CARE ABOUT WHAT YOU WEAR: Clothing Choice for a Greener World
by Lorraine Anderson

Clothing—we all wear it, but how many of us think about the impact of our choices on the well-being of other people and the planet? The local foods and green building movements reflect our increasing mindfulness about how we meet our needs for food and shelter. But Americans have been slow to join the “clean clothes” movement that began in Europe in 1988. Focused protests in the mid-1990s against Nike and Gap sweatshops notwithstanding, the clothing industry still reflects a mindset that puts profit above people and planet.

            This status quo is ripe for challenging. Clothes are cheap because labor and natural resources are brutally exploited in their manufacture. Much of what we wear is produced in foreign sweatshops (although apparel industry sweatshops also exist in the United States) through manufacturing methods that harm the environment. Spurred on by the fashion industry, we are buying and discarding clothes in record numbers. What we need to do is to acknowledge the problems, work out guidelines for healthy clothing consumption, and re-localize clothing production just like we are re-localizing food production. 

The Status Quo: Sweatshops, Pesticides, and Effluent

“Made in China” says the label in the cranberry-colored knit turtleneck sweater I bought at TJ Maxx last December to update my mostly thrift-store wardrobe. I try to imagine who made my sweater and under what conditions. Perhaps she is like the fictional worker described in the 2009 textbook Social Responsibility in the Global Apparel Industry. Sixteen-year-old Chen Xiao Mei has left her home in rural China, where her family does subsistence farming, to work in a factory in Guangzhou. There she lives in a dormitory and sews the hems of pink T-shirts from 8 in the morning until at least 8 at night in a noisy and overcrowded environment. She is yelled at and insulted by her supervisor when she doesn’t meet her production quota, is paid wages she can barely get by on, and doesn’t know her rights as a worker. I can’t help but think about her every time I wear the sweater.

            Hundreds of thousands of young men and women around the world work in factories manufacturing the apparel we wear. Fairly young and mostly female, garment workers are poorly paid, forced to work excessive hours, and subjected to health and safety hazards. (For instance, if you’ve bought faded denim jeans lately, you might be interested to know that the process of sandblasting them to make them look old causes a lung disease called silicosis in the workers, according to the Clean Clothes Campaign.) As Robert Ross points out in his 2004 book Slaves to Fashion: Poverty and Abuse in the New Sweatshops, “The apparel industry is . . . among those very few industries where extreme exploitation of vulnerable labor is central to the labor process and to the chain of profit making.”

Although labor issues have been in the forefront of social responsibility efforts in the apparel industry, environmental issues are emerging as the next important area to address. The major environmental impacts include use of energy and water in the manufacturing process, use of toxic chemicals (including pesticides and dyes) during growing and processing of textiles, and dumping of textile effluents and dyestuffs into water supplies by factories. Then there is also the energy used and pollution released by long distance transport of the goods, and the solid waste generated during production and on disposal.

            The status quo is slowly changing as a result of the corporate social responsibility movement, the organized consumer boycotts of the 1990s, the Clean Clothes Campaign, government regulations, and pressure from nongovernmental organizations. Apparel brands, retailers, and manufacturers that have taken meaningful steps to improve the situation for workers and the environment include the Adidas Group, Liz Claiborne, Nike, Gap, Philips-Van Heusen, Timberland, Eileen Fisher, Levi-Strauss & Company, and Patagonia. But responsible firms are still distinctly in the minority in a global business climate that finds it easy to ignore or deny impacts. 

Toward a New Ethic of Clothing Consumption

One prong of what needs to be a multipronged approach to change in the apparel industry is informed, committed consumers who reward responsible business when exercising their purchasing power. Changes to clothing labeling that are in the works will make it simpler to track whether a garment is part of the problem or the solution. Walmart, the world’s largest clothing retailer, has been working in consultation with Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, to develop a sustainability index that at some point in the future, five or so years from now, will accompany each item of clothing for sale there. Swiping the clothing tag with a smartphone will reveal details about the item’s social and environmental impact. If fully implemented, this will make it easier for us to vote with our dollars.

            In the meantime, sociologist Juliet Schor in an essay entitled “Cleaning the Closet: Toward a New Fashion Ethic” suggests three principles for responsible clothing consumption. First, she urges choosing quality over quantity and longevity over novelty. “Ultimately we could begin to think of clothing purchases as long-term commitments, in which we take responsibility for seeing each garment through its natural life,” she writes. We could shun trendy clothing and demand timeless designs instead. We could be happy with fewer but better-quality items in our wardrobe.

            The second principle Schor proposes is to favor clothing produced by small-scale, local enterprises. She sees this as a way to respond to the monolithic fashion landscape in which massive numbers of cookie-cutter garments—whether hip-huggers or square-toed shoes—flood the market and leave us little choice about what looks best on us. Instead, small apparel firms located in neighborhoods could operate almost like corner stores. Rather than driving to a mall to buy clothes, we might walk to a converted warehouse or factory housing three or four designers with workshops that double as showrooms. Designers would come face to face not only with their customers but also with the workers who sew their ideas into cloth. Consumers could be part of the creative process as well. Money saved by clothing manufacturers on transportation, branding, advertising, and marketing could be used to pay decent wages and fund environmentally sustainable production processes.

            Third, Schor sees re-localization going hand in hand with reform of wages and working conditions in factories abroad. She suggests that for now, we must continue importing clothing to provide employment for impoverished foreign workers. But as wages rise abroad, workers in India, China, Bangladesh, and other such countries will gain the purchasing power to support their own localized production. She sees such gains being realized through a combination of activist pressure, consumer mobilization, and government policies. Nongovernmental organizations such as Social Accountability International with its voluntary SA8000 standard—launched in 1997 as “one of the world’s first auditable social certification standards for decent workplaces”—will also play a role.

            To Schor’s guidelines I would add a couple of others: favoring garments made of ecologically friendly fibers and prolonging the life of clothing by donating to and shopping thrift and consignment stores.

            Textiles made from flax, wood pulp, hemp, organic cotton and soy protein currently make up a very small percentage of the market, far surpassed by conventional cotton and synthetics like polyester, spandex, and rayon—but that percentage is growing thanks to consumer and corporate demand as well as technological advances. (Bamboo is a surprisingly controversial material, not currently considered eco-friendly by many because of the primary process used to turn it into cloth – please see sidebar). Both flax and hemp can be grown with far less water and fewer pesticides than cotton, but because hemp can’t be grown legally in the United States, most of the material used by American clothing designers is imported from China. Tencel is made from the pulp of tree-farmed trees, primarily eucalyptus trees imported mostly from South Africa; most of the wood pulp is Forest Stewardship Council–certified, and the solvent used to process the pulp is nontoxic and reusable. Soy protein fiber is made from what’s left over after manufacture of products like tofu and soy milk.

            Buying clothes in thrift and consignment shops also helps by getting more use out of a garment before it enters the waste stream and ends up in the landfill. Slaves to fashion get tired of clothing before wearing it out and thus there is an increasingly large stock of used clothing on the market in stores like Goodwill. I personally like buying in thrift and consignment stores because the low prices make it possible to have fun with trying out different costumes without making a big investment. Plus there is actually more variety there than at the retail stores where the latest fashion dictates what’s available at all. For the longest time the only pants available at mainstream clothing stores have been hip-huggers that reveal midriff flesh. I don’t find that style comfortable or attractive and wouldn’t be able to find anything to wear if it weren’t for the thrifts. It’s amazing to me the high-quality clothing people donate; my closet contains used Columbia, Eddie Bauer, and J Jill garments that would have cost literally ten times as much new. 

Local and Sustainable Clothing in the Willamette Valley

You may have to look a little harder for local and sustainable clothing in the Willamette Valley, but it’s here. Eugene is home to the retail stores Sweet Skins Eco-Boutique, Trillium Local Threads, and Sweet Potato Pie, and the online retailer Xylem Clothing. Local clothing and jewelry producers are abundantly present at the Eugene Saturday Market as well. In Corvallis, there’s Sibling Revelry, Irene’s Boutique, and Many Hands Trading Company. Each has a different feel and carries a different mix of clothing, but local and fair trade items and sustainable fibers are featured prominently in each location.

            Elizabeth Thompson started out by selling her locally produced clothing in the parking lots of Grateful Dead Concerts before opening Sweet Potato Pie in 1997. Her store carries such locally produced brands as Whispering Willows, Maggie’s Farm, and Practical Rabbit, along with her own hand-sewn patchwork skirts. The new store Trillium Local Threads carries hemp clothing from local producers Circle Creations and Trust Hemp, as well as children’s clothing from Watermelon Kidz and yoga garb sporting batik art from Batikwalla.

            Mira Fannin started Sweet Skins Clothing in her garage in Eugene in 2004. Selling her designs at the Saturday Market, she found there was such demand for the clothing that she decided to open her own eco-boutique. The clothing she sells is designed and constructed in her converted garage studio by a handful of diverse women using fabrics like eco-fleece, hemp, organic cottons, and wool along with low-impact dyes. The driving force behind Mira’s work is an uncompromising commitment to social responsibility. She explains, “We want to be a role model for future companies and for young people from diverse backgrounds.”

            Xylem Clothing was founded in 2003 by apparel designers Danielle Nelson and Jazzi Januari to express their passion for creating “sustainable, eco-responsible clothing with an uncompromised dedication to fashion-forward style, versatility, durability, and exceptional comfort.” They say in the mission statement posted on their website: “We are dedicated to using the finest natural eco-friendly fibers to create earth and community conscious clothing for the dynamic modern woman who chooses to embody her beliefs.”

            In Corvallis, Sibling Revelry, started by sisters Dorothy and Catherine in 1997, offers a range of comfortable, colorful, easy-care clothing, some of which is locally produced. Organic cotton, linen, hemp, and Tencel are regularly stocked. One manufacturer represented there makes clothing out of bolt ends of fabric that would otherwise go to waste. At Christmas time there are scarves knit locally. Irene’s up the street offers clothing from Portland manufacturers, and Peak Sports next door carries clothing made by Oregon’s own Columbia. Many Hands Trading Company features fair trade clothing made of natural fibers.

            Like organic food, locally produced clothing costs a little more. But when you buy it, you can feel assured that your dollars are staying in the community and helping local artisans and designers to thrive. 

Wearing Your Values on Your Sleeve

“Clothing can be part of the aesthetic of everyday life,” notes Juliet Schor. Wearing a well-made, beautifully designed, and well-fitting garment can give us genuine pleasure. That pleasure can only be enhanced by knowing that the garment’s manufacture did not cause harm to people or the planet.

Lorraine Anderson is a writer and editor living in Corvallis. She writes frequently for the Natural Choice Directory.

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