Ask Eartha: Slow Fashion movement weighs ethical concerns of clothing
Ryan Summerlin August 7, 2014
Recently I overheard a conversation about an eco-friendly trend called “slow fashion” but didn’t understand it. Can you explain?
— Lizzy, Frisco
When fashion trends change daily, the idea of “slow fashion” seems like an oxymoron. Yet a deeper look at the phenomenon reveals opportunities for creative dressing and an urgency in making conscientious choices.
“The only thing for certain is that everything changes. ... In order to master changes, we have to recover slowness, reflection and togetherness.”
So, what exactly is “slow fashion”? In 1986 when Carlo Petrini protested the opening of a McDonald’s in Rome he started the “Slow Food” organization, emphasizing that faster isn’t always better. Over time, the concept of “slowing down” was applied to all types of industries, including fashion.
Norwegian philosopher Guttorm Floistad summarizes the “slow” movement as follows:
“The only thing for certain is that everything changes. It could however be useful to remind everyone that our basic needs never change — the need to be seen and appreciated, the need to belong. In order to master changes, we have to recover slowness, reflection and togetherness.”
If that sounds too touchy-feely, take a moment to think about how every item of clothing you put on was sewn together by someone’s hands. More than likely, those hands are in an underdeveloped country and belong to either a woman or a child.
The clothing industry is notorious for exploiting cheap labor, using an excessive amount of fresh water while putting chemicals into the ecosystem, and running up a massive carbon footprint. For example, in 2013 the Bangladesh Rana Plaza factory collapsed, killing more than 1,100 clothing workers who were paid an average monthly wage of $38 to make clothes for Walmart and Benetton, among others. On a Tuesday the media reported cracks in the building foundation, so it was evacuated. The next day most businesses remained closed, but the garment managers threatened to withhold a month’s pay from anyone who didn’t show up for work. That morning when the building collapsed, 3,122 garment workers were inside. A week after the collapse, a group of NGOs and retailers created the Accord on Factory and Building Safety organization in Bangladesh. However, Walmart refused to sign it because it required retailers to pay more.
If labor practices are questionable in the fashion industry, what about fabric production and water usage? Cotton is considered one of the most chemically dependent crops in the world, using 10 percent of all agricultural chemicals and 25 percent of the world’s insecticides. In 1995 pesticide-contaminated runoff from cotton fields in Alabama killed 240,000 fish, and “14 million people in the U.S.A. are routinely drinking water contaminated with carcinogenic herbicides,” according to the Organic Consumers Association.
Dyes are also major polluters as they are typically made from iron, tin, potassium, volatile organic compounds (VOC) and solvent-based inks containing heavy metals. All of these require large quantities of water to rinse away. But even after rinsing they can off-gas and impact our health.
Right about now organic cotton is probably sounding like a good idea, right? However, India, Turkey, Peru, China and Africa currently grow more organic cotton than the U.S. This means that the next organic cotton T-shirt you buy was likely grown thousands of miles away, shipped around the world to be processed, shipped to a retailer, then shipped to you. That’s a big carbon footprint for one cotton T-shirt.
Thankfully there are other fibers that are less toxic and cultivated closer to home. Hemp is both soft and durable and can be used for almost anything. It is easy to cultivate, pest tolerant, needs few or no agrochemicals and takes dyes easily. Modal is from fast-growing beach trees that thrive on marginal, non-agricultural land and do not require irrigation or pesticides. It takes dye like cotton, resists shrinking and fading, plus it feels smooth and soft. Other natural fibers include linen, silk and wool.
In addition to dressing in beautiful, natural fibers, here are four more tips for “slow fashion”:
Buy from known ethical brands (shophelpsy.com is an eco-conscious shopping site) or seek out local designers right here in Summit County. Shop local and support an artist!
Shop secondhand! Summit has many treasure chests of secondhand clothing and gear.
Raid your closet — rather than buying new items, repair, mend or alter existing garments. Many great seamstresses are right here in Summit.
If you buy new, read the label: Look for recycled or organic fibers and pay attention to where the garment was made.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center. Submit questions to Eartha at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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