Finding the origin of a piece of clothing is often a confusing and fruitless process for conscious consumers. And yet, we know how important that curiosity is: the fashion industry produces more than 8 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Green laundry – the practice of falsely placing products on the market as sustainable products – is growing in the industry. The production of fast fashion is closely connected with the violation of labor rights, the subjugation of women and child labor.
I came into fashion as an outsider and still experience myself as such. My journey into the world of clothing did not begin in fashion school, but in law school and working at the United Nations.
One summer, I was sent to Arusha, Tanzania, working at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. I spent the weekends wandering honestly, and in Arusha every weekend wandering will take you to the market. These gatherings of growers, breeders and entrepreneurs were lively, joyful and irresistible for my twenty-something. At first, I used these shopping trips to find souvenirs to return home.
The more time I spent there, the more I realized I was getting more than just gifts that my relatives and friends found beautiful. I started building relationships with people who were making some of the things I was buying – with the woman who made my cool, yet classic floral pants, with the man who was weaving the baskets I hung on the walls. Visiting those markets, where fabrics, colors and patterns had a rich cultural significance, I also appreciated the beauty of handmade works. Aside from the unusual trip to the agricultural market, I really never had significant interactions with the people and places behind what I consumed.
The conversations and discoveries I had in that market would come back to me in the months and years after. I started to connect the points between the goals of sustainable development that the people of the UN were so focused on and the things we bought. That is to say, environmental degradation and poverty, for example, have been linked to the way we make and pay for our things and how we use them. The way global trade relations are structured is a major determinant of whether people will initially have the opportunity to create things and earn a living. At the same time, the artisans I met showed exceptional creative talent and entrepreneurial drive – they had what they needed to earn for a life that would be sustainable for their families, communities and the planet. What if I could do a job working with such people – artisans whose talents customers would love to know about and support them with their purchasing power? In the end, that impulse led me to the established Zady – who then took me to the Javits Center, faced with the reality of the fashion industry.
As Zady evolved, I continued to dig deeper. If I was really most interested in improving “sustainability”, was it the best way for a company whose business model, when it came down to it, to sell more things? And since the citizens and the industry itself have shown that they do not know their own influence, could I play a more useful role in bringing that information to light? In the end, I decided to stop selling clothes and instead focus all my attention on explaining the real impact of the fashion industry. I connected with experts who understood every aspect of the impact of fashion on our world – agronomists, climate scientists, historians, fashion directors, factory directors and material scientists; labor experts, organizers and workers; political scientists, toxicologists, psychologists, traders and economists – to launch a research and action think tank – a step above your average think tank, where the idea stops at the whiteboard. The New Standard Institute (NSI) seeks to use information, data, and stories not for private gain but for the public good.
My goal at the New Standard Institute is to provide rigorous research and data (and emphasize when more is needed) about the fashion industry, which is not surprisingly known for its transparency. As we will cover in the following pages, the processes and practices of how our clothes are made have flown under the radar. As a result, the data collected so far have been fragmentary and often inaccurate. Data is one way to tell a story, and it’s pretty compelling, but most of what we all have has little to do with data. (If we all acted only on the basis of data, we would be in a completely different world at the moment.) Stories that lead us to action move something in our spirit, that are a mirror of our own experience that reminds us of others and dreams like us. What you will read is that kind of story.
When I started writing Unraveled, I wanted to follow the life and death of a pair of jeans – clothes that are ubiquitous in our culture, a favorite because of their function and style – from farm to landfill. This is an extension of the trip I started in Zady, trying to tell the basic story of the origin of the garment. But there were obstacles, as I had already discovered with Zady. Companies do not have a clear understanding of their own supply chains, and many manufacturers are not very willing to open their doors to oversight. These obstacles show how far the industry has to go before it can achieve anything close to true transparency. So while this story literally doesn’t follow any pair of jeans, it follows where the average pair could go, along with many other types of clothing (it all goes with jeans, doesn’t it?).
In the story that follows, we will visit cotton farms in Texas, which was and still are a significant source of global cotton production, meeting farmers who move in trade-offs between their country’s health, their bank accounts, and themselves. In China, we will see how these raw fibers are spun into yarn, dyed and knitted into denim. And in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, we will meet the women responsible for tailoring and sewing fabric into finishing garments. Back in America we will enter Amazon’s warehouse to see how our jeans are delivered and head to our closets. We finally travel to Ghana, where quite a bit of our clothes land after we get along, becoming the final resting place of our jeans.
The story of a pair of jeans is a story of modern fashion and capitalism, another reason why they are a particularly suitable hero for our journey. Today, 1.25 billion (yes, that’s a billion with “b”) jeans are sold annually, and the average American woman has seven pairs in her closet. They are obviously a big player in the fashion world, which is itself a major player in the global economy. The jeans we wear today have become an ironic symbol of a democracy in which even American presidents have played (all the way to wearing forty-five clothes). They are charged as pan-American, but the truth of their creation takes us far beyond American borders and deeper inside where we would ever think to look. The story of our jeans will take us around the world and back, reflecting the expansion of our supply chains and the degree of cultural fusion that has allowed fashion to become the radically opaque and exploitative force it is today.
I could give you all of this in numbers and charts, and there will be a few on the following pages, but more importantly, this book introduces you to the people involved in making your clothes. Their stories reveal that understanding the system of creating and distributing clothing, the way they are marketed and the impact that marketing has on us, helps us understand our wider world and our role in it.
Until recently, this $ 2.5 trillion industry was moved to the “style” section, implying that it is superficial, girly, fun and unimportant. Yet it is a huge industry. It is responsible for the incredible net worth of a few people at the very top of the list of the richest people on the planet. It employs millions of the most vulnerable people in the world – most of them women – and hires some of the lowest paid workers in the country. And this has a significant destructive impact on our environment, contributing, according to one report, to at least the same level of greenhouse gases as France, Germany and the United Kingdom combined. The roots of our dress are also the roots of slavery and colonialism – the systems of oppression we will see are far from completely dismantled and behind the racial equality conflicts raging today. Our deeply unequal economic system is also the fruit of those systems. Taken together, the story of our clothing also helps us understand why our societies are so divided. In the words of historian Sven Beckert, “Too often we prefer to erase the realities of slavery, expropriation, and colonialism from the history of capitalism, longing for a nobler, purer capitalism. We tend to remember industrial capitalism as the male they dominate, while women’s labor has largely created the realm of cotton. Part of my intention in writing this book is to place fashion and the clothing industry in its rightful place, not only as a part, but in the foundations of the industry and society as we know it.
I am convinced that the reason why this industry is not taken seriously in the world of politics and business is that it has been transferred to the domain of social “minorities” – namely, women and colored people (and often both). From the earliest days of industrialization, clothing was mostly made by people belonging to both of these two groups, and marketed mostly by women; we will meet some of their descendants – the people whose hands make our clothes today – on the pages that follow. Even in the circles of the environment, fashion is very often rejected. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to significant environmental donors about the impact of the fashion industry during my work for NSI, to which they would respond: Oh, you should talk about that with my wife, she loves fashion. (It would of course make sense for the wives of major environmental donors to stick to the strings, but in my experience they don’t.)
The lack of attention has allowed the industry to operate with very few regulations and less significant media coverage, while its (mostly male) executives earn enormous sums of money on (mostly) women’s jobs and women’s purchases. I am writing this book as someone who is deeply troubled by both industry and society that was created in an effort to sell us more than it and appreciate the power and pleasure of clothing. Knowing how our clothes are made, sold, sold, worn and discarded is a powerful lens through which we will better see the truths of our world and its history, no matter how beautiful or ugly they may be. A clear view is the first step in removing the urgent injustices that this book describes and brings not only a more just society, but also satisfaction and progress.
From Unraveling: The life and death of a garment by Maxine Bedat, published June 1 in the Portfolio edition, a print by Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021, by Maxine Bedat.
Maxine Bédat is the founder and director of the New Standard Institute, a think tank that deals with issues of sustainability and work in the fashion industry. She was previously the founder and CEO of the Zady Sustainable Fashion Initiative. Her first book is Unraveling: The life and death of a garment.
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