I have spent the last 8 years working in the apparel industry. By trade, I’m a designer. I have a degree in fashion design, and for the last 7.5 years I designed women’s apparel for a major global brand.
Over the last decade, I’ve become increasingly aware of the environmental impact of apparel manufacturing. When an assignment brought me to India for a year, I began working very closely with factories, and learned even more about the resources and man power required to run a mass-market apparel business.
THE TRUE COST OF CLOTHING
Manufacturing is an important piece of the Indian economy, giving livelihoods to workers in poor areas and encouraging what has become a mass urban migration to manufacturing hubs like Chennai and Bangalore.
It also has an undeniable effect on the environment. A staggering amount of water is used to grow cotton, to treat fabric, and to wash and dye garments. Chemicals used in these processes can contaminate water supply if waste water is not treated properly. Thousands of sewing machines and lights in factories use a huge amount of electricity, as do the cooling systems needed to counteract the heat created by the sewing machines and light bulbs.
Then there is the waste created by the product itself. Samples are shipped wrapped individually in poly-bags and displayed with plastic hangers. The apparel industry by nature encourages the rapid turnover of trends, creating a need for customers to consistently buy new product in order to keep up. Garments are rarely worn long enough to be “worn out”, and are often discarded after a few months use, whether to the trash or to a charity shop.
In reality, only a fraction of the clothes taken to the charity shop end up getting displayed for sale. Some are sent to be pulped and turned into things like cleaning rags or insulation, and the rest are sent to a landfill.
Then there is the human rights side of apparel manufacturing, which is too complex an issue for me to fully address here. However, I will say that though many companies have good intentions with regard to human rights for workers in the supply chain, overseeing and enforcing human rights policies at every stage of the product life cycle is extremely difficult. While I appreciate brands that are dedicated to the ethics of their products, good intent doesn’t always mean 100% compliance from mills, factories, and farms.
WHAT IS IT ALL FOR?
I have spent the last 7.5 years involved in the nitty gritty details of design, endlessly tweaking colors, print techniques, sleeve proportions, and fabric qualities in order to funnel thousands of units of product into stores for middle-American consumers to buy at a sharp price point. I wish I could say I was proud of the product I’ve produced in my time as a designer, but in looking at our best sellers and the volume of the orders behind them, I can say with confidence that it’s product no one actually needs.
I must confess that I’m not leaving my post 100% voluntarily. I was laid off. I sensed that my time at this company was coming to a close a few months ago, and it felt like the perfect time to start this blog. I started to ask myself what I could do, what I could change about my lifestyle in order to live without creating so much waste. Since I started on this journey, I’ve become more and more eager to find a way to make a living without contributing to a system that creates stuff for the sake of stuff, at a devastating cost to the environment. What could I do that would enable me to sleep soundly at night knowing that I was working every day to try and make the world a better place, rather than fill it with things that nobody needs?
LESS IS EVERYTHING
When the official news finally came that my position was being eliminated, I was 100% ready. I fulfilled my responsibilities to my team, and started to wind down my workload. Today is my last day. Tomorrow I’ll wake up with a clear calendar and a clear head, ready to get to work full time on cutting down on my waste and environmental impact, and to encourage others to do the same.
I don’t mean to suggest that we should all quit our jobs, but there are things we can all do every day to help reverse the course that we’re on, and one of them is to quit supporting mass-market brands. Quit buying things you don’t need. Redefine what “need” means. Live with less. Buy less. Throw less away. Have less clutter in your life, in your home, in your car, so that you can focus on things that will truly bring you fulfillment. Because stuff you can buy at an outlet mall for $19.99 won’t bring you fulfillment. I guarantee it.