An outdated preconception is that any clothing made in China is “bad,” and that anything made in North America is “good.” Yes, China was at the centre of garment manufacturing for years, but due to their improving economy and higher wages, they’ve since schluffed off a lot of the apparel manufacturing to other countries, such as Bangladesh and Cambodia. And while Canada and the US have minimum wages and stipulations for working conditions, those are sometimes blatantly ignored. A recent study conducted by the Garment Worker Centre in LA found that 42% of garment workers reported having exits to the factory blocked, along with many reports of poor ventilation, lighting, safety and pest control. Let me say that again: Locked. Into. A. Factory. In America. This is the 21st century, people.
On the flip side of the coin, there are clothing brands who manufacture overseas, but do so in an ethical and environmentally conscious manner. They have strict rules that they require factories to comply with. They deal directly with those factories, instead of letting their order get lost in a chain of outsourcing that allows them to eschew any responsibility. Some brands use eco friendly fabric but take advantage of cheap labour, others use ethical manufacturing but out of environmentally harmful raw materials. It’s hard to get everything perfect - the important part is that they’re trying. Coming from someone in the thick of it, ethically making clothing out of responsibly sourced materials, and keeping prices reasonable, is a herculean feat.
The argument that low wage textile manufacturing is good for third world countries is a load of baloney. Yes, these people might be otherwise unemployed if it weren’t for their sewing job, but that’s no excuse for low wages. There have been instances in Cambodia of workers starving to death, despite working six days per week. Starving. To. Death. I struggle to find the goodness in that. The industry has a history rife with slavery and dangerous working conditions, and unfortunately there is no easy fix for it… unless consumers start demanding one.
So, how can we tell if clothing was manufactured responsibly, when the only information we as consumers have to go off of is the country of origin and fabric content? (It’s worth noting that sometimes brands neglect to label this information, which is illegal). It requires some extra homework. Luckily, if brands are doing things the “right” way, they like to brag about it. Watch for sneaky marketing terms, however. For instance, a product that is “designed” in Canada is not necessarily made in Canada.
If in doubt, just ask. For instance, I was in a store whose house brand was manufactured in Pakistan. Upon asking a sales associate, I learned that they in fact owned their own factory, and had all the employees on salary (as opposed to piece work, often used to bypass minimum wages). He said it with such pride that I immediately believed him. Put Dish & Duer denim on the "good" list.
Giving up on cheap fashion is hard. As a teen, I enjoyed H&M and Forever 21 just as much as any other fourteen year old girl. However, there came a point when I looked at a skirt and asked the important question: How could this have been made for five dollars, much less made to be sold for five dollars? Feeling a little sick at the answer, I gradually shifted away from fast fashion. Yes, it was terribly annoying. I was on a student budget (what’s more, I was in fashion school). I started spending more and more time in thrift and vintage shops. Yes, they are a little stinky. Yes, it’s often hard, if not impossible to find good stuff. But you can air your complaints to my (real) $10 Louis Vuitton silk scarf and $20 1950’s Hudson’s Bay mink coat. Treat shopping as a treasure hunt.
The experience that fully solidified my stance against fast fashion was working as a vintage picker in a textile recycling plant (a what? In a what?). Surplus donations from thrift store (around 90% of the total donations) is sent to these recycling plants. They sort the clothing and pack it into bales to be re-sold in third world countries. My job was to sift through piles of clothing (sometimes as big as houses) to find the “good stuff” for vintage stores. One day, while sitting atop the sweater pile (2 storeys high), breathing mildewy, stale air through my face mask, I looked over at the hundreds of cubic metres of clothing destined for the landfill. Coats are not very in demand in third world countries, and so they all ended up in the garbage. This included thousands of real leather and fur jackets. What’s more, due to the improving economies of such countries, people are wanting cheap new clothing, as opposed to Canadian hand-me-downs. What would happen to all this crap when that time came? Nothing like sifting through disgustingly huge amounts of garbage all day to ponder impending environmental doom, and resolve to do something about it.
The stacks of landfill destined clothing were so large that I would have needed a wide angle lens to communicate the breadth of it. Pictured is maybe 10% of the total "landfill" section. It is 30 feet high. Can you spot your $20 jeans in there?
The small stack at the far end is what gets sent off to third world countries for resale. The stacks in the foreground (plus five more "aisles" of it behind) are going straight to the landfill.
One thing I found very hard to find at thrift shops, however, were quality basics. I had five sequined shirts, but no plain white button ups. When I gave up the search and bought a new one, it fell apart. And so Street & Saddle was born. Beautiful, artful classics that will last ages.
What’s more, I started coming across great responsible brands who are doing their best to keep prices reasonable. Mat and Nat, Patagonia, Everlane, Dimik, Downtown Betty and Hermit & Anemone are great examples. I fell in love with their high morals and great design. And of course, Street & Saddle holds to all those same principles. Our sewers get paid fair wages (except for me, but that’s my own doing!). The local garment factory we use is brightly lit, clean, and home to an energetic, collaborative team of craftspeople with over 25 years experience each, who sew to absurdly high quality standards. As hard as it is to find good fabrics, we’re always looking for the eco friendly options.
Yes it’s expensive. Yes it’s a pain in the butt. And yes, it’s the right thing to do.
Happy responsible shopping! The planet and its inhabitants thank you.