Alexandra Howell is an assistant professor in fashion merchandising and design at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C.
Would you be willing to work 50 or 100 hours to pay for a single item of clothing? Garment workers in the fashion industry are doing just that. They work endlessly for low wages, making clothing and accessories they would never be able to afford.
In April 2013, the Rana Plaza factory building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed, killing over 1,100 garment workers and injuring 2,500 more — mostly women were affected. What should have been a wake-up call for the fashion industry only spurred more of the same: Western brands producing clothing in developing nations. That tendency is often referred to as a “race to the bottom” — brands are looking for the highest volume of production for the lowest wage possible. This creates conditions that are dangerous and unhealthy for workers and also produces waste and toxins extremely harmful to the environment.
The Rana Plaza tragedy sparked Fashion Revolution Week, which starts April 22. The goal of this awareness campaign is to get consumers to question who made their clothing — there’s a Twitter hashtag, #whomademyclothes — and demand greater transparency from brands. But for consumer activism to make a real change in the fashion industry, it can’t be limited to a single week of the year.
Knowledge is power, and consumers have the ability to learn about and adjust their buying habits. In a given week, how many different garments do you wear? Not just your clothing, but your underwear, socks, shoes and accessories? Challenge yourself to pick an outfit and wear it every day, Monday through Friday. Take stock of the excess clothing that lives in your closets, mostly unworn and forgotten. Do you need all those clothes? This challenge is meant to alert us to the excess and create a plan to reduce the amount of clothing we purchase and end up wearing infrequently — or not at all.
Once we’re aware of the excess in our closets, we can do something about it. Buying secondhand, consigning, upcycling and recycling are all ways to extend the life of a garment. If a garment has reached the end of its life with you, there are several places it can go next. You can trade the item among friends and acquaintances in a clothing swap. You may be able to sell the item to a consignment store, where it can be repurchased by someone one. Upcycling also extends a garment’s life; the fabric is used to create a new clothing item or accessory.
Donating clothing to a nonprofit organization is another option, but if garments are never distributed to those in need, they often make their way to landfills here in the United States — or end up back in some of the same developing nations where the clothing was originally sewn.
Consumers have agency to change the fashion industry. By using your buying power to show brands and retailers what type of garments you desire most, you can help shift the industry toward more humane working conditions and environmentally friendly production processes. When you’re buying new items, avoid purchasing low-cost, low-quality garments and instead invest in higher-quality clothing at a higher price, if you can. Inexpensive items that aren’t well-made don’t have a long lifespan; they will soon need to be replaced, continuing the cycle of wasteful, dangerous production. Purchase from companies that are transparent about their production processes or those that are committed to the life of their products.
You can withhold your dollars as well. Boycotting brands that use sweatshops is one way to send a message that you desire clothing made in an ethical and sustainable manner. However, to make an impact nationally or globally, consumers need to act en masse. Social media is an excellent way to share the message and organize fellow consumers.
Above all, do research before you buy — an informed consumer is a powerful consumer.