Every morning, we all head to our closets. We open it and grab an outfit for the day. What drives us to choose the outfit off the hanger? Most likely it is the agenda for the day or the look, comfort or cleanliness of the outfit.
Head to breakfast, and we get a lot choosier. Are the eggs free range? The milk organic?
Increasingly, we care about the humane treatment of the animals that make up our food, and the impact of that food on the planet.
So why is it that we put an outsized amount of thought on what goes into our bodies while mostly blanking out what goes onto them?
We ought to think about ethical clothing manufacturing practices just as hard as we think about our organic eggs. Yet, 'fast fashion’ continues to dominate both the runway and our closets.
If mindful buying practices are ever to make it to the hanger, it starts with knowing who makes our clothes, what our garments are made of and where it is created. This is called the transparency of the supply chain.
Who Makes Our Clothes?
American labor standards are in place to protect employees from exploitation. There are rules about how long work shifts can be, protections against exposure to hazardous environments and chemicals, and restrictions on children working.
Overseas, however, these rules are considerably laxer or even missing entirely. Workers are routinely exploited and paid shockingly low wages for long, dangerous days in factories.
Most of our clothes are not created in the US.
The fact of the matter is, most of our clothes are created in countries like China, Mexico, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India.
While many clothing companies insist on standards for their manufacturing to protect workers (and, by extension, their brand reputation), there are still many that operate on a 'don't ask, don't tell’ policy of work ethics. Mostly, it is because companies want to save money.
Ethical buying practices by US companies
Luckily, Americans have begun extending their ethical buying practices to the clothes they wear to combat this issue. Some brands have enthusiastically embraced this trend to demonstrate their commitment to fair trade practices.
What would they do?
If a clothing company is committed to fair trade practices, they will generally make this clear through its labeling, advertising, or brand website.
These measures include ensuring their international employees are paid a fair local wage, are of an appropriate age and state of health to work and work in a safe environment free of dangers or harassment.
The best companies perform periodic ‘surprise’ inspections on these overseas facilities to make sure things are really as they appear. If violations are found, they will compel immediate changes or switch suppliers.
What Our Clothes Are Made Of?
In everyday clothing, two materials tend to dominate the majority of all pieces manufactured: cotton and polyester.
Cotton comes primarily from China, India, and the United States in order of volume, where polyester is sourced mainly from China, Taiwan, and Korea.
Cotton is a natural fiber harvested from cotton plants and has been historically used in clothing for hundreds of years. It’s a popular choice for jeans and tee shirts because it is lightweight, soft, wicks moisture, and generally stays cool in hot weather.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, polyester is a synthetic material made from coal and petroleum - essentially a plastic. It was first produced in the early 1940s and has taken the clothing industry by storm ever since. The structure of polyester threads and yarn allow them to drape, texture, and color in ways that cotton can’t, which is why the two are often combined into cotton-poly blends.
Polyester is, unsurprisingly, less expensive, and easier to produce than cotton clothing: it does not need to be harvested or processed as much as its natural-fiber counterparts.
The downside of this benefit is that it also doesn’t biodegrade the way cotton and natural fibers do. This feeds into the problem of fast fashion: cheaply made, easily damaged trendy clothing ends up in landfills and will remain there. It can take up to 200 years for these fibers to break down.
How Does Sourcing Affect Local Economies?
Labor is not the only way in which clothing manufacturing affects an international economy. Because the United States is a particularly enthusiastic consumer of raw goods, they can damage a local material economy (e.g., cotton grown in that country) with their needs.
This happens through buying up large portions of it at a lower price than it would be sold in the country that grew it - an economic issue known as “dumping.” The growers feel compelled to sell large amounts, even at that low price, to ensure future dealings and sales.
Local manufacturers that need the same material may find there is none available, or that their portion is priced so high, they can't compete on finished goods pricing with the US.
How Can We Empower Ethical Clothing Practices?
Clothing is a necessary part of our everyday life - we need it to stay warm or cool, look presentable at work, and protect us from the elements.
How do we balance these needs with a call for supply chain transparency in the clothing industry?
- Look for and shop from companies that proactively explain where their clothes are made and the measures they’re taking to ensure ethical standards.
- Commit to trading in and buying from a secondhand-, charity-, and "op shop" style consignment stores.
- Support measures like fair trade labeling by sharing and commenting on relevant stories on social media.
- Preserve our existing clothing by following label care instructions, learning basic sewing to repair rips or tears, and keeping older items trendy with new accessories.
Companies want to make money. If consumers start to demand supply chain transparency, it can hurt their pockets if they are unethical or unwilling to change. And, if enough consumers make the same demands, it creates a situation where it isn’t profitable - even with the cost savings of worker exploitation - to continue these unethical practices.
This is the reason why coordinated boycotts and social media campaigns make companies change their ways so quickly - they feel the financial impact in a relatively short time.
Take a moment to look through your closet and examine the labels of your clothes. Ask yourself these mindful questions to focus on your contributions to the fast fashion issue and solutions for changing it:
- Where in the world do your favorite outfits come from?
- What materials are they made of?
- What do you plan to do with this clothing once it’s old or outgrown?
- Where did you buy this clothing, and where will you buy its replacement?
Choosing to support worker rights, eco-friendly materials, and practices, and reasonable resource allocation are ways you can make a difference.
The next time you try on a pair of pants or admire a shirt in a store, remember to check the tag on the collar as readily as you do the price tag. Ethical mindfulness starts with us.