When it comes to shopping more responsibly for clothing, there are a few truisms. First, you generally have to pay more for clothing that pays workers a living wage. Second, the more responsible a company is, the more information they provide consumers about how they source products. And finally, smaller companies are doing a better job than the fashion giants at solving the social and environmental problems that clothing production entails.
Fast fashion simply cannot be sustainable. The cheap prices and fast turnover of styles in the stores encourages over-production. I’ve looked in a lot of Goodwill bins, and the great majority of clothing to be found in them is cheaply made, fast fashion from Forever 21, Walmart, and Old Navy. While a high price tag cannot guarantee an ethical garment, an extremely low one almost guarantees that somewhere along the line there have been abuses, usually in the form of low wages for workers. I’ve got to wonder how Forever 21 owner Don Chang got to be a billionaire, but the same question can be asked about billionaire Ralph Lauren. So price of the garment might be a hint as to practices, but it can’t be the only factor.
Many companies are working toward transparency in their supply chain. I was amazed at the good job several companies I looked at were at telling consumers where their products were made. Probably the best is Patagonia, who tells not only what country a product is made in, but tells and pictures the factories that provide materials. The website has information about every supplier to Patagonia. They also have an innovative repair and recycling program. Not that you’ll ever need it. I’m still wearing a pair of Patagonia hiking shorts I bought used about fifteen years ago.
Contrast that with what seems to be the industry standard of only revealing that a product is “imported.”
Another website that gives detailed sourcing information is Zady. Zady is not so much a brand as it is an online store that sells multiple brands, though there are some Zady branded articles. I’ve never bought from Zady, but I do have the site bookmarked to consider if any clothing need arises.
Probably the most ambitious company at the present in regards to sustainability is Eileen Fisher. They have put into action a plan to correct the weaknesses in their supply chain, and they have the plan tied to a timeline. For each item for sale on the website, there is information about how that garment is eco-friendly.
One thing that these three companies above have in common is size. They aren’t tiny companies, but they are not the huge corporations that are so often tied to garment production and sales. One of the most telling stories to come out of the Rana Plaza tragedy was that many of the companies that did business with the factories in Rana Plaza did not know their goods were being made there until the labels were found in the destroyed building. The system of contracting and sub-contracting has become so huge and involved that the management of many big companies can’t tell who makes their clothes because even they do not know.
So it’s refreshing when mid-sized companies make it their business to know with whom they are working and are not ashamed to publicize their partners on their website. Last week, after thousands of people began tweeting and instagramming companies asking who made their clothes, many companies began showing workers from all over the world. What I noticed was that so many of these companies were small. Topshop was too busy showing off photos of the new Beyonce line to comply, though Forever 21 did post a photo of a plant for Earth Day. When H&M posted a cute message about their recycling program, they were quickly accused of “green-washing”.
There are lots of smaller companies who are beginning to show the inner workings of their industrial process, and I see that as a great sign. A video on the Fresh Produce site takes the viewer through several of the manufacturers that work with them here in the US. Okabashi shoes are made in the USA and their products are 100% recyclable, something you can do by returning the wornout sandals to the factory. These sandals are great for the beach, by the way. And in the UK, Peopletree also gives information on sustainability issues for each garment.
So, there are ways to buy new clothes in a responsible manner, but you do have to make a commitment to investigate companies and their practices. And that is what the internet is for.