Written for Feature Writing class, (2013)
Is Sustainable Fashion Possible?
Ethical. Sustainable. Fair trade.
These terms, no longer restricted to holistic mommy blogs or college hipsters’ conversations about the latest Whole Foods product, carry more weight in the mainstream clothing industry more than ever. However, after two garment factory incidents in Bangladesh left more than 1,300 workers dead, retailers worldwide felt the heat from explosive media investigations and concerned, fashion conscious buyers.
At the center of the controversy surrounding these incidents is the factory’s absence of safety precautions. At Tazreen Fashions, workers could not escape via outer stairwells because none existed. Even the windows were bolted with iron frames. Four months later at the Rana Plaza factory, more than 1,100 workers died when the poorly constructed building collapsed. According to a report by the New York Times, developers blatantly ignored building codes.
If you think the fates of Bangladeshi workers have no relevance to you, a United States citizen, think again.
Companies such as Walmart, Gap and H&M use products directly from these factories, which means if you recently bought a color-blocked fall jacket at Gap, yes, there is a good chance an underpaid factory worker, now deceased, made it.
“It’s unfortunate, but sometimes people just need a wakeup call,” said Katie Barrow, the senior manager of integrated communications at Fair Trade USA. “It was a wakeup call to brands and consumers that they need to demand better.”
Labor issues are nothing novel, though. In 1911, a factory fire in New York killed 146 garment workers. Eighty years later, Kathie Lee Gifford’s eponymous clothing line for Walmart faced controversy because the production factory used child labor. Gifford subsequently worked as a spokesperson to end unethical worker conditions.
Janice Ellinwood, the department chair of fashion design and merchandising at Marymount University, says the ‘90s showed a resurgence of interest in sustainability and fair treatment of workers. Today, she says, Millennials are the driving force behind demand for sustainable, conscious fashion.
“[Millennials] seem to be more interested,” Ellinwood said. “[Sustainable fashion] is on the increase because [they] are perpetuating it. This is something we all can do [though] by reusing our clothes or making sure others reuse our clothes… This is in our hands.”
Kelsey Timmerman, 34, is almost a Millennial himself. Primarily, he is a world traveller, journalist, and author of “Where Am I Wearing?,” a book that follows his journey around the world visiting garment factories. And Timmerman, like Ellinwood, believes as far as sustainable fashion goes, things are looking up.
“There is a lot more awareness by consumers and the brands themselves,” Timmerman said. “Engaged consumers can’t mindlessly buy things. We have to consume in a way that provides people with opportunity. I always say, ‘Wear one thing a day that has a story, that you know where it came from.’”
In 2011, Timmerman spontaneously left for Honduras to meet the man who made his T-shirt, which then led to an interest in who made his shoes and his Levi’s jeans and… You get the idea. After multiple eye-opening experiences in Bangladesh, Cambodia and China, Timmerman realized there was more to his tee than the comfortable fit.
In Cambodia, he met the 20-year-old who made his T-shirt, Amilcar. In Bangladesh, he met Arifa, a single mother living on $24 a month who, for financial reasons, sent her oldest son to work in Saudi Arabia. In China, he met a husband and wife who worked 100 hours a week at the factory where his sandals are made; they haven’t seen their son in three years.
Finding the solution to end unfair treatment of workers is a long, complicated, multi-level process, Timmerman said. The change starts with consumers, though.
“We need to look at our purchases and how they provide opportunities to people,” he said. “The problem is extreme lack of opportunity and extreme poverty. We have to ask, ‘Is this an opportunity or is it an exploitation [of workers]?’ It’s awful that these completely opposite things blur because [working] has huge potential to provide people with opportunity.”
Companies like Patagonia, Oliberté and prAna are a few of the brands Timmerman says have traceability and transparency. In other words, they allow customers to see where their products are made, who makes them and how.
But shopping consciously comes at a high price. A Patagonia down jacket runs around $300; yoga pants from prAna hit the $80 range; and men’s loafers from Oliberté are $125.
Conversely, “fast fashion” stores, like Forever21 and H&M, sell blouses for $30, which is almost the same amount as the average Bangladesh factory worker’s monthly salary at $33.39.
“In an ideal world, we should be making quality clothing with sound materials and wearing them for a long time,” Ellinwood said. “…A lot of people think there is more value in manmade sources, [which] contributes to sustainability. When people try to make sustainable fashion, [it’s] going to be at a higher price.”
But Barrow says customers are willing to pay more for sustainable clothing. “They want to make sure the clothes they are buying are coming from a good place,” she said.
Factories that apply for Fair Trade certification are inspected just like any other Fair Trade supported brand. To be recognized as a Fair Trade partner, companies must: offer a fair price for products, invest in community projects, protect the environment, provide premiums, empower workers through training and social projects, give equal pay to women and reduce waste.
“The factories have become a lot more open to fair trade because of the media attention,” Barrow said. “They are feeling the market pull. Brands are realizing this is something they need to do to protect their reputation and satisfy their own customers.”
With Millenials at the forefront of the “market pull,” brands that target younger buyers fare better. The business world is tough, Ellinwood said, but because Millenials are responding positively to the shift towards ethical fashion, it’s a trend that will continue.
In a 2012 study by Harvard and MIT, researchers found that customers indeed prefer Fair Trade labeled garments. Sales increased by 14 percent on a $130 suit advertised as “socially conscious” at Banana Republic outlets.
Now, more than ever, consumers can easily find which companies offer sustainable, Fair Trade products. Websites like GoodGuide rate everything from shampoo to dog food so consumers can make conscious decisions about their purchases based on environmental, social and health factors.
“You as a consumer have a lot of power to change the way fair trade apparel grows,” Barrow said. “It’s important for consumers to shop their value. We all know the [workers’] conditions are bad. It’s really important to support companies that do the right thing.”