The Life and Death of a Garment 

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In the latest episodes of Trash Magic, Oakley and Sara unravel the mysteries within the fashion industry, revealing corporate corruption, environmental devastation, and the catastrophic effects of overconsumption; through their book review of Unraveled: The Life and Death of a Garment by Maxine Bédat and their discussion with industry expert, Lena Ziegler on Creating a Sustainable Wardrobe, the duo illuminates solutions for ethical consumerism and societal reform. 

The roots of the fashion industry run deep. From first people fashioning shoes out of animal hide to protect their feet to the extravagance of modern-day runways, clothing has always evolved with human culture. In most parts of the world, wearing clothes is required by law; however, fashion can represent an aspect of our character, whether it be wealth and status, religious beliefs, or freedom of expression. Regardless of the reason, clothing has become a cultural necessity. 

Although beautiful dyes and intricate stitching represent an aspect of human evolution, the fabrics that enable this development are interwoven with a bloody history of slavery; today, the fashion industry perpetuates inhumane working conditions, environmental destruction, and overconsumption. As we discovered in the Trash Magic episode of Unraveled, the fashion industry takes advantage of clothing as a cultural necessity. It has grown to be one of the largest businesses in the world, built off the backs of human machines. 

Fashion Industry Illuminated 

Problems in the fashion industry encompass both humans and the environment. Fiber creation takes time, energy, money, and resources; in its wake, there is pollution in the air and in the water and excessive production of waste. The fashion industry is one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gasses, chemicals, and resources like natural fibers. Workers are exploited, factories are underregulated, and inhumane conditions have killed human lives. Within textile production, over 5800 chemical agents are used as rivers become biologically dead, big brands profit. 

Polluted Myanmar River (Credit: Alamy)

In America, we outsource manufacturing, reaping all the benefits of retail and taking no responsibility for environmental destruction. Meanwhile, rivers run black into fields that grow crops from poisoned dirt in countries like Bangladesh and Myanmar. The cotton farmer uses a small wage to buy toxic food and purchase pesticides and insecticides, hoping to compete with big brands, unknowingly polluting to the ground beneath their feet. They sell their cotton to a man in a suit who ships it far away to be made into a $50 shirt, but the cost of the shirt is so much more. Every stitch holds the sweat, blood, and tears of the factory worker who makes these same shirts every day, who earns 18 cents from the 50$ t-shirt. The farmer will make 3 cents, and the earth will continue to die. The shirt, made of 20% cotton and 80% synthetic fabrics, will eventually find its way to a landfill, contributing to the one truckload per the second statistic of thrown-out clothes.  

The fashion industry lacks transparency within the supply chain by offloading responsibility onto another company; clothing brands use a middle-man to outsource materials for their supply chain who finds the cheapest factory around the world that will make clothing for the big brand. As big brands hide behind a middle-man, transparency is lost for the consumer. These hidden aspects could be easily illuminated to the public eye through technology, data, and customer pressure demanding to know more about the lifecycle of a fabric. 

We as individuals hold power; we hold the purse, and we are the ones feeding the corrupt systems within the fashion industry. The best way to make actionable change is to demand transparency of labor conditions and vote with our dollars. 

Becoming Conscious Consumers – the power of your purchase 

As conscious consumers, we deserve to know the truth and answers to the questions: where does my clothing come from; by who and where are these goods manufactured; does the cost of the fabric represent the environmental and human cost? Are we, as consumers, asking the questions: how do brands produce these clothes, how do they run the factories, and how do they treat their workers?

Oakley and Sara dove deeper into the Life and Death of a Garment and offered up some questions for us to ask as conscious consumers: where does the fabric or material come from; what are the growing conditions of the fabric; how much of clothing is chemical-based; what is the lifecycle of the fabric; where does the fabric go, and whose hands stitch it together? 

Human hands have touched every stitch in a piece of your clothing – machines do not make the clothes, humans do. So when we realize that humans are a necessary component of the fashion industry, we understand the gravity of what is at stake: “If H&M could raise the cost of a garment 12-25 cents, the workers could earn a living wage.” 

Although we do not make the decision on what clothes cost, we can choose where to buy clothes. We can demand the eradication of the horrible conditions within textile and fabric factories. We can make a stronger argument for economic growth. We can do better.  

In an ideal world, fibers would be grown in regenerative ecosystems. People would be treated better and earn living wages. Consumers would commit to conscious purchasing, and everyone would be asking the questions: where did this come from, do I really need it, and when it has reached its lifespan, can I reuse it, or can I recycle it? 

We all need to be active citizens, and this means being conscious consumers. 

The Circular Economy of Clothing – Reincarnation of a Garment 

As we reflect on the historical roots of the fashion industry, we must ask ourselves an honest question: have we made any progress? All fingers point to no, prompting Trash Magic to explore the alternatives to fast fashion.

In seeking out solutions, Oakley and Sara discovered that shopping second-hand reduced 85% of the carbon footprint within the fashion industry. Trash Magic dove deeper to explore the concept of slow fashion; rather than buying new, and the discussion encouraged us to shift our perception to think about the material that already exists within a closet.  

When we are finished with a piece of clothing, we sometimes choose to donate to larger donation facilities; however, 20% of what we donate is sold, and the rest is shipped overseas to facilities where they grade the clothes based on materials and what level it exists within and the quality of the clothing itself. Some of these clothes are turned into furniture stuffing or commercial rags, but the rest is sent to a second-hand market. For every three garments that are purchased, two are trashed. The clothes that are not sold in a second-hand market are thrown away into landfills with little or no regulations. 

Every second, one truckload of textiles is wasted.

Millions of tonnes of clothing, shoes, and other textiles end up in landfills every year because very little is sent for recycling (Credit: Alamy)

This startling statistic given by Lena Ziegler, a supply chain management professional and certified in Corporate Sustainability and Circular Economy, was followed by a variety of solutions we as individuals can embrace in order to become ethical consumers of clothing: buy less and be mindful of your purchases; wear what you already have; buy second-hand and if you purchase something new, purchase from brands who offer transparency and ethical sourcing of materials. 

Using clothes, again and again, helps us embody the actual value of a garment; that is the nature of the circular economy. As we evolve into a new era of ethical consumerism, there are many solutions to creating a sustainable wardrobe. 


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