 2.5 billion pounds of fabric from landfills (and if Americans were far better about recycling every textile as they should be, then it would be exponentially more).

The carbon footprint of shipping used textiles – whether it’s vintage clothes traveling in the back of a vintage clothing store owner’s van or bales of used clothing heading by ship to Africa – is a legitimate environmental concern. It would be better if all used clothing went into re-use locally. But if that’s not possible or presently likely, I would rather that the clothes move on a slow boat (or better yet, rail) than be deposited in local landfills.

Siegle ends her editorial with the words that “Vintage needs to be cleaned up.” My thought is that relatively speaking (with the caveats about labor and the environment I’ve already expressed), I don’t think that vintage is all that dirty to begin with and that vintage (or contemporary secondhand) is still a reasonable ethical choice.

– Nancy L. Fischer

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Sustainable Fashion Design Exhibit at the Goldstein Museum of Design

Redefining Redesigning Fashion: Designs for Sustainability

January 19 – May 26, 2013

Goldstein Museum of Design

admission is free

The principle of sustainability describes not using up more resources than can be replaced from generation to generation. Sustainability is not usually associated with the fashion industry. The concept of fashion – as opposed to clothing – is about novelty and change. When we pursue fashion, we seek new clothes because we want a new look, an innovative change in design. That means we may discard garments that are still perfectly wearable from a use standpoint.

This raises the important question of whether one can make clothing choices that are both fashionable and sustainable, or are the two ideas inherently antithetical?

New fashion designers are taking on this issue. They have come of age during an era when “green” consumer choices have become more prevalent, and recycling (rather than trashing) has become a habit. This has led to thinking about how creating new looks can take less toll on the environment.

The new exhibit, “Redefining Redesigning Fashion: Designs for Sustainability” at the Goldstein Museum of Design is a fascinating exhibit for those who are interested in exploring the possibilities for sustainable clothing design.

Curators Marilyn DeLong, Barbara Heinemann and Kathryn Reiley have categorized the exhibition entries according to five sustainable design criteria:

Alternative Construction & Techniques

Emotional Connections

Repurposed Materials

Versatility

Valuing Resources

The exhibit features many fun garments that are made from repurposed materials. Most eye-catching is the colorful dress made out of repurposed soda can pop-tabs. If you don’t fancy wearing aluminum, there are dresses and jackets made from discarded linens and clothes that were once donated to Goodwill – if you have sewing skills, it might spark the imagination.

I found the clothing made from using alternative construction techniques intriguing. Before visiting Redefining Redesigning Fashion, I had never really thought about how much fabric goes to waste simply by being cast off the cutting table because bolts of fabric are rectangular, while bodies (and therefore patterns) are curved. One of my favorite items on display (you can see it in this photo) is a gray “tent” dress designed to minimize the amount of fabric that is cut away from the pattern and discarded.

The inclusion of the category “Emotional Connections” is often overlooked in sustainable design but it is very important. With Emotional Connections as a criteria of sustainable design, we are asked to think more consciously about our emotional attachments to our clothes. Whenever I visit a vintage shop, I’m aware that someone held on to their dresses, sweaters and suit jackets and perhaps lovingly cared for them even when they were no longer in style or they no longer fit. It’s that emotional connection that often leads us to preserve our clothes, keeping them safely packed away for years, rather than donating or discarding them, where they may make their way more easily to a landfill.

The exhibit also implicitly begs the question of whether the fashion industry can be sustainable. Everything on display is hand-sewn and unique – only 1-2 items could possibly lend themselves to mass production. Thus like the slow food and localvore movements, sustainable fashion may be a practice that asks us to think globally and act locally with our purchase power.

If you live in the Twin Cities and have an interest in ethical fashion, I highly recommend visiting the Goldstein (rhymes with “design”), which has free admission to its gallery where this exhibition is showing. There will also be a free lecture by Sandra Black, an expert on sustainable fashion from London on Thursday, February 21st at 33 McNeal Hall on the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota.

– Nancy L. Fischer

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Filed under Ethical Fashion, Sewing

Making Mends

It’s Labor Day weekend, and for many of us, a new school year is about to begin. When I was a kid, the month of August meant shopping for a few new outfits and a new pair of shoes for school. We lived in a rural area and so back-to-school shopping was an all-day affair – getting up early in the morning, driving two hours to Fargo, spending the entire day in West Acres Mall, and then driving back at night. It was both fun and tedious as the day wore on.

I don’t do much back-to-school shopping now even though I still work in education. Without the problem of growing out of pair of shoes or facing the prospect of going to class wearing “high-water pants,” there is less incentive to shop in late August.

This Labor Day weekend, I’m trying to start a new back-to-school tradition by going through my closet and identifying which pieces I’ve been ignoring because they are currently in need of a little attention. I was inspired by an article on Ecouterre about a chic little sewing machine designed to encourage consumers to “Make Do and Mend” their clothes.

Make Do and Mend Poster WWII

“Make Do and Mend” has a history. It was the motto of a British 1940s war rationing campaign that encouraged women to conserve their family’s clothing and ultimately to purchase less fabric, which was gravely needed to make military uniforms. Women were encouraged to reinforce seams, patch holes and make new garments out of men’s old trousers or ill-fitting suit jackets, as seen in this helpful video of the time.

As the Ecouterre article indicated, the idea of mending clothes is making a comeback as a matter of ethical fashion. Clothes that receive repairs have longer lives in our closets and are less likely to wind up in a landfill. While we might assume that the pants missing the button are perfectly fine for a Goodwill donation and that someone else will repair them, the truth is Goodwill customers are also likely to pass on it in favor of clothes that are literally ready to wear. Mending clothing means they have longer lives for us and the future wearers of our donated clothes. And, as during war rationing, mending encourages us to consume less (and save money) by getting more value from our existing wardrobe.

My own Make Do and Mend project that I’m tackling this Labor Day weekend involves reinforcing the seams of a vintage dress. The seams have become badly frayed over the years. The dress is made from a soft, coarse basket-weave cotton with a print that for some reason reminds me of the graphics of  The Partridge Family theme song. There’s no label in the dress, so I assume it was originally home-sewn.

The Partridge Family theme song graphic

the print of my vintage dress

Here’s the problem. The seams in some places have frayed right down to the thread-line. If I continue to wear it this way, the unraveling will soon break through the seams, and the dress will be difficult to save without making it significantly smaller.

Badly frayed seams

I am a novice seamstress, so I sought help. I went to a local sewing store near my house and asked for advice on how to fix the problem. It turns out that I need to encase the seams in bias tape. This make the seams subject to less of the friction that causes them to fray. I left the store with several packets of black bias tape in different widths for the project.

First I clipped away the frayed edges so that I could get the bias tape close enough to encase the part of the seam that was still intact. I used a thin bias tape where the seams had almost disappeared, and a wide one for where they were mostly intact.

I have to admit that this wasn’t exactly the quick little project I had hoped it would be; it took me an entire afternoon. It was, however, worth it to me to save a loved 40-year old dress that is one of my favorite summer frocks.

Finished seams w/bias tape

The mended dress

I thought to myself (after sticking my finger during the pinning process) that I wouldn’t do this for just any dress.

And then I paused to think about why that is the case. Why wouldn’t I go to this effort for any dress in my closet?  This realization reminded me of a point that Elizabeth Cline makes in her excellent book Overdressed, and in her blog The Good Closet: that if we find ourselves easily willing to discard articles of clothing in our closet, then maybe we’re not investing enough in clothes that are of high-quality and that we truly love in the first place.

For now, as fall gets closer, I’ll make do and mend the clothes that I have and build on my sewing skills. And maybe I’ll get some of those rubber thimbles.

–          Nancy L. Fischer

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Filed under Ethical Fashion, Sewing, Vintage Clothing