Often enough, people ask me why I cover ethical fashion. With a hard science background and passion for a cleaner Earth, aren't there other aspects of environmentalism that are more important, and less frivolous, than fashion?
My answer usually takes a couple of minutes, because answering this question requires an explanation of the hugeness of the industry, and the equally large footprint of our clothing, shoes and accessories. What most people don't understand is the size and reach of the fashion industry: every single person on Earth -- all 7 billion-plus -- have to get dressed ever day, after all.
And for those who suggest that all of us wear a uniform of sorts that could be endlessly recycled (this comes up quite often in these discussions), I would argue that dressing ourselves is one of human beings' oldest forms of expression, and one of the original arts in many cultures. You don't get woven Mohawk tribal patterns, Peruvian embroidery, Irish donegals or African kente prints without thousands of years of human creativity. Do we really want to do away with personal expression? Having spent just one year wearing a school uniform, I'll tell you that the idea, while practical, is dehumanizing to many of us.
What we can do is buy less clothing, shop vintage and ethical fashion, recycle and upcycle where we can, and swap clothes, instead of participating in the fast fashion junkfest. Clothing sold for cheap is generally made by people who aren't paid well (or treated well) from fabrics that pollute the environment. And they don't last, meaning they make their way to the landfill that much faster.
Here are some more specifics about why supporting ethical fashion and fair trade practices matter:
1. The fashion industry disproportionately affects young women in developing countries. Our clothes are sewn by human beings -- more often than not women -- who get up and go to work each day. They deserve to be treated with respect and paid a fair wage for their work. See the video below for some insight into the world of Cambodian garment workers.
2. It pollutes local ecosystems. Fashion, including textile production and the sewing and dying of clothing, is one of the largest industries in world, and one of the biggest polluters and users of labor. Buying vintage or gently used clothing, or new clothes from responsible manufacturers and designers means that the clothes on your back aren't creating rivers flowing with heavy-metal dyes in Vietnam. Fresh water is a dwindling resource.
3. Most clothes are landfilled, creating waste. Unfortunately, only about 25 percent of our clothing gets recycled in some way (either being sold on the racks at Goodwill or the like, being sent to developing countries as usable clothing, or downcycled into stuffing and industrial rags). And thanks to fast fashion retailers, textiles account for 4 percent (and growing) of the waste being sent to landfills. Since almost 95 percent of textiles can be recycled in some way, this means plenty of usable material is sitting around at the garbage dump.