WORDS BY ANNALISE BENDER-BROWN
ILLUSTRATION BY ASHLEY KATCHADOURIAN
How we choose to clothe ourselves is a deeply personal, deeply political choice. In the modern period, the choice to cover our bodies with textiles is one of those rare nearly universal human experiences. We use clothing to adorn ourselves; to keep us warm or cool us off; to protect ourselves; to indicate our membership in a group; to express our political commitments; and to explore the raw pleasure of the interplay of color, texture, weight, and shape of textiles. Clothing can be at once frivolous and of the utmost importance. For many of us, clothing is a way to communicative creatively and artistically: a site for personal expression and visual exploration. Textiles can produce a deep affective pleasure.
Increasingly, people in the global north are attuning themselves to how their clothing arrives to them. In the post-industrial age, clothing is being produced on an unfathomably rapid and large scale. “Fast fashion” – i.e., the large-scale industrial production of low-priced, generally low-quality garments and accessories by very lowly paid laborers for the profit of corporate entities – is one of the most acute sites of environmental damage and labor oppression today. Fast fashion is a serious offender with regard to environmental damage: Ellen Macarthur, advocate for a “circular economy,” estimates that if current trends with regard to fast fashion’s degree of carbon emissions continue, within 30 years, the fashion industry’s carbon budget will swell to 25% of the global total, rendering it almost as serious a polluter as the oil industry. Fast fashion also perpetrates immense harm to the workers who create our garments, particularly those garment workers in low- and middle-income countries and in countries without robust labor protections. Garment workers face unsafe working conditions, unacceptably low pay, and health harms. Fast fashion has also proliferated synthetic fabrics, and normalized their use and wear. Synthetic fibers (like acrylic, nylon, and polyester, which are human-made) have downstream effects on our water supply, the ocean, human health, and animal health. The process by which synthetic fibers are made yields byproducts that end up in wastewater, and washing synthetic fabrics leaches minuscule fibers, some of which end up back in our water supply, where we ingest them.
All of this is to say that the low cost of fast fashion to the consumer is coming at a price to the lives of others whose suffering is largely abstracted from those of us living in high-income countries – and coming at a price to all of our health.
What does it mean to clothe ourselves ethically, given the way in which we have been acculturated to view clothing as deserving a very low price? How can we explore the pleasures and meaning of how we clothe ourselves without harming ourselves, laborers, and the planet?
There are challenges and inherent paradoxes of obtaining clothing in an ethical way. I love textiles, and love adorning myself in beautiful objects. I also am deeply concerned with doing as little harm as possible to others through my fashion choices. I am privileged to have the means to purchase clothing from producers whose offerings are properly priced, which feels very high for most people in the global north because of the way in which fast fashion has encouraged us to conceive of the value of garments. In high-income countries, fast fashion has acculturated us to believing our clothing should cost very little. Fast fashion has normalized five-dollar garments, while those prices obscure the abhorrent working conditions and unacceptably low wages of the garment workers producing those items.
The “slow fashion” movement has done much to shed light on the true cost of such cheap clothing, both to humans and to the environment. And that is the key: slowness. Slowing down our consumption and taking pleasure in the small joys of the things we already own – repairing them; dying them to give them new life; pairing them with different pieces that are already in our wardrobe; learning how to tailor or alter our clothes to refresh them; and doing clothing swaps with friends to minimize the movement of our garments into landfills are all ways in which we can minimize our impact on the planet through our clothing choices. None of these responses alone is a silver bullet.
But choosing to opt out from the constant churn of purchasing, wearing, and throwing away garments is impactful even on a micro-level for our own health, for the well-being of the planet, and for its residents.