Ethical Fashion 101

I have seen a lot of buzz around the internet today about the “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like” shirt. People are shocked that a shirt with such an empowering message is being produced in a sweatshop. This kind of shock is not uncommon, people forget that we live in a consistent sweatshop crisis until something like this pops up. Therefore I have decided to write up a little post on some of the problems about the garment industry and some choices we can make as individuals to avoid supporting companies that employ unfair labor policies.

What’s wrong with the garment industry?

First things first, this shirt is NOT an anomaly, it is the norm. MOST of your clothing is made in sweatshops by people in (mostly) developing countries who are paid incredibly low wages. Not only are they paid very little for long hours, they work in intensely hazardous conditions. Fires are not uncommon in garment factories and often those working inside are trapped due to lack of safety codes regarding exits, windows, etc. For instance in late November 2012 more than 110 people died in a factory fire in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is one of the worlds’ greatest sources of garment production. Bangladesh exports about $18 billion worth of garments a year. But employees in the country’s factories are among the world’s lowest-paid, making minimum wage of about $37 a month.

The laws that American workers fought for in the early 20th century regarding safety and fair-pay in factory work haven’t been employed in many parts of the world. However, for many people this is the only work they can find. Because of this American companies (huge ones, I might add, who could afford to pay workers fairly if they weren’t so greedy) know that they can pay very little and make much more by outsourcing factory labor, and it is legal for them to do so. Which American companies? The shorter list would be companies that DON’T use sweatshop labor. Think of the last time you were in a mall, I bet you that at LEAST 98% of the clothing sold at that mall was made in a sweatshop.

Furthermore, sweatshops are not only unethical in their treatment of people, they negatively affect the environment as well. Below is is a google maps image of blue dye and other chemicals washing downriver from the textile mills in Xintang, China, the world capital of blue jeans production. According to a report by Greenpeace, once polluted the river water is not only toxic to drink but also causes itching and festering if it comes if contact with the skin.

I won’t even try to get into the risks for human trafficking and child labor in the fashion industry, but keep in mind that what I have written above are only SOME of the ethical issues regarding garment production.

Well crap, what can we do about this?

Although it takes a lot of intentionality and research, you CAN make ethical choices about your clothing consumption. Before I get into this I want to remember that your individual and every day choices ARE IMPORTANT. It may feel small but the things you choose to support or not support DO make a difference. (Plus, if enough people take a stand on this sort of this it DOES send a message to large companies that there is a market for ethically made clothing and that they would benefit from offering it to consumers.)

Anyway, you have a few options when it comes to ethical clothing consumption:

1. There are several companies that produce ethically made, fair-trade clothing. You can search them online yourself, but I have also provided a few examples:

Patagonia has a fair-trade line.
Fair Indigo
Liz Alig
-For a full list check out this guide on Shop Ethical!

The pros of buying clothing through shops like these is that you are often either supporting small businesses, OR you are supporting people in other countries and helping them earn a fair wage! The major con is that it can be incredibly expensive. Usually not the kind of things you can buy on a college student budget.

2. Another option is to buy directly from the maker via websites like Etsy or local shops in your town. This can also be spendy but you get to support individuals and small businesses, which is great!

3. If you have access to a sewing machine you are always free to try out making your own clothes! This can be fun, or it can be difficult. But try it if you’re interested! (Of course, much of the fabric you buy at your average craft store/sewing supply store will not be fair-trade. There are online resources for fabric that will make themselves evident in a quick goggle search.

4. And of course, my all-time favorite solution to my fashion ethics worries: Buying clothing second-hand! Now, I know that some people feel squeamish about this— if it helps I have been wearing clothes from thrift stores since I was a tiny, tiny human and I have never once gotten bugs or rashes or anything from them. (If you’re concerned you can always give it an extra wash when you get home.) Also this option is generally pretty conducive to a college budget! Believe it or not there are a few ways to buy/swap clothing second-hand:

-Your typical charity shops like Goodwill or Salvation Army. (Remember these shops not only will sell you inexpensive used clothing, they will donate some of the proceeds to charity and many of them give clothing to homeless people as well.) $1.50-60 (average $4-15).

-Non-chain thrift stores like Community Thrift and Thrift Town in San Francisco (sorry guys, I don’t know of as many in other cities). Some of these also donate to charity, a couple even have the option to choose where donations from the clothing you donate will go, so look into that if you plan to donate your own stuff! Price range: $1.50-60 (average $4-15).

(Dress=$6 at Thrift Town!)

-Fun, fancy, hipster second-hand boutiques and shops. If you want access to all of the latest trends without supporting the brands that produce them I advise shopping somewhere like Buffalo Exchange or Crossroads Trading Co. These will be a little more expensive than Goodwill, but the stuff will but good quality and fashionable. Price range: $6-100 ( average around $12-28).

(Dress $12 at Buffalo Exchange)

-Another great option is clothing swaps with friends! Hand-me-downs are free and getting together with friends is super fun! Impromptu fashion shows, ridiculous dress-up photos, I am telling you it’s the bomb.

(And people say hand-me-downs are boring!)

-And of course you have your online options, specifically Etsy and Vinted. Vinted is especially fantastic for swapping and buying clothes from people all over the country. Because of this it is easy to find all kinds of clothing and prices. (Note: at this point Vinted only caters to feminine clothing wearers, so if you prefer masculine clothing you may not find what you want there.) Price range: $2-???

Another huge bonus about buying second-hand clothing is that by doing so you are recycling clothes, which is wonderful! According to an article in the Huffington Post only about 25  percent of our clothing gets recycled, since almost 95 percent of textiles can be recycled in some way, this means plenty of usable material is sitting around at the garbage dump! 

I, personally have gone (almost) entirely second-hand for the past two years. (The only exception is that I still haven’t solved the problem of ethically produced, affordable undergarments. But I’ll let you guys know when I have!) Allow me to impress upon you that choosing to shop ethically doesn’t mean giving up the joys of fashion, it just means being even more creative with how you source said fashion. Additionally, knowing that the choices you have made are not contributing to an unethical, greed powered labor system relieves guilt and allows you to begin to see other places in your life where you can make similar, manageable changes so that you are living in lines with your personal values and ethics. 

Bottom line: 

Your choices matter and there are a variety of options for those seeking to consume more ethically and thoughtfully. Obviously this is not a full list of those options, nor a full list of the problems in the garment and other industries that use sweatshop labor. However, if you have made it this far reading this incredibly long post, I hope you are beginning to see the difference we as individuals can make. Humanity is bigger than the systems we create, and we can make a change. So, why not start by changing your clothes?

(Also, here is a puppy to reward you for listening to me)

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