Why Shopping Doesn't Solve Problems In The Fashion Industry

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When I first heard about waste and slave labor in the fashion industry, I wanted to buy better clothes.

I started this blog to chronicle my journey from shopping at stores like Forever 21 to shopping at places that sell fair trade organic shirts or jeans made from recycled plastic.

I wanted to find ethical and sustainable options, so I could help other shoppers buy better and make a difference in the world, too.

That’s the story we’ve been told, right?

If you want to change the fashion industry, it’s up to you to change the way you shop. Use your purchasing power. Buy less. Check labels. Ask brands how their clothes are made.

When I started blogging, I signed an online petition with a whole list of rules about things I would and wouldn’t do when I went shopping.

But even though the decisions we make at the cash register are important, they aren’t likely to be what ultimately changes the fashion industry’s biggest problems.

Organic cotton is on many lists of ethical fabrics consumers should buy.
Organic cotton is on many lists of ethical fabrics consumers should buy.

The fashion industry is broken

When Shannon Whitehead Lohr co-founded the sustainable clothing company {r}evolution apparel on Kickstarter in 2010, she was a self-described “purist.”

In her travels around the world, she saw the waste of the Western consumer firsthand, and she wanted to do something about it.

So she co-founded {r}evolution apparel to change the way the fashion industry worked from the inside out.

The entire supply chain would be made in the US. The fabric would come from recycled cotton and plastic bottles.

But when she started making her vision a reality and set up her supply chain, she ran into closed doors. To make her business happen at all, she had to make compromises.

“We had to make changes to get off the ground, so we tried to make it as sustainable as possible,” Lohr said.

The hard part about the fashion industry today is that the system is broken.

Our clothes are made through middlemen—suppliers working with contractors and sub-contractors and sub-sub-contractors and so-on. Some of these contractors abuse environmental and labor laws and some don’t. But it’s difficult telling which ones are which because the system is not transparent. It's confusing and outsourced to the degree that even the brands themselves don’t always know where or how their clothes are made.

According to a Behind The Barcode report covering 87 companies representing more than 300 brands, less than half publicly state which countries they source from, and less than a fifth of brands know where all of their zippers, buttons, thread and fabric come from.

So when companies like Lohr’s have good intentions, they have to compromise. They can’t trace product lines all the way through production, and while they can control some decisions, other things—a zipper here, a fabric there—are out of their control. Without transparency, they can’t always choose the best options. So Lohr decided to do something about it.

She transitioned away from selling her own clothing and started a new company called Factory45 that acts a resource to help ethical brands like hers get off the ground and produce clothing as sustainably as possible in the current system.

In a five-module online course, she works with designer entrepreneurs to get their ventures going and implement more sustainable practices as they grow. And she gives them all one warning.

“Time and time again, I have to tell them, there’s no such thing as ‘perfectly sustainable’—yet,” Lohr said.

But she and other fashion industry professionals are working to change that, too.

Instead of relying on consumers to ‘do the right thing,’ fashion industry activists are taking the conversation about ethics a notch higher in the value chain and putting the responsibility on brands to remove bad options from the shelves in the first place.

Putting the pressure on brands

Among any group of people, there are bound to be two types: Those who want to buy better and change problems in the fashion industry, and those who aren’t interested. Either they don’t know the extent of the problems, or they don’t want to deal with them.

After all, ethical shopping is less convenient than not worrying about how your clothes are made. It costs more money and requires more time, and some consumers are simply aren’t going to do it unless they don’t have any other options.

So instead of relying on consumers to “do the right thing,” fashion industry activists are taking the conversation about ethics a notch higher in the value chain and putting the responsibility on brands to remove bad options from the shelves in the first place.

They’re pressuring brands to take responsibility for what they produce, and encouraging consumers to pressure brands, too.

The Fashion Revolution movement started in the UK in 2013 to help consumers join the effort. It runs Fashion Revolution Week every year in April to raise awareness about the need for transparency in the fashion industry. Last year, it asked consumers to tweet pictures of their outfits’ tags with the hashtag #whomademyclothes in a global effort to help brands see the importance of tracing their product lines.

“It’s impossible for companies to make sure human rights are respected and that the environment isn’t being destroyed without knowing where their products are made. That’s why transparency is essential,” the Fashion Revolution website said.

The idea is that if we know where and how our clothes are being made, then we can hold brands accountable for their practices and encourage them to make improvements.

“We need to know that our questions, our voices and our shopping habits can have the power to help change things for the better,” the website said.

But what’s interesting is that’s where the conversation seems to stop.

If we want to eradicate harmful practices from the fashion industry, we need to take the conversation a step farther—from the brands to the government.

We’re told to buy better and hold brands accountable, and while this certainly helps ethical clothing companies purify their product lines, it doesn’t directly change the harsh realities of slave labor in foreign countries or force all brands to exclusively support better practices.

As long as cheaper, more efficient methods of production are still legal, some brands will still choose them—just like some consumers still buy the most convenient stuff.

If we want to eradicate harmful practices from the fashion industry, we need to take the conversation a step farther—from the brands to the government.

We need to go after the law.

Let’s get political

Michael Hobbes is a humanitarian in Berlin who spent the last 12 years working on the front lines of various multinational human rights corporations.

He’s focused on helping companies in the apparel and extracting industries improve working conditions and eliminate sweatshops. He’s seen firsthand how devastating the global fashion industry has become. And he’s seen how buying ethical clothing isn’t changing some of the worst conditions.

It’s hardened him to the purpose of ethical shopping all together.

He compares trying to change the fashion industry by shopping ethically to trying to change the food industry by shopping at Whole Foods.

It’s something you can do, and it might help you feel better. But it’s not directly fixing the pervasive problem.

When Hobbes shares his opinions with people, they get upset.

His friends buy fair trade. Even some of his colleagues think ethical fashion has its place in raising awareness and doing what you can with what you have.

But Hobbes considers it a distraction from the larger issues at hand—issues that require solutions that are less flashy and more complex than buying a pair of fair trade flip-flops.

“All of time you spend buying ethically is time you’re not spending politically engaged,” Hobbes said. “If you want to end something, it has to be political. It has to be something that we, as a society, aren’t going to tolerate anymore.”

He compares attempts to abolish abuses in the fashion industry to the Quakers’ attempts to abolish slavery in the 1700s.

They didn’t do it by buying “slave-free” cotton. They did it by making slavery illegal because anything less would still allow the abuse to persist—and even thrive.

“Think about what a gift that would have been to slave owners,” Hobbes writes. “All they had to do was rope off a section of their plantation, hire workers, then charge extra for ‘slave-free’ cotton. It would have been perfect: They make more money, get the Quakers off their back and, the best part, get to keep their slaves. This is how we’ve spent the past 25 years: Instead of advocating to end the conditions that offend us, we’ve done exactly the thing that allows them to proliferate.”

As consumers, the story we tell ourselves about how we can impact the fashion industry has to change.

As long as environmental and labor laws don’t outlaw the worst practices, factories can manipulate the system by simply putting curtains between the ethical side of the company and the unethical side. It allows them to keep their bad practices and still sell “ethically made” goods to brands that are trying to make a difference in the world.

While few of us actually want to ignore these problems and let waste and evil practices persist, as long as we aren’t taking political action, it’s happening.

So what can we do?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to criticize ethical fashion or the people and organizations trying to do good in the world by encouraging us to buy it.

The fact is, we need more ethical clothing brands like the ones Lohr is creating at Factory45. Reducing our ecological footprint is going to require all of us to change the way we shop—whether it’s something we choose, or something that’s forced on us by brands or the government. The amount of waste and abuse in the fashion industry right now is simply unsustainable, and luckily, there are smart, proactive designers doing what they can to make the best of a broken system.

But as consumers, the story we tell ourselves about how we can impact the fashion industry has to change. Shopping better and stopping there can’t be considered a solution anymore, and transparency is necessary, but it only takes us so far.

It might allow us to increase awareness and support some ethical practices. But we won’t solve the international crisis starring us in the face until we have a serious, global political movement.

When I asked Hobbes how we can start a movement, he said it’s going to take slow, incremental changes just like changing working conditions in Europe or America. But it has to start somewhere.

So he suggested something simple. Something unassuming and nearly cost-free. Something that would make my high school history teacher proud:

Write your senator, and send the message to politicians that this is something we care about.