When I was first introduced to the term “sustainable fashion” several years ago, it didn’t really resonate. I had my favorite brands, cared deeply about my own personal style, and wasn’t about to be swayed by some tree-hugging, eco-friendly talk. After all, I recycled all the boxes and plastic from online orders I received — so I figured I was doing my part. I was also proud of the fact that even if I only wore a piece of clothing a couple times (or maybe never) that I’d donate it and it would go to someone in need.
As I got a little more curious about sustainable fashion however, I researched and started looking for brands that met my style expectations. I didn’t find much. I found outdoor clothing like Patagonia and a few yoga clothing brands, which was before “athleisure” was in and wasn’t exactly what I was looking to wear day-to-day. I was a bit stumped about what sustainable fashion meant for me and why I should care about it when the options were so limited.
What I’ve since realized though, is that sustainable fashion is so much more than simply buying something made from natural fibers or that has been labeled organic.
It’s about treating the people who make our clothing as actual people and about reducing and eliminating the vastly negative impact the fashion industry has on our environment — an impact we as consumers get to choose every time we make a purchase.
To better understand the importance of sustainable fashion, let’s review the history of fashion in the US…
Ready-to-wear (or off-the-rack) clothing was introduced in the US at the beginning of the 20th Century, but up until the 1950’s and 60’s many women made their own clothing. Apparel that was purchased as ready-to-wear was made to last and expected to be worn over and over. These pieces were adjusted, hemmed, repaired, and worn many times by the owner of the clothing.
Mass produced clothing became popular in the 60’s and has since escalated to what we now call “fast fashion” — over-consumption of clothing resulting in reduced quality in fabrics as well as in how the clothing is actually made.
Garment workers’ rights (or lack of rights) is not a new issue, although surprisingly many people are still not aware that this is a major problem. We’ve been trained as Americans to shop for deals and buy things on sale, and studies show that when we shop we feel pleasure. So stepping back from a bargain because someone may have not been paid fairly in the making of that product is new to most of us.
Many of the rights and regulations we have in the US today are due to the lack of rules and labor rights that existed in the early 1900’s. On March 25, 1911, for example, a fire erupted in Manhattan’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory resulting in 145 workers dying, some of the women as young as 14 years old. These women were locked in the factory, unable to flee the fire, because the owners didn’t want them to be able to leave to take breaks.
Despite the regulations in effect now, 80% of garment workers in the US are women, and many are still working in unsafe, inhumane conditions.
In traditional factories, garment workers are paid per piece instead of an hourly or salaried wage. This is not considered illegal in the US as long as the per piece price ends up equating to at least minimum wage per hour.
The US Department of Labor, amongst others, have published reports documenting that garment factories in LA have an 85% rate of violation of federal wage and hour laws. And yes, there are repeat offenders — certain popular brands who consistently break these laws.
The current state of the fashion industry is indeed daunting and extremely challenging. However, I choose to stay optimistic because of the women I meet everyday and the community I see forming in the fashion industry — those of us who have realized we can change the industry, produce quality products, and build businesses that also give back to our communities.
It’s not easy work, but with education and persistence, we can build a new fashion industry that reduces its impact on the environment, recycles existing materials, and treats people fairly. We get to take this opportunity to say that models don’t need to be a size extra small, sizing doesn’t have to fit the way it always has, and, at the same time, we can embrace diversity and deliver killer products that don’t harm the environment or the people who make them.
If you’re new to this conversation and wondering how to get started, ask the brands who you shop from how they make their clothes, who their suppliers are, and how they know their garment workers are being paid fair wages. You can also start by buying less, wearing what you have longer, and buying quality items from brands you know you can trust.
Amanda Singh is the founder of sustainable fashion brand, Jean Franklin.
Photos by: Michelle Terris.