Fashion and Ethics: Why Should I Care and What Can I Do?

by Christine Sine

We consume. That’s a fact of life. “Overcoming Consumerism”, our mini-theme this week, is not about ending consumption but rather paying more attention to why we buy what we buy, how much we buy, and what kinds of things we ultimately spend our money on. In this post, MSA teammate Katie Metzger challenges us to consider the source of our clothing purchases. What impact does your Christmas shopping have on those who produce and sell your gifts? Whether or not we realize it, shopping reflects our values.

Katie Metzger

Female Garment Worker in Thailand

Female Garment Workers in Thailand

Look at the clothes you are wearing right now….Would you believe that 80-90% of what you are wearing was made in inhumane, unsustainable conditions?

Well, the sad fact is, this is most often the case. Sweatshops are not a thing of the past. Buying well-made, high end clothing does not mean that it is made in any different conditions than Old Navy or Walmart clothing.

This is hard to swallow, and as someone who loves fashion and also believes that all people bear the image of God, it can seem too overwhelming to even think about. However, information and acknowledgement is where change begins.

So why should you care about where your clothing comes from and what can you, practically, do?

When discussing the issue of ethicality in the clothing industry, one may have images of sweatshops and child laborers in developing nations toiling all day in inhumane conditions. Although this image may seem extreme, it is a very real aspect of our current garment and fashion industry practices worldwide.

Sweatshops from Bangladesh to Cambodia routinely pay their workers less than $1.20 per day for their work. This is not a living wage, even in poverty stricken communities. The chronic underpayment of garment industry workers creates a cycle of poverty in already struggling communities, in turn contributing to other social issues resulting from poverty such as lack of access to education, health problems, and prostitution. Sweatshops are not only present in developing nations but are also a growing problem in the United States.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in recent years roughly 11,000 U.S. based factories were cited as violating workers rights and not paying laborers a minimum wage. This shows the problem of human rights violations in textile and garment factories is not only an international problem but a domestic problem as well. Additionally, many companies touted as being ethically made have had numerous sweatshop scandals. When it comes to clothing ethicality we must learn to be active, not passive, consumers of information.

Ethical Clothing Brand: Same Thread

In 2006, a study was done by the American Sociological Association regarding the marketability of fair trade products; this study found that an overwhelming majority of consumers would pay $1-$5 more for items they know are made in an ethical way.

Although large strides towards ethical production have been made in the coffee, chocolate and food industry, the clothing industry remains hugely underserved.

I am someone who loves fashion and clothing. The thrill of a new dress or pair of shoes is not lost on me. However, I also believe that all humans are entitled to certain God given rights that must be respected.

As I’ve become more interested in ethicality and the fashion industry I keep asking myself, “What can I, practically, do?”. Not all of us can afford to shop exclusively from fair trade clothing brands, and more often than not the aesthetics in fair trade clothing is extremely lacking. So what small changes can we make to have a positive impact on the clothing industry?

1. Realize that someone is paying the price for your clothing…is it you or the garment worker? Jeans should cost more than $9.99. When you come across clothing that is extremely cheap ask yourself, “what kind of production practices lend itself to producing a $3 tank top”? The answer is usually pretty obvious.

2. Inform yourself about your favorite brands. It is well-known that companies such as Forever 21, H&M, Victoria’s Secret, and Walmart have unethical supply chains. However, information and transparency is severely lacking for many brands. Do some digging online and if nothing is available, request information. Here is a thorough list to get you started on what companies to avoid and which to buy.

3. If you are unsure, shop local and second-hand. Finding local markets and boutiques supports your local economy and makes it easier to engage in conversation and get information. Also, second-hand and vintage shopping can be a cost-effective and fun way to go! Most of my favorite pieces in my wardrobe were found at great vintage stores. I love that shopping locally and second-hand gives me a unique wardrobe and personal style.

4. Start exploring and support fair trade fashion companies. As I stated earlier, finding fair trade clothing that is actually fashionable can be a struggle. Many fair trade clothing companies are either insanely expensive or produce clothing you wouldn’t want to wear. However, lately there has been a huge surge of new fashionable clothing companies that are competitively priced. Here is a list of some of my current fair trade favorites: Mata Traders, People Tree, Fair Indigo, Sseko

logoDue to the lack on choice in the ethical clothing market, In early 2015 my business partner and I launched our first collection of fashion forward, ethically made clothing. Same Thread helps to empower women vulnerable to the sex industry in Thailand by providing economic opportunity while expanding fair trade choices for consumers. For more information visit us at samethread.com.

Informing ourselves and leaning into change is the first step to breaking our collective addiction to fast fashion. Join me in working to bring reconciliation and progress to the fashion industry!


katieKatie is the Co-Founder and Creative Director of Same Thread, an ethical clothing brand for women. She also serves on staff at Mustard Seed Associates and The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. She is a native Pacific Northwesterner with a passion for social justice and bringing fair trade business practices into the mainstream.

In 2014 she completed her MA in International Development at Northwest University, where she focused on social enterprise and it’s capacity to economically empower women. She has a background in event planning, marketing, design and retail production. On a typical Saturday she can be found cooking, sewing, drawing, listening to records, vintage shopping, sipping whiskey and playing with her puppies.

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1 comment

Sheena Freeman November 6, 2016 - 5:06 pm

What labour rates to pay in another country can be a thorny problem because there are so many aspects to consider. It might be wiser to work on a shopping basket value than a purely monetary value. I was member of Business and Professional Women around the turn of the century. International membership fees cost the equivalent of taking a friend for a coffee in the USA or UK but it was a month’s salary in Zimbabwe. However, we were living quite adequately on that income.

People in the sweatshops value their jobs because employment makes it possible to support their families, especially in countries with no formal social security schemes. If you dramatically raise wages for one sector of the population it can skew the economy of a country and cause severe social inequalities. Prices will rise because some sectors of the market can stand it. This can create enormous problems for small local businesses, people without work or on fixed incomes.

It is also very unwise to raise wages without a rise in productivity. It might look good and feel good for a while, but it leads to inflation. I saw it happen in Zimbabwe. What started in 1980 as an attempt to improve workers’ lives led, in less than thirty years, to a complete economic meltdown. Inflation was running at five hundred million percent year on year before the currency collapsed and went out of use in 2009. Shops were increasing their prices four times a day to try and keep pace. Admittedly there were other causes as well – but we saw the jewel of Africa largely destroyed in less than thirty years.
The people who suffer most are the vulnerable low paid workers, pensioners, etc. Their wages have increased out of all recognition in numeric terms, but the buying power has been severely eroded – often below previous ‘sweatshop’ levels. One of the worst aspects, when a currency collapses, is that everyone’s savings disappear and they are left with nothing. Thus people who worked hard and saved for their old age are left destitute and starving.

The butterfly can cause a hurricane.

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