Clothing Under Capitalism

By Gilli Mistry | October 14, 2020

Over the past eight months, online shopping has become more of a necessity than ever before. Not only were we restricted to online shopping for groceries and household items, but many people developed an unhealthy clothing addiction. When you're trapped in your house with a computer and loads of free time, it can be really tempting to click on clothing ads or scroll through your favorite store’s site.

Since there was a sudden burst in the online fashion world, people became much more vocal about sustainability and ethics when shopping. Usually the criteria people look for when they're shopping is: cute clothes, affordable, fast shipping. However with these perks there's always a price. In our current world of constant consumerism it can be really hard to make ethical shopping choices for several reasons.

Let's start with the environment. The fashion industry alone makes up 10% of humanities carbon emissions. This is because massive companies all over the world have doubled their production of clothes since 2000 (i.e. mass production), which leads to almost 85% of these clothes ending up in landfills. Since clothing stores want to produce so much product in such a short amount of time, they end up resorting to unethical methods. Many well known stores like Fashion Nova and Shein use sweatshops, paying their workers far below the minimum wage to work in crowded and unsanitary conditions. Lots of people try to use thrifting as a way to shop ethically. However, since it’s becoming more popular among teens, it’s gentrifying thrift stores, and they are raising prices which makes life harder for families in need of those clothes.

While it’s easy for someone to say that society needs to stop contributing to the fast fashion industry, that's not a very realistic statement. The truth is that the majority of Americans can’t afford to buy from eco-friendly/ethical clothing brands because their clothes are expensive. So what can we do? Well there are a couple of solutions.

To help the environmental impact, if you're interested in buying clothes from smaller businesses with more eco-friendly policies, try it out. Also, if you have time, experiment with upcycling or making your own clothes for fun. However, if like most people, you don’t have the money or time, you can start by spreading the information. Lots of people have no idea where their clothes are coming from and if they did, some of them might look for better alternatives.

Next, it's a matter of trying to popularize the idea of stores upcycling clothing instead of wasting loads of fabric each year. This process is pretty intricate, but Patagonia came up with a great ethical process for their upcycling line “Worn Wear”. In simple terms, it's like recycling cans at the grocery store. When you recycle cans, they only take brands that their store sells, you get money back for returning the cans, and then they reuse that material. Clothing upcycling is a similar process. They take clothing back that you've already bought from them and recycle it into new clothing. Since this process does not encourage overconsumption, hopefully it will lead to more ethical work environments instead of sweatshops. If you read Patigonia’s policies you’ll find they are doing much more along with this “Worn Wear” line to promote environmentally friendly and just overall ethical practices in their brand. As I said earlier, many stores that do this are expensive because they are small businesses. However if upcycling clothing became a popular concept for larger companies, mainstream stores might warm up to the idea and the environmental benefits would be huge. Some mainstream stores such as ASOS and Urban Outfitters have both introduced upcycling lines in their stores that have become increasingly popular. Though both of these stores need reform in their employee treatment and their environmental habits for their regular lines, it is important to support their renewal lines to show that people will buy their environmentally friendly product.

If thrifting is your way of contributing to a more eco-friendly fashion world but you don't want to contribute to the gentrification of thrift stores there are things you can do to shop smarter. When you thrift, try not to do it in areas where there are a lot of people nearby who rely on those clothes, instead try higher income areas where the majority of people thrift for fun. Don’t buy essentials like coats or shoes and stay away from professional looking clothing that can be used for job interviews/work clothes. It’s also thoughtful to donate clothes you don’t wear anymore to the thrift stores where you shop. In addition to this, there are thrifting apps you can use where individual people put their clothes for sale at their own chosen price so there’s no way for the whole store to raise prices.

As for the issue of sweatshops, it’s not an ideal solution to simply stop buying clothes from these companies because all that does is stop the workers from getting paid. To help this issue there needs to be laws put in place that protect the rights of factory workers. These include at the very least allowing workers to form unions, paying them at least minimum wage, and providing them with sanitary, appropriate work environments. To get these laws in motion, we need to be spreading information about the issue of sweatshops and holding companies accountable for participating in it.

Even though it can seem impossible to shop responsibly in our capitalistic society, there are ways we can make change. It may take time but if we keep doing research and try to be conscious of how our purchases make an impact, we can move the fashion industry in an ethical, environmentally friendly direction.