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By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
It’s been many months since I’ve last written about the global costs imposed by the popularity of ‘fast fashion’ – cheaply made clothes worn only a couple of times before being disposed of, to make way for new items in the wardrobe. The industry has grown explosively in recent years and despite the workplace transformations that have followed from the COVID pandemic, the latest study I’ve seen projects that the growth of fast fashion will continue.
If readers could see me now, they’d realize I’m far from being a poster child for fast fashion. One perk of being a writer is that one can dress however one pleases when doing one’s work.
When I’m in India, I wear Indian dress. There are a couple of reasons for this. First and foremost is that traditional Indian dress is so very well-suited to the climate. I don’t understand why the British insisted on wearing heavy Western clothes in the hot, humid subcontinental climate – going so far as to bar Indians (and others) who wore more suitable Indian cottons from their clubs and other public places.
For everyday wear, I usually wear a salwar kameez. This Indian-style pantsuit consists of a tunic, Indian trousers – I’ve come to prefer voluminous patiola – which barely skim the body, but I sometimes I wear calf and ankle hugging churidor. These two pieces are topped with a dupatta – a large rectangle of clothing somewhere in size between a simple scarf and a shawl across my shoulders. I can use that to cover my head if I enter a mosque or temple and to protect myself from the sun, or wind-born dust, at other times. With the fabric wrapped around my head and covering my eyes, I can easily sleep if I find myself on a long train, bus, or car journey. I prefer natural fibers – fine Indian cotton, or sometimes silks, but never artificial fibers.
The second reason I wear India-stle clothes is to signal to people I encounter in the course of researching my textile book that I know something about India’s textile traditions. Another benefit is that purchasing Indian fabric (or dupattas) or ready-made clothes from textile artisans is a way for me to support their work.
For more dressy occasions, I’ve been known to don a sari. I can wear a sari – and have been told by Indians that I do so reasonably well – but always with the caveat – ‘for a foreigner.’ But I haven’t mastered the art of draping one. So I can wear a sari but I can’t exactly dress myself. No problem. There’s always some female Indian friend or acquaintance who’s happy to help me to drape and pin the sari.
In New York, particularly during these socially-distanced COVID times, I’m not so fastidious about my dress. At the moment, I’m wearing atattered maroon sweatshirt – circa 1977. The Newton High School athletic director, Art Disk, gave this to me one day when I was on my way to keep the scorebook at a high school baseball game and I didn’t have anything to keep me warm on that cold spring day. I like to be warm, so when the sweatshirt is in the laundry basket, I opt for well-worn cotton flannel or denim shirts, topped by one of the heavy woolen sweaters I’ve accumulated either during travels or hand-knitted by my mother. All of these are at least decades old, and since they’re of high-quality and I store them carefully, should be good for many more years of service. I also have various fleeces from my years as a ski bum – which always remind me of my friend, Tricia, who noted that in Whistler, ‘we have fleece- and dress fleece.’ Indeed. Made out of microfibers. Such fleeces – whether dressy or not – are forever.
That’s the top side taken care of. As for the rest of my ensemble? Heavy wool socks, naturally. And the bottoms, what my husband calls my ‘Rupert bear’ trousers. A rotation of flannel, pyjama or sweat-style pants, in the loudest plaids I can find.
Let it not be said I that I treat my clothes as disposable. Or that anyone would describe me as a fashion victim.
Alas, the rest of the world doesn’t follow my example, particularly in places where disposable ‘fast fashion is the norm. This cheap clothing, is intended to be worn a few times only, then discarded, and is renowned for being poorly made. Although it appears to be cheap, huge environmental or other costs are embedded within its nominally cheap price. For starters, the people who make the clothes aren’t paid properly, and their working conditions are often appalling. As for environmental impact, lots of water is involved in textile production. Noxious chemicals are used in dying or to create microplastic fibers that last forever. And we shouldn’t forget the carbon footprint, not only to create the clothes, but then to ship them around the world to destination markets, where after being worn only a couple of times, they’re then sent on a return journey to their ultimate place of disposal.
The outcome of Glasgow’s COP26 summit has been underwhelming, to say the least. A deep divide has emerged between the developed and developing world. The parties couldn’t agree on obviously overdue moves – such as phasing out the use of coal – let alone tackling other pressing issues that contribute to global warming. These include agricultural practices, broadly defined; steadily increasing plastics manufacture; and expanded textile production, fuelled by the fast fashion sector.
According to US News & World Report, How Fast Fashion Dumps Into the Global South:
The fast fashion industry has boomed tremendously in recent years – with Western countries leading the world in consumption and secondhand clothing exports, which are clogging developing countries and landfills with used clothing.
A major point of contention at the United Nations Climate Conference – which comes to an end this weekend in Glasgow, Scotland – is the divide between wealthy and developing countries. And just as there is an increasing divide between countries that became rich from fossil fuels powering their economies and poor countries being told those fuels are now too dangerous for the planet, the fast fashion industry is exposing a chasm between wealthy countries exporting used clothing and developing countries becoming textile dumping grounds.
Currently, the U.S. leads the world in secondhand clothing exports. In 2018, the U.S. exported nearly 719 million kilograms (1.58 billion pounds) in secondhand clothing, over 200 million kg higher than its runner up, Germany. These exports end up in secondhand markets around the world, particularly in the Global South, and often at a rate and volume higher than its recipients can handle.
The US News article contains some interesting charts that show where the discarded clothing comes from – with the U.S., Germany, UK, Korea, China, and Japan topping the list. Much of these used textiles ends up in Africa – which accounts for six of the top 20 countries for secondhand clothing imports, in Kenya, Angola, Tunisia, Ghana, Tanzania and Uganda – or in Pakistan and India.
Many of these destination countries are fed up with taking in these textile exports. The clothes are of such low quality no one wants them. Moreover, dumping this textile waste has also distorted domestic textile production, which is still a major source of employmen in developing countries.
Those who’ve followed the course of U.S. trade policy over the last couple of decades – particularly its impact on domestic U.S. employment – will be unsurprised at the reaction of the U.S. to the efforts of African countries to insulate their domestic textile producers from the secondhand clothing imports. According to US News and World Report:
While resistance to Western clothing dumping has taken root in East Africa, the U.S. has leveraged its global influence and financial aid to ensure that it can still export secondhand clothes to African markets.
In 2017, the East African countries of Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, South Sudan and Burundi tried to phase out imports of secondhand clothing and shoes because of the way they undermined domestic efforts to develop their own textile industries. The countries sought to ban these imports entirely by 2019.
However, in March of 2017, the Office of the United States Trade Representative threatened to remove four of these six East African countries from the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, a preferential trade deal intended to lift trade and economic growth across sub-Saharan Africa. Burundi and South Sudan had already been expelled from the trade deal under accusations of state violence.
What Is To Be Done?
Many Americans and other fast fashion consumers just don’t understand the problems their consumption has created. Nor that people in developing countries don’t regard their used clothing as a boon. According to U.S. News and World Report:
[Sarah Bibbey, the co-founder and acting director of Make Fashion Clean, a non-profit organization working to make denim consumption more sustainable globally] highlights the culture around clothing donations as part of what fuels overconsumption and clothing dumping in the U.S., as consumers buy too much with the idea of being able to donate their clothes later.
“People might hear that their clothes ended up somewhere and they might think that that’s always 100% a good thing, just because there’s that mindset of American saviorism that we have here,” Bibbey said. “We get the idea that that’s a good thing, even when we see in reality it’s putting local artisans and local clothing makers out of business because they’re competing in a sense with this influx of secondhand clothes.”
Consumers are not solely or even principally to blame for the problem. The fast fashion industry is surely aware of the amount of unnecessary, crappy clothing it produces. Selling these items, often and incessantly, is after all, the basis of its business model. So a good part of the onus for correcting the problem must ultimately fall on fast fashion purveyors.
They alone look unlikely to act any time soon. For change to happen, government regulation is also surely necessary. Over to U.S.. News and World Report again:
Because of the unique intensity at which Americans consume and dump clothes – with news reports citing a fivefold increase in the amount of clothing Americans have purchased over the past three decades and an average of only seven uses per item – the U.S. requires unique solutions to the global fast fashion crisis.
With the U.N. Climate Conference coming to a close, coming up with solutions to these pressing environmental problems is a top priority, advocates say. And, just as the blame for this crisis cannot fall solely on consumers, environmental activists say solutions need to be sought beyond the consumer level, too.
I must admit that the COP26 news out of Glasgow has depressed me to no end. Global warming and the other environmental crises the world faces are urgent and acute. Our leaders don’t seem up to the task of addressing these challenges, on either the scale or in the timeframe necessary. To do so appropriately, and comprehensively, is surely to look beyond the well-known issues of transportation emissions and power production, to include some of the other concerns I mentioned above – food, plastics, and fashion.