Fashion Inc: What your favorite brands don’t tell you about your clothes.

Fashion Month is starting now and marks the beginning of an industry’s busiest season. This year has already been unprecedented for the retail industry, with stores closing at record pace (over 3500 stores expected to close across the US this year). Most retailers and brands are focused on selling us a dream at a very low price — what remains opaque is who is making this dream, how are they treated and what materials are used. 

There is a lack of trust between consumers and brands. It’s just after Labor Day and we already have discounts up to 85% off the fall season! There must be something wrong with a manufacturing and distribution pricing model that leaves room for 85% discounts out of the gate. It’s a point that has been made before: who is bearing the cost for cheap clothing, both from a human and environmental perspective?

When ethical brands mark their clothes at a higher price than the big fashion companies do, people tend to feel duped if they decide to buy one item when they can easily get 4 or 5 items in any fast fashion store. Why would you pay more for something “similar” found at H&M? Today, basic clothing is a disposable item of negligible expense.

Hungry for goods, the fashion consumer generally is not aware that he or she is not only purchasing a garment, but a whole chain of value and relationships. Many of the issues that surround the manufacturing of fashion products are of little concern to the average consumer, because of a lack of knowledge and the industry’s transparency. Fast Fashion companies become attractive to consumers by offering them the opportunity to have more at a lower cost. This Illusion of being “rich”, owning more for a lot less, when in fact you aren’t, is the stigma of our society that exacerbates this issue.

In reality it is harder to know what the right thing to do is when prices are so low and quantity wins over quality. Glossy marketing campaigns sell people the idea that they are becoming the best versions of themselves with these cheaply made products, but are often contributing to making other peoples’ lives worse. In Cambodia, for instance, workers at factories who make products sold by a global fashion brand are required to work 10 to 14 hours a day in sweltering heat, without access to clean drinking water or breaks, contributing to reported “mass fainting episodes”.

”But why should we feel guilty? Aren’t we giving these people jobs?”

If we were to boycott Fast Fashion labels, wouldn’t the workers be out of work?

The answer is not simple, but this is colonization by industry: exploiting workers and their safety, while simultaneously trapping them into a bulk labor economy. The best way to deal with these problems on a large scale are up for debate, but one thing is clear - by purchasing cheaply made goods, you are not “helping” by providing opportunities for exploitative labor.

We continue to feed the system with our addiction to cheap clothes and support by buying into a labor system that is unfair, abusive and exploitative. The billion dollar fashion industry is acting as an imperial force, maintaining its domination over dependent Third World countries. And, like it or not, as a consumer purchasing from these multinational brands, we are directly supporting neocolonialism and Western Imperialism.

We can do better than that. When we aspire to wear a Dior t-shirt that says “We should all be feminist” that sells for $700 and is “imported” from an unknown place, we must think again what feminism means to us. The majority of low-pay, bad condition garment workers are women.

As consumers, what should we do?

First, yes, we all need "stuff" but perhaps we ought to stop thinking of ourselves as consumers first. We can be makers and sharers of things. We can inquire and choose carefully when shopping for clothes. Ask your local retailer about the origin of the garment, just like you would ask your local market of the origin of your vegetables We can buy less, and care for and mend the things we have. Invest! Instead of buying 5 fast fashion shirts, buy one from a local design companies who are transparent about their sourcing. We can buy vintage or thrift. When buying new, we should look for items that are recyclable, avoiding blended fibers, which are difficult to separate for recycling. Favor natural fibers like wool, cashmere, cotton, silk, linen, and hemp over synthetics like polyester and rayon. Research laws. Look at labor and environmental legislation. See what is happening in India and Kenya. We can donate. But be careful with donations as the clothes you give away to your local charity, can end up being traded as three recycled textiles for overseas destination. We can also be fixers! Mending is a good way to engage with clothes. It can help extend the durability of a piece. Most importantly learn to love and cherish your clothes! They are precious. 

Be involved!

Join us on September 14th at NeueHouse for WEAR YOUR VALUES, an event in collaboration with the Human Rights Foundation, Oslo Freedom Forum, Slow Factory, Remake , Risen Division and Design and Flow. If sustainable fashion interests you, come get to know designers, manufacturers, textile producers and brands who’s mission is to create fashion that lasts and that doesn’t harm the planet or its people.

Co-written with Joelle Firzli, an independent fashion researcher and curator with more than nine years of experience in the fashion industry. Joelle has lived and worked between Abidjan, Beirut, London, Paris, Hanoi, NY, and now Washington D.C. She believes fashion can serve as a tool to drive change, to disrupt, and make a more sustainable way of living. She holds a MA in Fashion Studies from Parsons, and is a partner at Design and Flow, fashion curator and writer at JAHNKOY (emerging fashion brand shortlisted for LVMH prize 2017).

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