If there is something we have learned this past year, it’s that just because we have “good intentions,” that doesn’t mean our actions don’t cause harm, and that we don’t have to own up to the damage that they sometimes cause.
I will stop here and say that this article will be frank post on my thoughts as someone who works in ethical fashion (and is a consumer as well) on why ethical fashion isn’t mainstream. This post will cover moralizing topics but will hopefully bring a fresh perspective. So if that’s not something you are in the mood for today, you can come back and read this later.
If you are genuinely curious as to why fashion isn’t always ethical, please keep on reading! I am so appreciative that you are here.
So really, why isn’t ethical fashion a bigger deal?! It feels like NO ONE TALKS ABOUT IT. No, seriously-- I spent six months in college trying to figure out how people discuss ethical consumption, and my most significant finding was that people don’t. I interviewed managers and owners of fair trade businesses. Yes, they discussed fair trade with people who came into their stores, proudly telling customers the artisans + history that beautiful ceramic pot. But upon clocking out for the day, that was it. The topic probably wouldn’t come up again until they were back at work the following day.
For the most part, people didn’t talk about ethical fashion with their friends and family. And, y’all, they had a really understandable reason for not discussing it. Talking about fast fashion can bring up a lot of guilt. Most people are aware that clothes aren’t made in safe conditions, but we still purchase from those fast fashion brands anyways because it can be challenging to buy everything in an “ethical” way (trust me, I have tried).
But here is the thing, If we don’t talk about it, nothing will get better.
And the way fast fashion is made is straight-up wrong. Many of the brands you love don’t even know where who made their clothes. Through subcontracting, big brands remain blissfully unaware about which factories make their clothes. The rules and regulations stated on their “social responsibility statement” are hard to enforce. The race to the bottom, or the search for the cheapest production costs, leads factories to compete to have the lowest wages and creates unsafe working conditions. Y’all, when your only choice is to work in a factory with a below-living wage or no have a job at all, it doesn’t matter what kind of factory you work in. We can refer to this as “exploitative labor” at best, but if we are really honest, this is colonization and slave labor.
The thing is -- this is most frequently happening in communities that we don’t see. So we often have the luxury of simply not paying attention. Once we know better, though, we are responsible for doing better because we play a massive part in this narrative. Every single time we make a purchase, we are telling decision-makers what kind of world we want. Do we purchase a $5 dress on sale from an outlet mall just because it is super cheap? That will only get worn a few times - twice, maybe five times? Or do we purchase a $60 dress from a sustainable brand? One that works with women who earn a thriving wage that you will wear all the darn time because you actually LOVE it and value it!
Our actions literally give money to the people and the companies that will survive. Why not spend our money on things we will cherish and give our money to people who will build better systems. There are so many innovating fashion companies and are making sure that the people who make our clothes are not being exploited but instead are earning a living wage and are actually being respected. Whether we realize it or not, our actions have really big consequences. And I think it is time we start talking about it.
I know this can be an uncomfortable topic to talk about. And if you don’t have the money to invest in sustainable options, there should be no guilt in buying the clothes that you need. A huge point of this is slowing down and being more thoughtful about what we actually need and actually just talking about this issue with our friends and family to bring awareness. No one wants to think about when we buy a pair of jeans, we are supporting slave labor worldwide, but it won’t change if we don’t talk about it.
By now, you may be wondering - what is next? How do I support sustainable brands? How do I talk to my friends and family about this? How do I advocate for a world where all the makers are safe, valued, and respected? There is a lot to do next, and that is okay. For now, take a breath, take all in, and commit to learning more (whether that be from our other blogs on this topic or other members of the Fair Trade Federation!).