So far with the Slow Fashion October conversation (here and on the #slowfashionoctober feed), we’ve been sticking mostly to the pleasant parts — talking about the ways and means by which we can and do opt out of Fast Fashion (see Long-Worn and Handmade) and feel good about those choices. That’s all a lot easier to talk about than this week’s subject, Known Origins, which is sticky on multiple levels. I finally watched The True Cost Saturday night and was reminded in technicolor that the more you know about the actual global humanitarian and environmental crisis that is our clothing industry, the more hopeless it can seem. There was not much in there I didn’t already know, and yet it kept me awake that night — and honestly, just thinking about it makes me want to cry.
Can I describe the problem of fast fashion in a paragraph? I can try. Major corporations in the western world want to sell us as much clothing as possible, and to reap the highest profits possible. They’ve decided the best way to do that is to sell things at impossibly cheap prices. While the prices have plummeted in the last couple of decades, the cost of making clothing has not gone down — someone has to grow (or manufacture) the fiber, weave it into cloth, cut and sew the cloth into clothing, ship it across the ocean, distribute it to stores, advertise it, and still put half of the purchase price into the brand’s bank account (with a good chunk of that, in turn, going directly to the CEO). And yet, they’ve decided even a complicated garment like a pair of jeans should cost less than $20. (I’m suddenly being followed around the internet by an ad for Walmart jeans for $6. Think about that!) That means they need a factory to sell them the jeans for a few dollars, including the cost of the fabric and the hardware — and the labor. That mathematically can’t be done in America, where we have minimum-wage and other labor laws, so they do it in countries where there are no such laws. People in places like Bangladesh and Cambodia are working in garment factories for a few dollars a month (and we’re not talking about a 40-hour workweek), being poisoned by the toxic waste that’s continuously dumped into rivers (because there are no regulations, either) or worse: dying in unsafe buildings when they collapse or burn down. They are literally giving their lives so our clothes can be as cheap as they are. And they are cheap in other ways, too: If the corporation is only going to make a few dollars per garment, they better also make sure we buy new ones every week. So they’re literally clogging the planet with shipload after shipload after shipload of badly made, largely synthetic (read: non-biodegradable), sweatshop-labor clothing. We, on the whole, buy them up as quickly as they crank them out, in record numbers of garments-per-person, and dispose of them just as quickly. And of course, there’s nowhere for them to go.
Those are the known origins of most chain-store clothes. So what about the opposite? There are people in the US and elsewhere trying to bring back garment jobs and industry — people like Elizabeth Suzann, for example, who I know a little bit socially and admire tremendously. I don’t know of a better example in this regard. Liz has insisted on in-house production since the moment her company grew beyond just her sewing alone in her spare room for her Etsy shop. Every garment is sewn in her Nashville studio, where you can walk right in and see the cutters and the sewers and the big bright space they work in. All along, many of the garments have been sewn from cloth woven for her here in Nashville by my friend Allison Volek-Shelton of TN Textile Mill (formerly Shutters and Shuttles). And for her latest collection, she’s gone so far as to source the wool from Imperial Stock Ranch (makers of Imperial Yarn) in Oregon. If she could, I believe Liz would raise and shear sheep on her property and grow cotton out back. She wants to know that every laborer, every bit of waste, every detail all along the way is handled with care and respect for the humans and the planet. The “problem,” such as it is, is that making clothes in the US is unusual and thus difficult and thus costly. Even though they cost a fraction of factory-made (often synthetic) designer goods, not everyone can afford her clothes — and decisions like known-origins wool only drive the prices higher. But for those who can afford them, it’s critical to support her efforts and those of anyone like her, because it’s the only way any version of a garment industry will become viable in this country again. Others will see that they’re doing it successfully, and they’ll do it too, and as it becomes less rare and less difficult — as resources return to support these businesses — prices will come down.
Likewise the farmers. Imperial is a great example of a yarn where you can know exactly where it came from and what sort of people and practices you’re supporting by buying it. In Texas and California, there are cotton farmers who want to grow cotton without poisoning the land and themselves with pesticides. There are people spinning that organic cotton into yarn and weaving it into cloth, and again, because these things are rare, they are difficult and comparatively costly. But if enough people buy the cotton and the yarn and the cloth, then they’ll be able to keep doing it, and hopefully more farmers will follow suit. The only way it can happen is through consumer demand.
As garment makers, if we care about these issues, we want to know more about where our yarn and fabric come from. As I’ve said before, yarn is increasingly easy. Just a few years ago, when I was first knitting, there weren’t that many yarns in the world that were transparent about their supply chains, making public efforts to support what’s left of yarn infrastructure in this country and encouraging its regrowth. But these last few years have seen a huge surge in small-batch yarns and mini-mills. Knitters have begun paying attention and supporting small yarn producers with their purchases, and creating a market so that more and more people have jumped in. It’s still the case that the people selling the yarn often aren’t able to make any money on it — even at $24/skein. The costs are still too high. But the more people keep making it, the more business the supporting businesses (scourers and dyers and mills) do, the more things will change.
The same can’t be said for fabric, unfortunately. Whether in finished garments or as bolts in the fabric store, fabric is much harder to trace. There’s a rise in blue-jeans manufacturing in LA these days — more and more brands supporting the factories there, and consumers supporting them in turn, which is a fantastic step in the right direction. But in most cases, there’s still no way of knowing where the cotton came form or how it was dyed. If you ask a big bolt fabric company about the overseas factories they work with, you’ll get a boilerplate response about how they abide by all the labor laws. But the point is: there aren’t any; that’s why they manufacture where they do. It’s the same as the big clothing companies.
So what’s a concerned consumer who can’t make 100% of their clothes (from traceable materials) to do? That’s what I’d like us to talk about this week — the small steps we can take with regard to our consumption. What are the better-if-not-perfect sources for store-bought clothes and shoes? What clothing and shoe brands are doing production responsibly — at home and overseas? Where can we find fabric we can feel good about? How do we continue to support and grow the known-origins yarn market? And how do we convince the mega-corporations that our clothes don’t need to be dangerously cheap — that there are some of us who’d rather pay a fair price and know the workers were fairly paid, too.
PHOTOS: (Top) a mountain of discarded clothes and (middle) Texas cotton farmer LaRhea Pepper, both from The True Cost; (bottom) a model in Elizabeth Suzann’s 2016 Cold Weather Collection shot with the Imperial Ranch sheep that provided the wool
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