Before I came to Stanford I was a carnivore. I would gladly eat steak for breakfast and I looked forward to barbeques like an eight-year-old counting down to a Disneyland trip. When I returned home and people were shocked by my strange new eating restrictions, I told them it was peer pressure that made me do it. This was mostly to avoid conceding the expected self-righteous vegetarian response, but also because it was the truth. My peers were more environmentally aware here and that encouraged me to really consider the issues around meat consumption.
But what about clothing? Many people are aware of the standards of low wages, long hours and unsafe and unhealthy working conditions in factories all over the world and child labor practices, which are all too common. Material sourcing can also be problematic. Nylon and polyester are synthetic, non-biodegradable materials. Nylon manufacturing creates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide, while polyester requires large amounts of water for production. Cotton is the most pesticide intensive crop in the world and estimates suggest that around two billion dollars worth of pesticides are used annually. Pesticide spraying is damaging to the health of the workers and to the people living in that vicinity. Another issue is cruelty to animals. Many clothing products such as fur, leather and wool come from animals and the treatment of those animals can be just as bad, or worse, as many infamous practices in the meat industry.
But because there is so little public pressure, there is very little incentive for companies to improve their standards. There have been reports about the exploitive labor practices of Abercrombie and Fitch, Adidas, Gap and Disney but there has been minimal backlash. While harmful practices in the food industry have been widely publicized through popular books and documentaries, the clothing industry does not receive the same amount of public dismay. In the aftermath of two deadly factory tragedies in Bangladesh, in 2013 America’s Research Group found that shoppers were still much more concerned with the fit and price of clothing than where it was made and under what conditions.
One of the biggest obstacles to change in the fashion industry is that clothing these days is incredibly complex. There are numerous steps, processes and materials involved. Major retailers usually rely on the factories they work with to do the sourcing of the materials, which means it can be essentially impossible for buyers to know what is in their product. And even if there were potential for research, tracking every thread of every piece of clothing purchased would be a Herculean task. Also, many of ethically sourced fashion brands tend to be more expensive and not really an option for some consumers. The reason a lot of these harmful practices exist in the clothing industry is because it allows brands to sell their clothing at a cheaper price and consumers have become accustomed to these prices.
Some clothing companies are building a brand around sustainable practices like Patagonia, whose fleeces many students sport on campus. Patagonia was one of the first clothing companies to use recycled materials and make the switch to organic cotton. The company is also working with Fair Trade Certified factories in Sri Lanka, India and Los Angeles. Patagonia donates 1 percent of their sales to environmental groups and allows their employees up to two months of fully paid leave to volunteer with an environmental nonprofit.
There are also some clothing labels out there which can help consumers make better purchasing decisions. Fair Trade USA labels some clothing brands. Fair Trade requires companies follow certain safety and wage standards. But under 1 percent of clothing in the US is stamped fair trade and Fair Trade certified clothing tends to be a little more expensive than similar items that don’t have the label. Some clothes are also labeled as made with organic cotton. But the clothing industry definitely does not have the level of certification that exists in the food industry, mostly because it is almost impossible to properly monitor every level of the production process. To help with that there are some websites which research the sourcing practices of clothing brands such as projectjust.com.
But one of the most effective ways to ensure your wardrobe has less of a negative environmental impact is just to buy less clothing. Unfortunately, a lot of clothing these days is not made to last and modern fashion is based on the standard of perpetually evolving trends, but there are some timeless, well-made pieces out there. In addition, secondhand clothing is not only a unique and exciting shopping experience, but also the clothing version of recycling. So next time you’re looking to update your wardrobe consider these few threads for thought.
Contact Michaela Elias at melias23 ‘at’ stanford.edu.