Why Ethical Fashion Sparks Joy
Words / Summer Edwards
Many Australians are living with an addiction.
They’re addicted to fast fashion: cheaply made, poor-quality clothing. Just as fast food has set the average waistline bulging, the typical wardrobe is bursting at the seams, filled with impulse purchases and bargain buys that are rarely worn. And, much like fast food, fast fashion can have a toxic impact on your body, the environment and even the spiritual self.
Even if you’re not swayed by fashion trends and limit your shopping to what you really need, it’s still almost impossible to avoid the toxic impact of fast fashion. The clothing in nearly every store in the shopping centre or on the high street has been unethically produced for below living wages in countries that turn a blind eye to the use of toxic dyes and harmful chemical processing.
If you need to reset your health and break an addiction to food, you might go through a detoxing process. Want to untangle yourself from the influence of fast fashion? You can try the same. How is fast fashion toxic? Some might say that calling fashion toxic is a bit alarmist. But the impact of the garment industry on the environment is so significant that Greenpeace has spearheaded an environmental campaign to clean up the industry. They have called this campaign Detox My Fashion. In 2012, Greenpeace conducted an investigation into the use of harmful chemicals in global fashion brands, documented in their report ‘Toxic Threads: The Big Fashion Stitch Up.’
The investigation tested the chemicals present in the garments of 20 global fashion brands, purchased from authorised retailers in 29 different countries. In almost two-thirds of the items tested, nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) were present. NPEs are harmful endocrine-disrupting chemicals widely used in industrial laundry detergents for textile processing. These chemicals mess around with your hormones and chronic exposure may impact upon reproductive health.
How can such chemicals in clothing affect your health?
The residue of these harmful chemical substances can be absorbed by the skin of the wearer. Have you ever purchased a new pair of jeans and worn them without washing them first? Remember the distinctive blue stains on your hands and legs? Those chemical stains were quite possibly harming your health. Perhaps most worrying is that many of the garments tested by Greenpeace were from well-known children’s clothing brands. In 2009, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission oversaw the mass recall of more than 200,000 denim products that contained carcinogenic azo dyes. Brands recalled included Cotton On, Just Jeans, Rivers and Myers, among others. Low levels of regulation and insufficient testing of consumer imports mean that many more toxic garments may be overlooked — and Greenpeace investigations show this to be the case.
How your wardrobe affects others
Harmful synthetic chemicals have an impact not only on the health of people who buy and wear fast-fashion garments but also on the health of workers and communities in the country of manufacture where environmental and worker protections are lacking or poorly enforced. NPEs, for example, are known to be toxic to fish and aquatic life.
Greenpeace has documented the widespread pollution of waterways and drinking water supplies as a result of garment manufacturing in countries including China, Indonesia and Mexico. In each case, their investigations uncovered that the manufacturing factories were working for well-known international brands.
When a consumer purchases a fast-fashion garment, in the action of creating demand for these products they become an agent in the suffering of garment workers. In April, 2015, 72 workers were killed when a fire broke out in their shoe factory in the Philippines. Workers were prevented from escaping due to metal bars on the windows and the absence of fire safety exits. Similarly, this factory manufactured for many well-known global brands.
Tragedies like this are just the tip of the iceberg.
When it comes to the fast-fashion garment industry, the suffering of workers is significant and widespread. Health risks include cancer and other serious illness through exposure to toxic chemicals and industrial dust. As an industry primarily staffed by young women and managed by men, sexual harassment of garment workers by managerial staff is also widespread.
By choosing to purchase fast fashion over ethical alternatives, we are contributing to the harm suffered by garment workers.
Following are some simple steps you can take.
1) Declutter your wardrobe.
The last thing you should do is run out and replace your whole wardrobe with new items. When it comes to the garments you already own, the damage is already done and changing these for new items won’t mitigate this. But it’s still worth going through a decluttering process to pare back your wardrobe to only garments you actually wear and use.
It’s important to go through this process with mindfulness, considering the reasons you don’t wear a particular garment. If you’re mindful of your motivations for purchasing garments you didn’t get good use from, you can gain a better understanding of what led you to make that purchase in the first place.
This understanding can help you to avoid making the same mistake in the future and give you a better chance of detangling yourself from fast fashion’s addictive qualities.
2) Learn to live with less
Before you go out and buy anything new, start to get a feel for how your wardrobe works with fewer items in it. As with any addictive substance, the tendency is to over consume. You may have an abundant wardrobe but there’s a good chance you have your favourites you wear over and over again while other items are barely used. Again, if you’re mindful of this, you can begin to learn whether you were over consuming out of habit or addiction. You can try to test yourself to learn whether you can make do with fewer garments overall, limiting yourself to garments that are of better quality and make you feel great when you wear them.
3) Plan your wardrobe needs
Once you’ve decluttered and considered how many garments you actually need in your wardrobe you’ll have a better understanding of what you might need to purchase.
Are some of your garments wearing out? Do you need more of a particular favourite or basic like black T-shirts, tights, a silk shirt or tailored trousers?
If you leave things to the last minute, you’ll be likely to rush to the most convenient local store, but if you plan ahead you will have time to research and find an ethical, non-toxic option for your wardrobe. If you anticipate your wardrobe needs for the next year, you’ll have the time to find the perfect garments that not only look great but are also kind to your health, the environment and the people who made them.
4) Research your ethical & non-toxic options
There are a growing number of ethical and sustainable fashion brands that pay close attention the social and environmental impacts of their manufacturing and ensure that production of their clothing does not harm their workers or the environment.
When it comes to ethical and sustainable fashion, Australia punches well above its weight. Look for labels that are open and up front about the values and the principles they use to guide their manufacturing. Non-toxic options for garments are sustainable natural textiles such as certified organic cotton plus linen, silk, wool and hemp if they’ve been dyed using low-impact or natural dyes. If you want to feel confident that the garment is both ethical and non-toxic, it’s better you look for global certifications you can trust such as Fairtrade certification or the Global Organic Textile Standard.
Unsure about where to start your hunt for kinder clothes?
More and more people are writing about sustainable fashion and not-for-profit organisations are starting up with the intention of highlighting brands that are kind to workers and environment. Good On You (goodonyou.eco) is a not-for-profit organisation in Australia whose mission is to help consumers find ethical and sustainable fashion by rating brands on their impact on people, animals and planet.