And we’re back!
Ok guys, I know this subject is a buzzkill.
There’s no real happy way to talk about bad things except to get through it and then offer a solution at the end. Like fighting with your roommates, you need to get all the negative stuff out on the table so you both can look at it, take responsibility and make a plan from moving forward. “Yeah, I’ll start buying my own peanut butter and not taking yours. I’m sorry that you felt like I was disrespecting your space when I ate all the peanut butter, that was never my intention, I was just hungry.” Except the peanut butter here is the destruction of our planet, and the solutions are a bit more complex than not stealing your roomie’s PB. But, I promise to give you some small but mighty and more revolutionary strategies to combat this massive issue if you care to stick around until the end.
So let’s get back to that t-shirt I mentioned last time, and start at the beginning.
Most people don’t think about this, but in the case of that simple t-shirt, the cotton needs to be grown and harvested from a plant. For brevity’s sake, lets not talk about how bad farmers have it in our modern world: apart from the low wages paid for workers and the low price paid for their harvest, they also have to work with a product that is literally sprayed with poison because laws and corporations insist they poison us. This is not a accusation, it’s real, and a tiny bit of research will lead to you learn that the USA is responsible for using over 1 billion pounds of pesticides a year (and while research will show it’s been declining since the late 90s, isn’t 1 billion still a lot?) which is over 20% of the global use of pesticides annually. And I can tell you as a seamstress who’s looked to purchased organic goods to use in my work, it’s easier to source Indian or Chinese grown organic cotton than it is American. Why? Laws and regulations that farmers have to use those chemicals that are made exclusively with big fat corporations in mind.
Please, don’t make me tell you how pesticides are bad for our planet. They don’t just kill the ‘pests’ on the plants. They kill everything around them. They kill the squishy earth worms that aerate the soil and are an integral part of the growing process. They kill honey bees. They will eventually kill us- OH WAIT THEY ALREADY HAVE. And it’s really not outrageous to claim that they seep into the ground water and will eventually end up in our drinking water systems.
Darn, I still had to say it. Maybe one day I won’t have to say it.
OK SO. You’ve got your cotton. Now that cotton is shipped, often half a world away, to a factory where it is processed. When I say processed, I mean turned into a textile that can be used. American based textile manufacturers are disappearing because they cannot compete with the low cost of foreign labor and products, so it’s uncommon you’ll find a t-shirt at Walmart at that’s made with American processed cotton. Actually, it’s interesting to note here that the USA is the 3rd largest exporter or cotton in the world but not the biggest manufacturer of it. So, that cotton ends up getting shipped around the world (which is a massive waste of oil) just to be processed in a developing country.
A textile factory in China.
Next, that cotton fabric is dyed. Here’s the crazy one, if you’ve never googled “red river in China” go do it now. I’ll wait. Even better, I’ll stick the picture below. You need to see this. That is not an isolated incident. There is a terrible saying in the fashion industry that’s been around for awhile: “if you want to know next year’s trendy colors, go look at the rivers of China” Why? Because waste water is the biggest by product of textile manufacturing and it simply gets dumped into our water systems because it has no where else to go. And don’t think “Oh, the Chinese just don’t care about the environment” (because that’s not just wrong, it’s also kindof racist) because countries and manufacturers all over the world participate in similar practices.
Why is the waste water so bad for our environment? Well, because we process textiles with chemicals, we clean them with chemicals and we dye them with chemicals. Most of these chemicals are known to be carcinogenic and harmful to the flora and fauna around textile manufacturing hot spots. Not only are the people who work these factories exposed to toxic levels of these chemicals daily, they’re forced to pollute the land around them because their superiors tell them so.
At this point, we have our dyed fabric and it is ready to be sent to another factory (using more oil!) to be cut and sewn into the t-shirt we will ultimately purchase.
This is one of the things I get most passionate about when it comes to sustainability in fashion, or any manufacturing industry for that matter: the people who made your product. I struggle trying to find the correct way to approach this subject because there are so many interconnected issues here. Poverty, healthcare, human rights, feminism… I could go on. So let’s tackle these one by one.
Poverty: in the 2000s big corporations began to move their manufacturing overseas as the working class in China grew as did a domestic demand for cheaper goods. Why overseas? Because in developing countries people are happy to work and to the glee of Western Corporations, they will work for next to nothing. When you don’t have to pay more then $1 in some cases for your t-shirt to be assembled then you can charge a lower price at market. Sure, you can make the argument about the strength of the American dollar and how 1 of ours is maybe a few more of theirs. But in the end, it’s still just $1. You can’t even get a 6 year old to wash the dishes at home for a $1, let alone a grown man work 60 hour work week for $1 an hour. You also can’t expect the lower class to work themselves out of poverty when they’re systematically being kept there. How is a woman supposed to send her children to school in Bangladesh if she makes barely enough to feed them for a week?
Healthcare: We’re pretty touchy about our healthcare in the West. But most of these factories not only pay barely living wages to their workers, they also don’t supply these employees with any of the benefits here in the USA we find commonplace. Maternity leave? Nah, you just don’t get paid. Hurt yourself on the job? Even if it’s your employers negligence you shouldn’t expect any compensation or your job when you heal, for that matter. Which this leads me to the next topic of human rights.
For human rights, I’m going to give you a very famous case study. In April of 2013, an 8 story building housing factories, ground level stores and apartments completely collapsed to the ground with over 3,500 people inside. The Rana Plaza Factory Collapse killed over 1,100 people and injured another 2,500 that were rescued from the rubble. The most unbelievable part? The garment factories on the upper levels demanded their workers come and work despite the employees noticing massive cracks in the walls and ceilings the day before. It’s not hard to believe that with such little regard for the welfare of their workers, the employers threatened to withhold a month of pay from workers who didn’t show up for work the next day.
It gets even more complex: within the Rana Plaza were garment factories producing goods for companies like JC Penny, Primark, Joe Fresh and Benneton. We think the companies we give our money to will be responsible for the people working from them, and that’s just plain ignorance. Corporations love money, and that’s it. Nothing else takes precedence. And even though these companies seem dissimilar at first in their branding, target customers and product, they all have one thing in common: the desire to make the most money off the cheapest goods.
The Rana Plaza collapse is a biggie, so I’m going to quickly address my last point. If you consider yourself a feminist, (hell, if you consider yourself a decent person who believes people should have a pathway out of poverty) you consider all women. Of all races. Of all nationalities. This includes the woman who goes to work at a dilapidated factory in a India and has to fear her manager’s sexual assault because no one cares about her abuse. This includes the woman who walks countless miles to and from work in order to make mere pennies an hour. People are people, even if you can’t see them and they live half a world away. Don’t be advocating for a better quality of life for all humans and then casually forget the 1.3 billion people who live in China. Or the 163 million in Bangladesh. Just don’t.
Nothing outrages me more than people who support causes but don’t know the whole story: so many fast fashion companies have hopped on the Feminist AF bandwagon since the 2016 election and very few of these companies responsibly produce their products. Sure, you look cute wearing that t-shirt, but by giving the company your dollar just perpetuates a system that oppresses women (who make up 3/4 of its workforce) and doesn’t give a shit about your political or social views. Again, the only thing they care about is money. I apologize for my language, but like I said, I get outraged. https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/3k8bav/was…
Finally, I want you for a moment to think about how many H&M stores there are in this country alone. There are 536, I looked it up for you. So now, if each H&M store has, let’s keep it conservative, 100 different products at any given time a single store. Then there are probably about 10 pieces of each 100 different products which a bit of math leads us to believe there are at least 1000 pieces of clothing in each H&M.
So 536,000 items of clothing have been produced solely to sell at H&M stores in the USA. You tell me if you think that number is a tad bit ridiculous. Think they’ll actually sell all half a million items?
OK. You made it! It’s the end!
I know, I know. That was way depressing. I warned you! Are you over hearing me rant and rave about this? I bet you are!
So, now what? Feel a little uncomfortable about how many items of clothing are in your closet? Gosh, I hope you do. Admittedly, I set out to make you feel a bit uncomfortable and I’m sorry (not sorry) if I was successful. But sometimes the reality isn’t all peaches and cream, cute kittens and well paid employees.
If you come back for my next post on Monday, I’m going to offer a few ways you can make a difference, including my favorite: learning to sew. But I also outline simple, everyday actions you can take that are on the opposite side of the spectrum of “burn everything in your closet and only wear locally farmed hemp loincloths!”
To be clear, I do not advocate burning everything in your closet and solely wearing loincloths.
See you next Monday!