November 25, 2020

Leading up to Black Friday/Cyber Monday I am having a lot of feelings about the state of the planet including the rampant overconsumption, the use of manipulative advertising and sales, as well as my genuine need to replace some things in my closet and around my house. Ultimately we all need to make our decision to participate or not on our own but hopefully we can lean into (or out of) this shopping “holiday” with consciousness.

For example: I know that investing in a new pair of boots to replace the 2 pairs that I have been wearing daily despite their broken zippers and lack of ankle support would be a good investment for me. I will likely buy these from a brand whose values I share, if I buy them at all (“Hello my name is Larissa and I am a reluctant shopper”). There are also a few light fixtures around my house that need replacing and if I find something that I know that I will want to look at for years to come, I may just go ahead and make that purchase.

I will not be purchasing anything on a whim, without thinking about how it will fit into my lifestyle, because that is how we’ve gotten into this mess of overconsumption in the first place.

I’m not saying that being a minimalist is the only way to be ethical/sustainable, it’s not. But a big part of that movement is being conscious and careful about what we buy, which is also the easiest and best way to support brands we love and still be able to fill our lives with things we love.

What is overconsumption and how does that tie in with Ethical/Sustainable fashion?

Definition: the state or an instance of consuming too much.

A small history lesson is necessary real quick:

  • In the 1960’s people purchased fewer clothes, about 25 new garments per person per year. Clothes were expensive and made to be worn for a very long time. Did I mention that they were also made in the US? They were.
  • Imagine yourself a young person in the 1960’s with few, high quality, highly wearable, versatile pieces of clothing that you love in your closet. Sounds familiar yeah? #minimalist #mariekondo #capsulewardrobe.

Fast forward to the early 2010’s

  • Americans have so much clothing, about 70 new garments per person per year (more than 1 per week). Clothes are cheap and made to be worn for a short period of time. Also almost none of the clothes we wear, and even see other people wearing, were made in the US.
  • Imagine yourself back in the early 2010’s: closets stuffed to the brim with Forever 21, Zara, Wet Seal, Charlotte Russe. Our consumption is off the charts.

This graph shows a few things:

  1. The percent of clothes produced in the US decreased 93% in 50 years.
  2. The percent of household income spent on clothing decreased 6.9% in those same 50 years.
  3. The average number of garments purchased per person per year increased by 45 garments over the same 50 years.

In a nutshell:

In the 1960’s people bought fewer clothes (25 garments per person per year), most of them were produced in the United States (95%), and they spent a lot of money on them (10.4% of household income).

Today people buy lots of clothes (70 garments per person per year), almost none of them are produced in the United states (2%), and we spend very little money on them (3.5% of household income)

So what happened?

  • 1970’s China and other ‘developing’ countries began building large textile mills and factories where labor and raw materials were very cheap compared to the US.
  • 1980’s some big retail stores began to send production overseas to reap the benefits of this increasingly cheap labor; sending different parts of the production process to different places depending on who could do it for the best price (hello carbon footprint).
  • 1990’s NAFTA and other trade liberalization policies wiped out most of the import restrictions and duties on foriegn made clothing which allowed American retailers to look elsewhere for all of their manufacturing needs.
  • Between 1990 and 2011, 750,000 apparel manufacturing jobs in the U.S. disappeared. The remaining 150,000 garment workers make about 38 times the wage of his or her counterpart in Bangladesh.

Okay history lesson over.

So how does this relate to Ethical/Sustainable fashion?

Overconsumption has led to unethical/unsafe workplace practices.There is a constant push for faster and cheaper clothing which leads to more and more dangerous situations for those who work in textile factories. The demand for fast fashion is driving the overactive supply chain which causes factory owners to push unreasonable quotas on factory workers as well as put them under constraints (sometimes metaphorical but sometimes literal like locking factory doors). These constraints sometimes push people to choose between their livelihoods and their lives or families. We have not forgotten Rana Plaza where 1500 people died that were just trying to go to work. You may say that they can find another job but often that is not the case. Cities where garment production occurs are often flooded with people from rural communities seeking employment and opportunity so finding new employment may not be feasible.

Overconsumption has led to unsustainable/unethical environmental practices. The push for more and more and cheaper and cheaper clothing is putting stress on the environment and the people who live near cotton farms and dye houses. Garment production is second only to oil production in the amount of pollution produced. There is pesticide run off when farming conventional (non-organic) cotton that gets into waterways and leads to the overgrowth of algae and bacteria which can choke out the fish and other wildlife that previously thrived there (eutrophication for all you biologist out there) which can cut off food and water sources for those who work or live near non-organic cotton farms. From dye houses, where fabric is dyed using conventional (non-organic) methods there is often the improper disposal of (likely toxic) chemicals that are used to dye fibers that are then spun into fabrics to make clothing. It is said that you can tell what the “color of the year” is by looking at certain rivers in China. These waterways, as most waterways, were once full of life and food for local residents.

Overconsumption really boils down to the fact that we are buying too much stuff and throwing away too much stuff. I know that as someone who promotes the sale of clothes this isn’t really what you’d expect to hear from me, but it’s what you keep hearing people say because it’s true. Use what you have! There is no need to get rid of your Forever 21 dresses just because they weren't made ethically. You already have them. Keep them. Wear them. Get as much use out of them as you can and when you don’t want them anymore give them to a friend, donate them, make them into something else, or recycle them. And the next time you buy something, do the research, buy ethically/sustainably, find something that you will wear forever because it’s beautiful, durable, and suits your taste. It will probably be more expensive but it will also be higher quality and you will feel good in it.

And coming up on Black Friday/Cyber Monday this is more important than ever. We are at a pivotal point in the climate crisis and yes(!) clothing and home goods are a part of that. Every decision that we make, this week and every week, matters.

Ultimately, vote with your dollar. Every dollar that you spend is a vote for the kind of world that you want to live in. Make it count.

  • Elizabeth Cline “The Shockingly High Cost of Fast Fashion”