Boycotts Don’t Work & Neither does Ethical Shopping

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So, you saw the True Cost. What do you do now? Throw out everything in your closet and start over? Not so fast. Vow to never shop H&M, Zara, or The Gap again? Tempting, but what will that actually accomplish? How will it affect the lives of the women who make our clothes in Bangladesh, Cambodia and India? What will it do to relieve water pollution in those countries?

That’s the hard part about seeing movies like this and reading articles about the TRUE cost of fashion. What to do afterwards? If you’re sensitive to the issues, and truly want to make a difference, then HOW?

I don’t have an easy answer, although I don’t think that a lot of the advice given to  “get rid of it, start over with eco-friendlier fashion, and never buy from -enter offending company here- again” is the best way to go about affecting change.  That’s too easy to say: “Done, and done.” We’d go on about our lives buying from companies like Patagonia, Stella McCartney, companies we think are ethical and sustainable, but both of which have had terrible issues lately with their wool supply chain, or we buy from brands that produce “made in the US,” locally made items from Etsy, or consume fabrics such as organic cotton, hemp or bamboo, all the while believing that we are changing something. Anything. We are the good guys.

But it’s never that simple. Nothing’s ever that simple.

There’s nothing specifically wrong with not wanting YOUR money to support companies who either are now, or have been involved in environmental pollution or questionable labor practices, but at the end of the day, it’s nearly impossible to tell who the offenders are just from reading a “made in” label, or refusing to set foot in a store.

Back in the 80’s and 90’s when we were boycotting Nike and Kmart, things were different. It was a wake-up call to brands to do better about regulating their supply chains and labor practices. And in large part, it worked. But

the way our clothes are made and distributed and thrown away is barely recognizable compared to the way it was done in the ’90s. And yet our playbook for improving it remains exactly the same. (The Myth of the Ethical Shopper)

We can’t simply say now that we won’t buy from X store, or Y brand and reasonably think that we’re doing anything at all to affect change. In fact, the author of the article argues even further that we (the developed world) aren’t even the most important players in the apparel market anymore, it’s the manufacturers that are producing and SELLING in the developing world with the influence: India produces twice as much clothing for its own consumers as it does for the western world and 56% of clothing produced in china is for the Chinese market. Also, rich countries’ share of consumption is expected to fall from 64 to 30% in the next 15 years.

So our efforts here in the US to influence supply chains and subcontractors in India by refusing to buy from H&M will have little if any affect at all. This is “why child labor persists” – factories in developing countries that manufacture for export need to look like they’re complying with social standards, for domestic markets, they don’t.

What WILL  make a difference? How can we help change the direction of the apparel industry towards the better? If we believe that it all started with over-consumption to cheap, disposable fashion, then doesn’t it follow that we might be able to change it back by consuming less? Or consuming better?

I like to think that.  I also like to think that choosing to buy fewer things, things that are made of more sustainable fabrics, will do something to encourage MORE focus on the production of those types of goods over the production of other, less sustainable ones. I am realistic though, and understand that it will take time, and the change will be small.

But then again:

You can’t choose three or four products where you’d like to avoid complicity in forced labor and low pay, and just decide not to worry about everything else. Your coffee might be fair trade, but what about the machine you’re brewing it in? Check the bottom, dude; I’ll bet five bucks it was made in China. Your car was welded together in Mexico, from iron ore mined in Brazil, smelted in Paraguay. The acetaminophen you take for a headache was produced by a company that keeps poor countries from producing generic medicines for its own people. (So you Say you’re an Ethical Shopper)

Of course he’s right.

It’s a pretty dim view. And at this point, we could throw up our hands and say “we give up! we can’t do anything right!” But that’s not true either.

Could we move away from consuming new altogether? Is buying secondhand a better idea? Probably. I suppose it’s possible to buy 100% secondhand if you’re up for it; appliances, furniture, clothing, shoes, cars, etc. Many people do this already, and not because they want to.

But if we choose to buy secondhand as an activist alternative to buying new, is it not also “opting out?” Along with purchasing ONLY fair trade, or ONLY organic, you’re turning a blind eye to the problem:

This is what you’re doing when you buy a fair trade t-shirt or an organic avocado: Concentrating your attention on the tiny corner of the global economy that is not shrouded to you. Instead of raising the floor, you’re raising the ceiling. Fair trade allows us to go around bad institutions and let the worst sweatshops remain, rather than take responsibility for the myriad ways in which we reward them. (So you Say you’re an Ethical Shopper)

The author argues in a follow-up that the answer is instead of boycotting, or trying to be an “ethical shopper” (which he doesn’t believe is possible):

Give money to a NGO that helps register unions in the developing world. Sign a petition. Write your senator.

Our primary leverage over the developing world comes in the form of market access (bilateral trade agreements, TPP, the World Trade Organization) and financial instruments (the World Bank, the IMF, export credit). Companies lobby to protect their interests in these negotiations, and it’s about time we started doing it too. (emphasis mine!)

And of course in a rebuttal, the author of another article, Ethical Shoppers – We’re not a Myth, argues that yes, that’s great, but we CAN also influence supply chains (albeit small ones) by choosing to buy better, to buy organic cotton and other sustainable fabrics:

…shoppers and the supply chains from which we purchase have a responsibility to be engaged in the process of change alongside government. It is currently many of those brands and supply chains and the shoppers who support them who are leading this change. Let’s grow this movement. With every purchase, you are voting with your wallet. You, the shopper, do have power. You are not a myth.

I agree with this as well, and I fully support companies like Zady, which is completely transparent about everything they produce within their private label brand, from where the fiber is grown/raised all the way to where it is sewn.  Eileen Fisher is also very good at this, and Everlane could be better at disclosing where their fabric comes from, but at least is transparent with regard to their factories.

But again, it’s too easy to think we can simply “shop” away a problem that shopping started. It’s better than nothing, though, I think, and works well together with writing your senators, and signing petitions.

Shopping better (less) + familiarizing yourself with issues surrounding apparel manufacturing + becoming a more active participant = a positive change overall.

Personally, I will continue to try and buy less, only buying or replacing things that need replacing with sustainable alternatives (organic cotton, sustainable fabrics, local manufacturing, transparent supply chains…) or secondhand as much as possible.  But now, I’ll begin to add in writing to my politicians and learning more about NGOs and organizations that are actually doing the work on the ground to advance the issues I care about.

Of course, it’s up to you what you do at this point, I’m not making any prescriptions.  I think we can each start by changing our habits just a little, and grow into bigger change from there.  Something, anything, is better than nothing, I still believe.

What do you think?

(I also highly recommend taking a look at Michael Hobbes’ blog for more of his ideas/opinions on the realities of apparel manufacturing)

What to do After The True Cost | Part 1: Don’t Throw That Out!

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So, you watched the True Cost fashion documentary (also available on Netflix!)*. Now what? You’re probably disheartened and quite a bit disgusted by the inside look at the lives and working conditions of the people who make our clothes and you either want to immediately get rid of all the things in your closet that may have been made under questionable ethical circumstances or never shop fast fashion again.

But hold on a minute.

I understand the impulse to purge and start anew, fresh, with a more sustainable mindset, but is tossing things you wear (and maybe love?) only to replace them REALLY sustainable or eco-friendly? No. No. No.

It’s wasteful. And the truth is, you can make your closet more conscious and your wardrobe more sustainable without spending much money, or getting rid of everything.  You can have a conscious closet by simply continuing to wear what you have, keeping only what you love, and taking care of your clothes.

If you have items in your closet that you love and wear, that might have been produced in Bangladesh, or Cambodia, keep wearing them!  You may be conflicted about that, I get it, but you already own them; take care of them, and make them last as long as you can.   Enjoy and wear those items and you will be honoring the women who made them.

When we just toss things aside that may not fit our lifestyle or evolving ethics, throwing them away, or blindly donating them, we devalue the work the (mostly) women put into creating those garments. And above all, don’t we want to honor their sacrifices? They need to work to support their families, their children, and often this is better work for them than the other options in their communities. They work hard so we can clothe ourselves, don’t they deserve the respect and honor of our actually wearing and taking care of the clothes they make?

I think so. It is the ultimate insult to buy something at H&M or Forever21 and wear it once, tossing it away as soon as it no longer suits us. I don’t want to tell the woman who lost her legs in a building collapse in Bangladesh that I bought something she made because it was cheap, but I never wore it, so I threw it in the garbage…

For items you just can’t enjoy anymore, and that are still in wearable shape, I recommend giving  those pieces to family or friends, who you know will appreciate and WEAR them. I always do that first, but if you’ve exhausted that, and still want to get rid of things, maybe choose to donate directly to a women’s shelter? or if they’re work clothes, Dress for Success? Have a garage sale, even, that way you can see who will be wearing and appreciating your clothes.

When it comes to donating, as you may have seen in the True Cost, even though clothing is donated, not all of it actually goes to the people you think it does, or even stays in your community. Indeed, most of the donated clothing gets exported and has a negative impact on local economies.  And  a lot of it ends up in landfills anyway, it just uses up even more energy and creates more environmental waste getting there than it would have if you had just thrown it away in the first place.

But contrary to popular belief, not all “fast fashion” or items you might find at Zara, H&M or Forever21 has to be “disposable.”  A lot of it is made of cheap materials, and in a haphazard way, and will literally start to fall apart after a few washes/wears, but many pieces are cotton, and more substantial, and will last quite a long time if cared for correctly (washing in cold water and hanging to dry is always a good way to extend the life of your clothes, as is not washing something every time you wear it).

Perhaps you no longer want to consume fast fashion after watching the True Cost, but if your goal is to have a more conscious closet, then I would just encourage you to first, start with using and appreciating what you have.  Use what you have, enjoy it, wear it, appreciate it and then when you can no longer enjoy it, thank it (a la Marie Kondo!) and let it go on its way.  When you do have to replace something, use that as an opportunity to do better.

But more on that in part 2:  Is boycotting fast fashion really the answer??

What are your thoughts? Have you seen the True Cost? What did you decide to do afterwards? How has it changed your consumption habits?

*if you haven’t seen The True Cost yet, I highly recommend it.  Please see my review on Grechen’s Closet for a pretty comprehensive look at the issues it raised!

**and after this, if you’re interested in getting your closet more conscious, but don’t know where to start, perhaps I can help? Just contact me for a free initial consultation!

 

The True Cost : Who Pays the Price for our Clothing?

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(purchase The True Cost )

I have watched The True Cost a couple of times since it launched on 5/29, and it doesn’t get any easier. The truth is, that most of us are so out of touch with the (primarily) women who make our clothes. We are insulated, and haven’t taken the time to learn the truth about why exactly t-shirts cost $4.99 at H&M and shoes $19.99 at Forever21, at least until we are hit with the news that a factory in Bangladesh collapsed killing more than 1,000 people. But even then, we forget soon enough.

The True Cost is a fashion documentary that tries to expose and educate us on the REAL cost of our clothing; the human and ecological costs are just as important as how much we pay at the register. It doesn’t have all the answers, and left me with many questions, but it’s a good start, and an important film for anyone who cares both about clothes, and about the world we live in.

Read more of my thoughts and review on Grechen’s Closet. Have you seen it? What did you think?

A more Sustainable Closet

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Consumption is a double-edged sword: we as consumers have the power to influence and shape the fashion industry by speaking with our dollars, by choosing NOT to buy fast fashion, or from companies who are not transparent, but on the flip side, consumption will not change everything. Buying the newest eco-friendly product on the market is not the only way to influence environmental sustainability, and in fact, it may not even be the BEST way.

As is often the case, small changes lead to bigger ones, and ultimately, we can only change ourselves. We can make a commitment to being more conscious and sustainable in our own closets, right now, regardless of what the industry as a whole does, and that small step, if enough of us do it, can add up to real progress. And it doesn’t have to cost a thing.

The key to sustainability in my opinion, is managing waste; creating and using things in a less impactful, less wasteful way. Yes, I love Zady’s new organic cotton tee, and Everlane’s supply-chain transparency as much as the next girl, but the truth is, you can make your closet more sustainable without spending ANY money at all, starting right now, by just wearing what you have, and from this moment forward, making sure your closet is full of things you actually WEAR and LOVE.

Please visit the original post at Grechen’s Closet for more!