Who Made My Clothes?
Through this series I want to tell a story. A story we all carry with us and on us, but few of us actually know.
A story about clothing.
As of right now there are 7,500,077,900 people on this planet. And with few exceptions, this story affects each and every one of us, whether we know it or not.
So in 1960, an average American person bought fewer than 25 pieces of clothing each year, and over 10% of the household’s annual income (approximately $4,000 today) was put toward buying that clothing.
Today, the average American person buys nearly 70 pieces of clothing per year, while each household still only spends about 3.5% of the annual income (under $1,800) on clothing.
Clothes are not getting more expensive, in fact, they are getting cheaper rapidly.
The term “fast fashion” refers to recent phenomenon of the mimicking of high fashion trends using lower quality materials which can sell for cheap. A fast fashion company seeks to give consumers what they want exactly when they want it.
There used to be two categories of clothes: those for the warm season, and those for the cold season. Now fashion trends shift by the week, with whole new inventory coming in every day to stores like H&M, Zara, Forever 21, etc with cheap prices. Cheap enough, in fact, for you to buy the new garments when you feel out of style, which will be every time you go shopping since the fashions shift so quickly.
Do you see the trend?
Clothing, something that should be something we buy to use (not use up), mend, and use over and over again, has become a disposable status symbol.
These companies figured out that if you sell enough inventory at a small profit margin per item, the overall gains can be enormous.
So this is the system we find ourselves contributing to.
Let’s think for a moment:
I buy a shirt for $6.99 at H&M.
1. Someone has to design the cut and color
2. Someone else has to grow or manufacture the necessary raw materials
3. Someone has to transport these raw materials to the place where
4. Someone else must transform them into usable material
5. Someone has to transport the usable material to the factory, where
6. Someone else must sew the usable material into a finished garment
7. Someone has to transport the product to the retail store, where
8. Someone else must sell me the shirt
9. And someone—someone must make a profit.
I only ever considered the employees I saw on the mall floors. I somehow never considered the humans behind the clothes on my back. I unconsciously assumed my clothes were made my some magical self maintaining machine.
Suddenly $6.99 seems far too cheap.
Because it is.
This is a series of photographs of people holding the tags of their clothes and asking #whomademyclothes to the brand their tag shows.
Because someone did make our clothes. And that awareness is important.
That awareness is vital to being a smart consumer.
Cotton. *cue jingle* The touch. The feel. The fabric of our lives.
Cotton constitutes 30-40% of the global fiber production and is the most common natural fiber in clothing.
Who is growing it? The top global producers of cotton are China, India, the U.S., then Pakistan. But those are the countries, not the people.
The cotton farmers in these countries have anywhere from 200 acres to large scale farms covering vast countrysides. Some have access to irrigation (cotton is very water dependent), advanced farming techniques, and lower interest loans or preexisting credit to invest in better seeds.
And many do not.
If farmers are forced to take out a loan (often inflexible with exorbitant interest rates) just to pay for pest resistant seeds, and then do not have access to irrigation and are dependent on the sporadic rain seasons (65% of India’s cotton crop is dependent on rain cycles), the cycle of debt is crippling. When the seeds do not deliver because of a drought, the farmer is left with few options.
The number of Indian farmer suicides in the past 20 years because of a combination of these factors and more is striking: over 300,000 with a 40% increase from 2014-2015.
People commit suicide when they don’t see a way out—when they don’t see hope.
These farmers need reforms. They need reforms in access to flexible loans, irrigation, and other agriculture technology.
One six year study on cotton farms in South Africa found that if pest resistant cotton was introduced successfully with irrigation, the families invested most in their children’s education with the higher profits, their second venture was to invest in cotton, third was to repay debt, fourth was to diversify crops, and fourth was to spend on themselves (entertainment, electronic goods and clothes).
Cotton. The fabric of all of our lives—our lives in which we all value education, meaningful work, living debt free, and enjoying simple pleasures.
Somehow I managed to think that clothes were made by machines only. I never considered the hands that operated the machines, let alone the hands that fed the fabric past the needle.
Monday marked the 4 year anniversary of the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse (due to lax building standards and safety measures) in Bangladesh, which killed over 1,000 people and injured 2,500 more. This tragic event brought vital awarenesses to the plight of garment workers in developing countries who struggle under poor conditions, impossible quotas, and oppressive systems all for wages that, if they are minimum wage, are still a fraction of a living wage. Bangladesh’s minimum wage is a mere 18% of a living wage.
These workers, about 80% of whom are women, have tried to protest, they have tried to form labor unions, and they have tried to demand higher wages.
The increasing gap in minimum and living wages for garment workers in the past decade in many developing countries is evidence that their efforts may not produce lasting changes.
The change likely will not come from the governments of these countries because if they raise minimum wage, the factories in these countries lose business as their employers move to lower cost facilities—and then the people who are getting at least a minuscule income would lose even that.
The change won’t initiate from the fast fashion companies because they have no incentive—they listen to money, and right now, our money is telling them to keep making more clothes faster for cheaper.
Who is left?
The change has to come from the consumers. From us. From you and from me.
The first step is awareness.
From cotton to factories to our closets. What happens next?
Because these clothes are made out of cheap materials on low-budget, they fall apart, fade, or go out of style quickly.
We then have two main options. Our first is to throw them away. Evidently a lot of people choose this option—the average American throws away about 81 lbs of textiles annually, adding up to a total of 10.5 million tons entering landfills each year. In these expansive festering landfills, the decomposing textiles give off methane gas (a harmful global warming contributor). But shockingly, studies say 95% of that textile material could be recycled.
The second is to give them to an organization like Goodwill. However, such charities only sell 10-20% of donated clothing on the store floor. The remaining clothes are either thrown away initially because of mildew or sent on to the next step if not sold within a specific period of time.
The next step is “textile recycling”. Here, clothing gets sorted into categories for landfill deposits, fiber recycling, rag usage, and overseas shipments.
If our unwanted clothing goes overseas (mostly to developing countries—1/3 of globally donated clothing ends up in Sub Saharan Africa) bales of clothing dump into local markets in the name of charity for a discounted price. This sounds great, it sounds like we are giving clothing to those in need.
However, due to a saturation of the market by our unwanted clothes as well as inefficient technology and lacking job training in these areas, some of these countries’ local clothing industries have all but disappeared. In fact, in Uganda, 80% of purchased clothing is second hand. People who invested in learning how to sew can no longer make a living off of their trade.
In response to this issue, several Eastern African countries are looking to implement a ban on second hand clothing imports by the year 2019.
Donating our used clothing to places like Goodwill is not a bad thing. I think it is our best option for clothes we already own (besides wearing things for longer and mending our clothes when they stain or rip), but it is imperative to recognize the ecological and social effects of our clothing after it leaves our hands.
The clothes on our back and hanging unused in our closets have a life so much longer than retail store to the goodwill drop-off box. There are stories in our clothing—long, complicated, hard stories. And they need to be told.
Through the process of learning the story behind my clothes, I have felt overwhelmed and small and angry and sad.
I walked into the mall for the first time with new eyes. I saw the advertising and the system of fast fashion, and I saw how garments with expensive stories were selling for so unbearably cheap, and I broke.
The more I thought, I realized that if I do not shop at Forever 21 or H&M, literally nothing will change. In such a huge system I am an inconsequential molecule in a drop in an ocean. However, I realized that if I take the money I would have spent over a year at fast fashion companies and instead invest this money in fewer clothes that matter from businesses who care, those small businesses feel the effects of my support much more directly— and that actually does have the potential to change tides.
As far as I see it, we have several options besides fast fashion companies:
The first is to use what we already have. Mending, repurposing, remaking— these are time consuming but gratifying efforts, and you literally can’t lose by sewing a patch or finding a matching button.
The second is to buy used clothes. If you find something at Goodwill, Our Thrift Store, or others, you get to support local businesses and job training and keep clothing out of landfills—which is pretty rad.
The third is to buy fewer clothing items. We are consuming clothing at a rate five times higher than we were in the 1980’s. This mass production is not sustainable. In order to decrease purchases, we have to buy things that last longer, which leads me to the next point.
Buy clothing with structural integrity. Companies that sell quality clothing intended to last longer are already going against the grain of fast fashion, which is a good sign.
Lastly, when you need to buy something new, consider buying fair trade. Fair trade companies must live up to a rigorous set of standards including criteria for working conditions, wages, child labour, and the environment. Where do you buy these products, you ask?
Great question. Look up “fair trade clothing companies” online and you will get a plethora of online shops. Local brick and mortar stores are harder to find, but a favorite of mine is Scarlett Begonia in Nashville near Vanderbilt University. They have mostly South American imports, and while not everything in their store is certified fair trade, they have personal relationships with many of their suppliers and make a conscious effort to do good through selling clothing. The dress I bought from there (in my portrait) came with a tag telling the story of one of the people who make these dresses; so guess what? I know who made my clothes! Rosy from Mata Traders’ has a unique story, and I am glad to know it.
Fair trade and quality clothing is more expensive, and that’s kinda the point—-it needs to be in order to sustain its producers. Turns out, if you buy less items which last longer for more money, we all still end up clothed all the time, while reducing environmental harm and giving a damn about our fellow human. This action sometimes means giving up being on top of the latest fashion, and I, for one, have made peace with that. I understand however, how important fashion trends are to many, and my main hope through this project is simply to invite you people I care about into an awareness that has been important for me in the past few months. SO, will you ask with me, “Who made my clothes?”