Will America's Love for Cheap Clothing Doom the Sustainable Fashion Movement?
By Liz Dwyer
It's common sense that if you're buying a pair of trendy $9 jeans at the mall, there's a good chance they were made in an overseas sweatshop by poorly paid women or children. Yet a new survey reveals that saving a buck is what's foremost in Americans' minds.
An Associated Press–GFK poll released last month found that when it comes to purchasing clothes, the majority of Americans prefer cheap prices over a “Made in the USA" label. The poll, inspired by campaign trail promises by presidential candidates to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S., asked respondents to choose between two pairs of pants of the same fabric and design. The pair manufactured in the U.S. would set the shopper back $85, while the one sewn overseas would cost $50. A full 67 percent of respondents, regardless of household income, said they'd choose the cheaper pair of pants.
American Apparel's “sweatshop-free" premise aside, garments made in the USA aren't always ethically sewn. But inexpensive clothing produced in overseas sweatshops has long been a cornerstone of the fast-fashion industry—and as the poll shows, Americans are in love with low prices.
“Buying cheaply is a cultural deficiency that we can address with a common goal toward more sustainable practices," Orsola de Castro, the U.K.-based cofounder and director of Fashion Revolution, wrote in an email to TakePart.
De Castro launched Fashion Revolution after the fatal 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh. The horrific (and preventable) accident killed more than 1,000 people and injured around 2,500 more. The organization works to turn the spotlight on child labor and sweatshop abuses. It spearheaded Fashion Revolution Week, an 86-nation awareness campaign, which took place April 18 - 24.
3 years after #RanaPlaza has anything changed? https://t.co/1uM5OKIXMM via @BoF #fastfashion #FashRev #garment https://t.co/qRNaHCxOBj— HODZO Europe (@HODZO Europe)1462536321.0
Given the penchant for low prices, Fashion Revolution's fight to get people to ask brands “Who made my clothes?" might seem like an uphill battle. It also doesn't help that studies show consumers often don't want to know if their clothing was produced ethically—and they'll ridicule people who do.
But de Castro believes “the narrative of fashion is changing and the public is beginning to understand that a fairer fashion industry can only be a change for the better and small changes in our buying habits can have resonant, positive effects."
Despite politicians' promises about a return to a Made in the USA heyday—which, given how cheap it is to make clothing around the world, is not likely to happen—de Castro believes that the solution is to ensure that the people working in places like Bangladesh are granted basic workers' rights.
“It is absolutely about basic human rights wherever there is a fashion production. The fashion industry creates millions of jobs, everywhere," wrote de Castro. “It is about ensuring integrity: encouraging an industry that, wherever it decides to produce, treats its workers fairly, pays a living wage, ensures safety and dignity. Quality products made by people with a good quality of life."
Reflecting on Fashion Revolution Week 2016 https://t.co/mwD0t76OUH #whomademyclothes #imadeyourclothes #FashRev https://t.co/m3sZXJO61y— FashionRevolution (@FashionRevolution)1461501062.0
San Francisco–based Starre Vartan, the creator of the sustainable fashion website Eco-Chick.com and a founding member of Fashion Revolution Day USA, thinks there are plenty of things people should care about more than low prices.
“If the people reading support women's empowerment, they will support fair fashion," she wrote in an email. “The vast majority of garment workers in the world (60 million) are women (80 percent) and most clothing is consumed by women. Are you willing to throw another woman under the bus for a cheaper shirt? Considering how responsive the younger generation is on gender issues in the U.S., it doesn't make sense to dismiss issues of who makes your clothes."
The role of kids in producing fast fashion also can't be ignored, wrote Vartan. A video released last month by Fashion Revolution featured children in Germany trying to get jobs at clothing stores and companies. The stunt was designed to get viewers to question why people regularly buy clothing made by kids in developing countries while being simultaneously outraged over the prospect of employing children to work in the Western fashion industry.
Approximately 168 million children around the world are forced to work, according to the International Labour Organization. “Children are still used in many factories for piecework, cleanup and other tasks, rather than going to school so they can earn a few pennies for their families. Children should obviously not be working instead of going to school," wrote Vartan.
Daniela Degrassi, an Italian-born designer working with Fashion Revolution West Coast USA, says she ethically produces everything in her line, Annaborgia Vegan Couture. Her items aren't as inexpensive as what can be found in a trendy story at the mall, but on her company's website, Degrassi regularly blogs about sustainable brands, particularly from nations such as Bangladesh that have problems with sweatshops. People who care only about high prices may simply “not be exposed to the information," she wrote.
Both Degrassi and Vartan recommended The True Cost, a 2015 documentary revealing the often inhumane experiences of people around the globe who work in the garment industry. “People who see The True Cost find themselves unable to participate in fast fashion—or [they] seriously question and redefine their shopping habits," wrote Vartan.
Along with educating the public and demanding transparency from brands, de Castro believes government intervention and pressure on companies is sparking change.
“We are actually seeing a genuine and spontaneous outreach to review the fashion situation and address the pressing issues that affect its supply chain," she wrote. She added that government actions such as the 2015 Modern Day Slavery Act in the U.K.—which tackles slavery and corporate supply chains tied to it—as well as celebrities becoming involved in the conversation are making a difference.
As for the average shopper faced with the decision to buy some inexpensive jeans that'll wear out in a few washes, de Castro offers some sound advice. “We encourage vigilance and participation: be curious, find out, do something," she wrote.
This article was reposted with permission from our media associate TakePart.
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By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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