One year ago yesterday, the world watched – horrified – as a garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,100 workers inside. It served as a brutal reminder that the Western taste for fast fashion is not victimless, and many people responded by declaring a boycott on clothing made in Bangladesh (more on that in a bit).
I had my own personal awakening about this back around the turn of the millennium. I was a poor student (the really poor kind) and had gotten my hands on Naomi Klein’s epic No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. The book is made up of four sections: “No Space”, “No Choice”, “No Jobs”, and “No Logo”. The first three deal with the negative effects of brand-oriented corporate activity, while the fourth discusses steps people have taken to fight back.
To say it resonated intensely with me would not be an understatement. I had never been particularly political until that point (I’d also been a teenager) but it really changed my perspective on a lot of the brands that until then, I had felt either fondly or neutrally towards. I was horrified to learn of the negative impact that some of the brands case studied had created – job loss in North America, inhumane working conditions abroad, and the gutting of communities, to name a few. It made me much more keenly aware of social justice issues, and was an important precursor to my becoming vegan.
I’ve always enjoyed shopping (it’s a guilty pleasure, believe me), but now instead of being a mallrat I changed my focus to searching for more mindful and ethical alternatives. I wanted the things that I bought to have stories. I wanted to know the owners of the establishments where I spent money. I wanted the ecological footprint of my purchases to be smaller than their conventional counterparts. (Is it any wonder why I wanted to work for terra20 so badly when the opportunity arose?)
Bangladesh reminded me of all these things that I had learned 12-13 years earlier. Part of me had assumed that No Logo had opened everyone’s eyes and that massive change must surely have taken place in the garment industry, but I just hadn’t heard about it as I wasn’t paying attention to the “brand bullies.” Bangladesh was a reminder that we still have a long way to go.
My friend Annie writes the socially-conscious, thought-provoking blog PhD in Parenting, and has spent time in Bangladesh as an ambassador for Save The Children. She’s concerned that an outright boycott of Bangladesh-made apparel will cause more harm than good, writing: “If you boycott companies that produce goods in Bangladesh, you don’t create better working conditions in Bangladesh, you put people out of a job. Instead of a dangerous job and uncertain future they have no job and no future.”
Annie has written on both why a boycott is harmful, and also about what brands are doing to improve worker safety in Bangladesh. If you’re wondering how you can find more ethical apparel options, her blog post is worth a read because it offers her astute analysis of the situation, as well as lists of which companies are supporting which agreement. I get that small Indy fashion houses are not for everyone style-wise, nor is it always feasible to be shopping in that price bracket. If you’re shopping for kids, mainstream brands are more affordable and accessible for sure.
Of course, worker conditions – while critically important – are not the only factor that matter for me when choosing apparel. My first filter is that I won’t wear animal-based materials such as leather, silk, wool, down or fur. After that, I also try to choose apparel made of more environmentally sustainable fabrics such as organic cotton, closed loop manufactured bamboo, upcycled materials, tencel etc. And of course, thrifting is always a responsible choice!
I’m not going to lie, I don’t fulfill all of my criteria with every purchase. I do my best (shoes are nearly impossible), and am always seeking better alternatives.
In addition to Annie’s list, I want to offer a few additional resources for those seeking socially conscious and sustainable alternatives:
(This is not intended to be exhaustive, but rather, includes some of my personal favourites.)