Why I Care About Sustainable Fashion

One of the first blog posts I ever wrote was about simplifying my closet by selling or donating the excess that I had built up over the years. By the time I was in college, I had amassed nearly 100 dresses, mostly from fast fashion retailers with questionable labor practices and typical low quality materials and production. Despite working for anti-human trafficking organizations during this time, I was blinded by my own over-consumption habits and how they could have been contributing to the very injustices I was trying to address. 

So I sold more than half of the items in my closet. The first few sales were painless since I wanted to shed those dresses from my closet anyways. But then came the messy middle of the simplifying process, of struggling to part with items that I had hardly ever worn but justified keeping because somehow, somewhere, sometime I would wear it. Most of the time that never happened because I, like most American women, wore only 20% of my closet 80% of the time. Finally, I was able to emotionally detach and make more logical decisions about what was in and what was out. 

The other morning I recalled this shedding process for two reasons. The first was that I experienced a couple new life events: I transitioned to a new job and celebrated a birthday that officially marked being in my mid-twenties. Both of these illuminated the need to evolve my style to be more professional yet stylish. The second was that I skimmed through TIME Magazine's 2013 Year of Pictures, which included this haunting photograph of a couple embracing in the rubble of the collapsed garment factory in Bangladesh. 

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A few minutes and multiple clicks later, I came across this quote from the journalist and scholar Chris Hedges, quoting the economist Carl Polyani. And while I had seen the haunting photo of the Bangladeshi victims many times before, there was something about the combination of the photo and the quote that brought me to tears. Through my tears, I realized the disturbing connection between the photo and the quote (emphasis mine). 

“It’s a look at the force of unregulated capitalism. How unregulated capitalism commodifies everything. It commodifies human beings. It commodifies the natural world and exploits them until exhaustion or collapse. Of course this is why the environmental crisis is twined with the economic crisis. And Polyani, although he is an economist, uses the word sacred. When a society loses the capacity for the sacred, when there is nothing sacred about human life, when there is nothing sacred about the natural world, it commits self-annihilation. It cannibalizes itself until it dies.

Losing the capacity for the sacred means that we have lost a critical component of our humanity. While every society and culture think of sacredness in different ways, we all agree to a certain degree that we are soul-ish, soul-full beings. We are more than flesh and bones. We are more than the commodification of our abilities and bodies. We are human beings, imbued with the capacity for the sacred, whether that's experiencing God or a new baby or yoga or nature or the simple sacredness of the everyday. It is precisely this sacredness that has led me to learn and advocate for sustainable fashion. 

I care about sustainable fashion because I believe in the sacredness of human life. 

I want to remember and honor the more than 1,100 people who were crushed under the rubble of the garment factory collapse in Bangladesh last year. Photos like this serve as a reminder that the threads that weave us together in common humanity are just as tight as those that weave a garment together.

I care about sustainable fashion because I believe fashion can be a beautiful way to express our identities and values. 

Fashion is one of many ways we can share about who we are, where we come from, and what our values are. I think about how each article of clothing I come across has a story sewn into its seams–the vintage cocktail dress made in the USA from the Mad Men era, the fast fashion flouncy top made in China, and the woven sweater made in an artisan co-op in Bolivia. It just depends on what story we want to tell.  Or as Ecosalon puts it: 

Fashion allows us to express our identity and put forth a sense of self. And through what I’ve seen, we are developing a new passion for clothing. Not one that is based on greed and vanity but one reflecting of values, quality and character–a new type of luxury. Clothing is damn hard to make and people are connecting with the beauty and craft of that process, just like we saw with food.

I care about sustainable fashion because I believe that the fashion industry can be a force for economic development and empowerment around the world. 

I believe that one of the most effective, efficient ways  to alleviate poverty and enable sustainable development is through economic empowerment. As someone who has worked in the philanthropy and nonprofit sectors, I certainly believe that they play an important role, but they cannot be the only mechanism to disrupt systems and generate positive social and economic change. Whether through hybrid systems such as social enterprises or B corps that pursue triple bottom lines or through traditional business efforts, providing opportunities for economic development and prosperity is one of the keys to flourishing societies and thriving communities. These business efforts depend upon supply and demand though, which is why I am not completely anti-shopping. Rather, I am pro-conscious consumption of quality products that will last a long time, are made from sustainable materials, and empower rather than exploit workers worldwide. With this mindset, I believe we can transition our purchasing decisions and psychology from a focus on prices to a focus on stories–the how, what, where, when, and who of our clothing.

Sustainable Fashion 101 Resources:

If you are interested in learning more about ethical or sustainable fashion, here are some helpful, inspiring resources to get started: 

  • "6 Things You Should Know About Your Clothes" by Shannon Whitehead is a fantastic primer for all those new to learning about the fashion industry and its social and environmental impacts globally
  • Fashion Revolution Day: On the anniversary of one of the worst disasters in recent years in the apparel industry, fashion leaders, factory workers, producers, activists, academics, press, consumers, cotton farmers will come together to remember the victims and change our fashion future. Fashion Revolution Day is an opportunity to celebrate fashion as a positive influence, raise awareness of the fashion industry’s most pressing issues, and show that change is possible.
  • AWEAR 2014: AWEAR is a community of mindful consumers and stylish changemakers who help each other get creative with what we have and ask questions before buying new stuff.
  • Pinterest board of many sustainable fashion brands