Stash has learned so much about the garment industry since opening our doors three years ago. Beginning as a collective with four like-minded individuals, we cultivated a hard-core discussion early on - Buying vintage might not save the world, but maybe it's time to ask a bigger question; "Who made our clothes?" Our friend, Mary Imgrund, has taken the time to share her thoughts and research on fast fashion and how it affects our minds, our economy, our environment, and our health.
The feeling when an acquaintance likes the same band that you do, but doesn’t listen to the lyrics. That’s how I sometimes feel about vintage clothing, which is so much more than a Macklemore meme, but a means to be mindful, subversive, and sustainable in one’s style. That isn’t to say I’m the only one who shops with ethics in mind. For the past few years, I’ve been fascinated with sustainable clothing, which refers to pieces made by workers paid a fair wage (preferably sewn by those who designed them) with a small or negligible environmental impact. When choosing to buy vintage, handmade, or thrifted goods, you’re concurrently rejecting the wasteful, manipulative world of fast fashion. The best part is that you don’t have to stop loving clothing to critique the fashion industry. In fact, having a cohesive aesthetic is one of the easiest ways to reduce waste, following your own look rather than trends will make you a more discerning fashionista. At the end of the day, sustainable fashion is important because personal style and artistry are incompatible with profit-driven decision making done by international brands.
The business of big fashion is largely driven by an exploitation of human insecurities, as evidenced by the millions of dollars advertisers spend to convince viewers that one more lipstick, or a certain brand of jeans is the key to happiness, sexiness, and completeness. This is despite the evidence to the contrary. Scarier still, advertising can shift one’s unconscious perceptions. In the BBC’s 2013 documentary The Secret of the Superbrands, a young British woman is subjected to a series of photographs of handbags while in an MRI machine; when she saw designer purses, the machine showed red and orange fireworks in the pleasure center of her brain. Designer clothing and the knock-offs it inspires are all based on the idea of accessible inaccessibility, consumers pay top dollar for items made in the same factories as clothing from Walmart, but are stamped with logos that are associated with luxury and desire, whether or not the piece itself is luxurious. The opposite is just as bad. While some are paying $100 for a $10 tee shirt made by Alexander Wang, discount stores use flattery and references to shoppers’ savviness to convince them to pay $20 for a shirt that cost a fraction of a penny to produce.
Across the ocean, the developing world is paying the biggest price for our cheap and branded clothing. The production of garments is faster and cheaper than ever before, thanks to a globalized economy. In the 1960’s, 95% of clothes worn by Americans were made domestically; now only 3% of our clothing is made here, according to the documentary The True Cost. The countries and factories vying for the business of clothing brands are given the false choice between retaining their all-important contracts and addressing safety and wage concerns. This system not only keeps wages low, it gives these companies deniability — benefiting from, but not explicitly demanding, humanitarian disaster. This is an example of a race to the bottom economy, which The Financial Times defines as “the situation in which companies and countries try to compete with each other by cutting wages and living standards for workers, and the production of goods is moved to the place where the wages are lowest and the workers have the fewest rights.” The result of such a system produces tragedies like the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, killing 1,129 people. The building had been visibly deteriorating, yet the factory owner ignored calls to evacuate the building. Thousands were trapped in the rubble, either dying instantly, or being slowly crushed and suffocated in the debris. Stories like this are becoming commonplace, as three of the four most deadly tragedies in the fashion industry happened in 2013.
Fast Fashion is the second largest polluting industry, second only to oil, according to Eileen Fisher, a fashion industry CEO. To put that in perspective, drilling for oil, with all of its leaks and pipelines, is the only thing dirtier than the garment industry. This takes into account all of the chemicals, packaging, and natural resources that go into making each garment. Denim manufacturers are known to dump cadmium, mercury, and lead into bodies of water surrounding their factories. In India, the Noyyal River is now toxic thanks to the boom of clothing manufacturing in the nearby town of Tirupur. The water is so saturated with chemicals that local farmers have petitioned the Madras High Court to not release the water in their fields, and a local university found that about 30% of villagers near the river suffered symptoms of waterborne diseases. In 2007, it was reported that Tirupur’s factories were dumping 23 million gallons of untreated water into the Noyyal River. As Newsweek writes, “According to Yixiu Wu, who helms Greenpeace’s “Detox My Fashion” campaign, the average pair of jeans requires 1,850 gallons of water to process; T-shirts require 715 gallons.” Cotton also soaks up other resources, taking 10 percent of all agricultural chemicals and 25 percent of all insecticides, despite only taking up 2.4 percent of the world’s cropland. In some cases, this water is taken from other sources. Two rivers in Central Asia were diverted away from the Aral Sea for use for cotton irrigation, causing it to slowly dry up, become over-salinized, and laden with nitrogen from fertilizers used in cotton’s production. The fisheries and villages that depended on this water now have none.
So now that I’ve successfully made you sad (Not my intention!), there is good news. It’s so easy to break free of this system. Local vintage stores like Stash are crusaders for cool, sustainable duds. By wearing vintage clothing, you’re not only avoiding buying something new from Forever 21, you’re giving life to a piece that might otherwise end up in a landfill or shipped to a developing nation that doesn’t need more secondhand clothes (only 10% of donated clothing is sold in thrift stores, the rest goes unsold and is shipped by the ton around the world or tossed into landfills). Two good deeds rolled into one -- it’s like karmic happy hour. On top of that, older clothing is usually better made than the mass produced versions we peddle today, and as you see me quietly kicking myself for getting rid of my old overalls, be reminded that everything comes back into style.
As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, the easiest way to resist the temptation to buy into fast fashion is to rely on personal style rather than ephemeral trends. Since vintage clothing covers a huge range of styles and eras, it’s easy to find unique pieces to suit any taste. So next time you’re shopping at Stash, pat yourself on the back for not only supporting local business (I could go on about how great that is, too) but using your wallet to vote against untenable business practices and environmental disaster. If enough people choose to do this rather than hit up their local mall, we can force some substantial change.
Mary Imgrund is a graduate of Penn State where she studied English, American Studies, and Writing. She is a freelance writer, blogger, and sometimes-artist currently living in Harrisburg, PA. She is the co-founder and organizer of the HBG Flea, a curated urban flea market. A horseback rider, sustainable fashion hoarder, politics junkie, and cat cuddler, her work has been published in the Sigma Tau Delta Rectangle, The Burg, Im-Possible, The Elephant Journal, and From the Fallout Shelter.