I always joke that I feel like a caricature of myself when I move to a new apartment and have to unpack my closet. Last time, my roommate Ali was astonished when I ran out of hangers, bought 50 more, and ran out again. “How many items do you own then?” she asked. “I don’t want to even think about that,” I said and changed the subject.
Moseying down the street last spring, I noticed a piece of paper on the pavement, shimmering under the sunlight. Of course, I immediately assumed it was a fortune cookie slip waiting to answer my life’s questions. I got pretty excited as my fave playlist cheered me along to collect this prophecy. I turned the paper slip over only to read the words “made in china.” Ugh, capitalism.
It’s obviously occurred to us before, as fashion bloggers who hate the world, that what we do is driven by consumerism and waste. When we worked on another blog back in Ottawa, Meg once had to explain to a confused male friend that no one lent us these clothes–they’re ours. They’re all ours. We bought them.
Two weeks ago, we had a life-changing experience attending Vancouver’s Eco-Fashion Week, the largest celebration of sustainable fashion in the world. We looked forward to drinking free beer and getting to promote the blog, but didn’t expect to be confronted with our own participation in what is one of the most polluting, wasteful industries on this stupid planet. Our skeletons are literally hanging in our closets (sorry). The oceans of polyester we swim through everyday when we get dressed will haunt our dreams from this day forward. Here’s what we learned.
Most of your clothing is essentially plastic. Synthetic fabrics, such as polyester, nylon, acrylic, polyamide, elastane, Lycra, Spandex, and PVC, are all petroleum-based. That’s right, we’re all walking around wearing oil. These synthetics are non-biodegradable and made through energy-intensive processes that waste huge amounts of water and crude oil. Harmful emissions are also released during these processes, threatening air quality and human health. For example, nylon production creates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is approximately 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Polyester is the most widely-used manufactured fiber, used by low-priced fast fashion companies and higher-end brands alike. We can’t count the number of times we’ve assumed something is silk or organic cotton due to the price tag, only to check the label and find that it’s 100% polyester (and this deceptive pricing is, in our opinion, 100% BULLSHIT). Despite a recession and vintage shopping coming back into style, demand for man-made fibers has doubled in the last 15 years, according to a paper by Lakshmi Challa of Bangalore University.
Even “natural” fibers come with their own sets of issues. Cotton, fashion’s most popular fabric, also happens to be the most pesticide-intensive crop in the world. It not only wastes water (apparently 257 gallons of water are needed to create enough cotton for a single t-shirt) but also land that farmers overseas could be using for food. That means the crops we grow to wear are more harmful than the crops we grow to eat. Granted, organic cotton is growing in popularity but even to this day, it only makes up 0.03 percent of cotton grown worldwide (that’s not even half a percent, that’s not even half of half a percent WE DON’T EVEN KNOW HOW MANY HALVES OF HALVES THAT IS!).
This is already total shit, and we haven’t even gotten to how clothes are manufactured yet. Even the most informed consumer doesn’t consider what happens before an item is made. The tag shows where pieces are sewn together, but where the fabrics themselves are grown and manufactured never make it onto any label. As we know, a huge amount of our clothing is made in China, where conditions are often terrible and workers are reportedly paid as little as 12 cents an hour. Americans alone purchase 1 billion garments from China every year, according to an article in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.
Fashion Revolution Day closed Eco Fashion Week, with everyone wearing their clothes inside out so we had no choice but to think about where they were made. It marked the anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh, which killed 1,100 people and injured 2,500. At the panel that day, Carolyn Scott of CRP Canada said that workers complained about cracks in the building one day before it came crashing down. A year after the worst garment manufacturing accident in history, only 15 percent of Bangladeshi factories had been inspected for safety issues. It’s likely the companies like Joe Fresh and Reitmans that manufactured there never even thought about the conditions for workers–as suppliers supply suppliers supply suppliers and direct communication is avoided at all costs. Despite well-intentioned efforts like Fashion Revolution Day, it’s hard to think any meaningful progress has been made. When a buyer in Toronto imposes a deadline for an item that must must must be in stores this season, do they consider the effect it has on the workers sewing it? So the building’s about to collapse? But what about all the white people who need those tank tops! We so easily detach ourselves and act like none of this has anything to do with us. But our consumerism has consequences. Grave consequences.
Multiple designers we’ve interviewed in past weeks have expressed anxiety about their own economic situations. The artists in North America and Europe who manufacture high-quality, ethically-made garments struggle to pay rent, while companies that push to produce as much shit as possible–while paying their employees as little as possible–thrive. Why would a designer choose to be sustainable then? Change will come from consumers before it comes from capitalist motherfudgers.
Even when clothing is made in the West, the social dynamics surrounding it should make you uncomfortable. On Fashion Revolution Day, we were invited to a local factory at the buttcrack of dawn to enjoy a beautiful freshly-baked spread while we discussed the horrific conditions of factory workers around the world. We couldn’t help but notice that every single woman working a sewing machine was Asian, while every woman enjoying an artisan scone was white. A tag saying something was “made with love in Los Angeles” doesn’t actually give you a glimpse into the woman’s life who made it. Some advocacy organizations like The Garment Worker Center say the notion that sweatshops don’t exist in North America is simply untrue. Workers in Canada and the United States–most of whom are Mexican and Chinese immigrant women–still face unfair wages and dangerous working conditions.
Being informed might make it difficult to have an optimistic outlook on the earth and our future as a species, but in order to change the current system, we need to discuss its problems and ask questions. You never know who is listening and what impact you might have on their lives. Always be curious–you can still be stylish while doing so.
So what can we do?
The best way to eliminate waste is to simply buy less. In the United States, the average person throws away 68 god damn pounds of clothing every year. Do you really need that 11th crop top? (A very hard question for Emma to answer but one that Meg vows to keep asking).
Wear clothes that already existed and have been through one life-cycle rather than shopping to support fast fashion companies that create massive amounts of waste. Value Village alone diverts 650 million pounds of textiles and households goods from landfills every year. And just look at all the things you can do with second-hand items!
Buying from local brands who manufacture clothing here in North America reduces pollution from transatlantic transportation and ensures workers were at least paid a minimum wage.
Duh. Check back over the next few weeks for our upcoming profiles on sustainable designers, local artisan accessory makers, and owners of luxury resale stores. We also commit to reuse clothes and show multiple ways to style an item rather than post each thing once and forget about it. Maybe you could even like us on Facebook or subscribe? We promise to send infinite good karma in return. Wink wink.