Here's the thing - I am a sucker for a bargain. Kmart's pricing for pretty cool stuff is pretty hard to resist. But as I said in my New Year's Resolution blog a couple of weeks ago, I'm making a real effort this year to take a "no harm" approach to my consumer choices, and to roll this ethical shopping vibe we're on here with starting up Wanderlust People (wondering about the story behind that? We've got a blog post on that too!) into the rest of my life in a more thorough way.
It sounds hard, and sometimes it is, because our consumer world is so shaped around encouraging us to buy more and buy quickly - without considering the repercussions on the world and people around us. But what I'm learning along this journey is that so much of my consumer behaviours come down to habit - and changing those habits is really the hardest thing. When it comes down to it, sourcing alternatives and finding information is actually pretty easy these days, thanks to the wonders of the internet and the hard work of lots of great organisations and people working in this space. One of those people is writer and blogger Annie Zhu - and I love what she's got to say on the decision to go ethical and the reasons she bothers. Because that's what making a change is all about in the end: taking the time to think about the consequences of your actions, and what alternatives you are choosing between.
By Annie Zhu
Like most people, I had an inkling that most of the clothes in my closet probably came from sweatshops, but it wasn’t something I thought much about, mainly because it wasn’t something I wanted to think about. I certainly didn’t know the problem was so catastrophic. After watching The True Cost documentary on fast fashion (it’s currently on Netflix), and reading books like Magnifeco, Naked Fashionand To Die For, I’ve decided to only buy clothes that are ethically made.
Fashion is supposed to be fun. We should feel good when we wear nice clothes. I realized that fashion, for me, is about respect: respect for myself by dressing in lovely and well-made clothes, respect for others by presenting my best side, respect for designers by admiring and supporting their creative vision, respect for workers and artisans by rewarding them for their sublime work, and respect for the environment from which we derive resources to make what we wear.
The reality is that the new fashion business model is just plain disrespectful in every regard.
Fast fashion retailers like Forever21, Mango, Primark, Joe Fresh, H&M, and Zara do not respect us, the consumers, because their entire business model is built on overconsumption and making us feel out of style. Instead of the standard 2 to 4 collections per year presented by designers, some fast fashion retailers release up to 52 collections a year. Every time we step into their stores, we’re presented with the latest fads, cheaply priced and produced, so that we’re tempted to buy impulsively. Worst of all, the clothes are designed to fall apart, so we would go back and buy more.
They do not respect fashion designers because they blatantly rip off their original designs. Heck, they are even stealing from each other these days.
They really don’t respect workers who make their clothes. 97% of our clothes are now outsourced to developing countries, and big companies face the most challenges in controlling their supply chains. Many of the vulnerable factory workers are exploited, physically and verbally abused, paid in slave wages, and work in extremely unsafe environments. When fires break out and buildings collapse, the fashion companies can easily blame their suppliers and feign ignorance to the malpractices of that particular factory, then move their business to another factory that continues to exploit workers.
Their disrespect for the environment is so bad that the fashion industry is now the second most polluting industry in the world, just after the oil industry! We buy 80billion garments every year. Clearly, we’re treating clothes like disposable products. Most of the textile waste are not biodegradable, so they just sit on our landfills for 200+ years, releasing harmful gases.
Cotton is the dirtiest crop on the planet due to the high volume of pesticides it uses. Farmers, workers and children are dying, or developing cancers or mental illnesses from being exposed to the toxic chemicals; entire villages are being poisoned due to toxic dyes and chemicals being dumped in their waters; and babies are being born with birth defects and mental or physical handicaps.
I can go on with more depressing facts. There’s a Norwegian mini-series called Sweatshop I want to watch, but I’m not ready for it right now because it sounds too sad. You get the picture. You can see how I can no longer turn a blind eye to this stuff. Everyone plays a role in how the fashion industry became this way: fashion companies, stockholders, buyers, suppliers, the media, celebrities with their endorsement, and us—me! Fast fashion wouldn’t exist if you and I didn’t buy so much and insisted on spending as little as possible on clothes. The system currently works for the companies. Why would they change their practices when it’s so profitable? Zara’s owner is now the second richest person in the world, just after Bill Gates.
As a consumer, I have purchasing power, and I can do something about it. Some companies, like H&M and Gap, are at least making an effort in making their businesses more ethical and sustainable. It’s not good enough for me right now, but I’m open to shopping from them again when they get it together. You can check Project JUST for the latest updates about your favourite retailers on how they are performing. Until then, I will:
- Shop from ethical fashion labels and companies. I’ve discovered some really awesome indie labels and ethical fashion retailers. I was surprised that so many ethical fashion companies existed, and I really had to narrow it down to my favourite ones. See my picks here.
- Slow down on the consumption. Whenever I see something I like, I’ll ask myself if this is something I can wear at least 2 ways. How often will I wear this? Will I want to wear this three years from now? Will I still like it even if the media deem it to be out of style tomorrow?
- Buy organic cotton whenever possible.
- Buy vintage. Actually I started doing this last year when I couldn’t find skirts and dresses that were long enough to cover my bum, or clothes made from decent material. I bought pieces from Value Village—granny dresses, 80’s dresses with bad elbow pads—and got them tailored to look modern and fit me perfectly. The tailoring cost the most. In the end, they turned out to be cheaper than dresses from Zara and better quality too.
- Buy high fashion. I know not everyone can afford luxury labels, but I’m going to take cost-per-wear into account. If it’s something like a handbag, a cashmere sweater or a coat—pieces I can wear year after year, I will splurge. Whenever I clean out my closet, the things I have no problem parting with are from Forever21, H&M and Zara. The stuff I paid a premium for? I’ll hold on to it until it is literally falling apart.
Some high fashion companies do outsource to developing countries, and they might also run into the problem of not having control over their supply chains, so I do check labels to see where the products are made and I try to find out as much as I can about their business practices and code of ethics. It’s common for luxury labels to produce certains items locally and outsource other items overseas. Recently I emailed an emerging luxury fashion label sold on Net-a-Porter to ask if their factories in Asia were ethical because I really wanted to buy one of their dress. They emailed me back and straight up told me they were not an ethical company. At least they were honest.
I am a member of “the media” now. Fashion will play a big role on my new, magazine-style blog called Terumah. When I started the site earlier this year, I struggled with what I wanted to cover because I don’t want to post what every fashion blogger out there is already covering. I also used to be a reluctant fashion person even though I clearly love clothes.
A few years ago, I got a major in at a fashion magazine in Paris. Who knows if I would’ve gotten the job because I had no fashion journalism background and I probably didn’t even have the proper work visa anyway, but an editor I met by chance knew I was studying creative writing and encouraged me to apply for a junior editor position for their American website. After thinking about it, I decided not to apply because I couldn’t imagine myself working in fashion, writing articles about new fall trends, celebrities or other stuff I considered frivolous. I had other issues with the fashion industry back then, like the exploitation of teenage models, the materialism, the racism, the body-shaming, the unattainable beauty standards brought about by Photoshopping, just to name a few.
Now I’m proud to be a fashion person because I realized that fashion can be meaningful. Fashion is the world’s third-largest industry, so it has massive global impact—positively, if companies do it right. Recently I joined the Ethical Writers Coalition, a band of writers and journalists who share the mission of promoting ethical and sustainable living. New ethical fashion companies are popping up all the time and I will happily promote them and be part of the fashion revolution. The industry is not perfect, but at least companies are trying and I can write about people who are making a positive impact. Instead of exploiting workers, these companies are collaborating with them so they can harness their talents and work in dignity for a living wage.
I was a student once so I do understand the appeal of a $10 dress that’s on trend. These fast fashion companies are everywhere, with enticing window displays too. We get such a high from buying something new and shiny. But I will say this: if you do buy something from one of these stores, please please please love it. Somebody in a downtrodden factory handmade it for you. Maybe not with love, but with blood, sweat and tears. So please respect it and wear it often.