Wearing Justice: Confronting the Problems of Fast Fashion  

Back in May, I began working on a post about slavery in supply chains. I hoped to cover three big offenders, chocolate, phones, and fashion, and quickly realized I had been overly ambitious in that hope. (The resulting post can be found here, covering only chocolate.) In preparation for that post, before throwing in the towel on phones and fashion, I was able to gather a number of resources from a single source: Whole Cloth. It dawned on me that there was someone much better suited to tackle fashion justice. Our guest author is “radical homemaker, renegade Ph.D.” Bethany Hebbard. She began the Whole Cloth project (a blog and a community) to explore “the relationship between cloth, craft, and justice.” I’m so thankful that she was willing to share with our Tuesday Justice community about the injustices within the industry and steps to fight for justice in our own closets. – MP – 

Guest Post by Dr. Bethany Hebbard

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“I put on righteousness, and it clothed me; my justice was like a robe…”

(Job 29:14 ESV)

What does it mean to wear justice? This question is as old as the Book of Job, one of the most ancient poems in the Hebrew Scriptures. Today, our relationship to clothing is entangled in the most significant questions of justice in our time: poverty, sustainability, race, slavery, and the meaning of work.

It can be overwhelming to discern where to begin in a conversation about clothing and justice. The most obvious starting point might be the prevalence of “fast fashion” in the global marketplace. “Fast fashion” refers to clothing that is sold at rock-bottom prices, encouraging consumers to purchase, wear, and dispose of clothing at staggering rates. The 2015 film The True Cost offers a highly-engaging introduction to this phenomenon, with a particular focus on the environmental and human rights problems it creates. If you’re interested in the history of fast fashion, Fashionista offers a helpful timeline here. Other resources focus on the environmental and social problems caused by consumer obsession with cheap clothing.

Screen Shot 2017-08-28 at 7.50.23 PM.png.jpgHowever, fast fashion has only accelerated the ethical concerns already at play in global textile systems. Since the development of synthetic dyes in the 1850s, textile dyes have become a major source of water pollution. Fibers such as cotton raise concerns for their water usage and pesticides. Synthetic fabrics, such as polyester and “microfiber,” shed millions of tons of plastic particles into our water systems each year. And industrial textile production has always been notorious for poor labor conditions, from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 to the Rana Plaza collapse of 2013.

How can we ever hope to clothe ourselves in justice, when the facts of global textile production are so bleak? One possible answer lies in the popularity of the phrase “ethical fashion,” which often pops up in articles about the best response to “fast fashion.” There are definitely some exciting developments in the realm of ethical fashion, but I’m reluctant to point to it as the solution for a few reasons. First, “ethical fashion” suggests that it is a subset of the larger “fashion industry.” This link limits its audience to people who are interested in fashion, trends, and style. People who aren’t interested in fashion per se may ignore the conversation, thinking it has more to do with design aesthetics than with basic consumer concerns. However, everyone (a few nudists excluded!) wears clothing, meaning that the ethical questions at hand are far larger than what happens during Fashion Week or on the cover of Vogue.Screen Shot 2017-08-28 at 7.48.26 PM.png

More importantly, “ethical fashion” implies that there is a shared, global ethic of clothing, which simply isn’t true. “Ethical” means action rooted in a coherent set of moral principles. These principles usually come from our understanding of how the world works: what “the good life” looks like; who or what determines right from wrong; and how our personal desires intersect with our responsibilities toward others. To speak of “ethical fashion” as though everyone in the world (or even in the US) shares a common ethic simply isn’t accurate. For some people, environmental concerns might be most important. For others, labor conditions or domestic jobs might be paramount. For others, religious convictions come first. Particular concerns such as these tend to get lost in large-scale public discussions of ethics. This is a problem because an ethic that is vaguely defined and impersonal is unlikely to provoke meaningful action.

In my experience, the most effective answer to the enormous problems of clothing justice come through personal conviction and local action. Here are some ways to begin:

  • Reflect upon and articulate your ethic of clothing.
    • How does your understanding of personhood, morality, and work intersect with concerns about clothing? What sources or figures from your tradition offer guidance on this subject? What concerns do you share with others, and what are distinctively yours? For example, as a Christian, my own ethic of clothing is rooted in the beautiful and prophetic imagery of the Bible. I call it my “Whole Cloth Manifesto,” and it is a living document, constantly undergoing revision as I share and discuss it with members of my faith community.  
  • Make a plan for translating your ethic into action.Screen Shot 2017-08-28 at 7.53.12 PM.png
    • Personally, this has meant strengthening my sewing skills, avoiding all synthetic fabrics, and supporting my local fiber economy (Fibershed is a stellar resource for this) by purchasing Texas cotton and domestically produced clothing whenever possible. It is, sadly, nearly impossible to find an article of clothing that is completely free from the problems described above. For that reason, it is important to have a sense of priority when it comes to your values for clothing. If you have to choose, does your ethic guide you to purchase a shirt made with organic cotton–mitigating significant environmental concerns–or one made with conventional cotton, but grown and sewn in the USA–allowing greater confidence in fair labor conditions?
  • Practice solidarity with those who make your clothes.
    • Learning at least one hands-on skill related to clothing will help you value your clothing more, and also build empathy for those who create our clothing. You might try mending, sewing, dyeing, or something more in-depth, such as weaving. Learning these skills can also empower you to take steps out of the industrial supply chain, whether by prolonging the wear of your clothes through mending, or crafting your own goods in ways that accord with your values.
  • Begin public action within your own community and people.
    • While there is a time for large-scale industry regulations, the most significant problems in the clothing industry are fed directly by consumer demand. By working within your own community–with people who know and trust you–you have an incredible opportunity to change the hearts and habits of people with buying power. By beginning your activism among those with whom you share a worldview and economic background, you will be able to present a specific and compelling ethic of clothing. Within my faith community, this has meant trying to expand the Christian preoccupation with “modesty” to a larger concern with issues of pride, conspicuous consumption, and environmental stewardship as they relate to clothing.

In the spirit of “Tuesday Justice,” it is important to remember that everyday decisions can add up to a lifetime of profound witness and change. If we begin by challenging our own assumptions and practices, we will soon find ourselves speaking (or dressing!) prophetically, mobilizing our own communities and challenging systemic problems. Whether that means wearing organic cotton or “shopping” from your grandma’s closet, you’ll soon find yourself wearing justice like a robe — and that never goes out of fashion.


For more information:

All photos taken by Bethany and stolen (with permission) from her blog, Whole Cloth.

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