One Woman’s Quest to Battle Fast Fashion

Cheap clothes hide ugly truths

Welcome back Chaise Lounge readers! After a week off for vacation, I am ready to get back at it! If you ever have a chance to visit the Adirondack region of New York, I highly recommend it!

Global updates

  • The biggest global story with huge implications for women is the fall of Afghanistan back into the hands of the Taliban. While the Taliban claim that women will be able to continue their education and work, women are already being sent home from their jobs and told not to return. According to the New York Times, Afghan women who worked with the U.S. or international groups are destroying all evidence of their connections out of fear of retaliation by the Taliban.

National updates

  • At the end of the month, Andrew Cuomo will officially step down as governor of New York to be replaced by current Lt. Governor Kathy Hochul. If you missed the Chaise Lounge piece giving our thoughts on the former governor’s behavior, you can read it here. The irony of Cuomo being ousted for sexual harassment and being replaced by a woman is not lost on this author.

  • North Carolina is set to become the 49th state (sort of) that bans child marriages. The bill is set to go to the governor’s desk, and he is expected to sign it. The bill originally moved the age of consent for marriage from 14(!) to 18. But because some members of the legislature were married as teens themselves or had friends or family who had been, they did not feel comfortable signing on. A compromise was reached by the senators that allows 16- and 17-year-olds to continue marrying as long as their spouse is 4 years older or less. This author cannot help but notice that once again laws are being considered based on the personal experience of lawmakers (see post from last month) rather than the common good.

    One Woman’s Quest to Battle Fast Fashion

Back in 2007, my daughter was sixteen and her friend was coming over to spend the night after she got off work at Forever XXI. My daughter asked if we could pick her up when she was finished. Little did I know that this poor girl would be forced to work until 2:00 a.m. when I agreed to this! I couldn’t believe that the labor laws would allow such exploitation of workers. I had worked retail as a teen and was never locked in a store until the wee hours. What was happening?

Those of us who are over 40 years old have watched the fast fashion industry change both the way we purchase clothing and the quality of it. Forever XXI, H&M, Zara, and Walmart all sell clothing made overseas for cheaper and cheaper prices. According to the documentary, The True Cost, the price of a shirt has actually declined over time. That might seem like a positive outcome, but cheaper clothes hide ugly truths. 

The fast-fashion movement has led to the extremely poor treatment of workers across the globe. Garment workers in factories are increasingly facing worsening conditions. The horrific deaths of garment workers like the 2012 Nazreen garment factory fire in Bangladesh are the most egregious examples, but the everyday working conditions and poor pay should have us all appalled.

Because of the squeeze on the commodities market, farmers can no longer get a fair return on their products. The demand for new styles with cheaper prices leads to farmers allowing wool to rot on their shelves.

The two groups squeezed hardest by the fast-fashion industry, farmers and workers, are the ones who have the least power.

When I learn about such problems, I often find myself wondering what I, as an individual, can do to solve a global problem. It can be overwhelming to discern the right way to approach such a big issue.

I turned to Mary Ewell (full disclosure, she is my sister) who decided to take matters into her own hands. She created the Locally Dressed Challenge to raise conversations about fiber sheds (like a watershed, but for clothing) to reach a wider community in southern New Hampshire where she lives.  By raising awareness she hopes to help individual businesses connect with each other, the general public, and to thrive.

The personal challenge is for her to create and wear clothing that is sourced locally for one year. She is connecting with farmers, spinners, dyers, and retail companies in the hope of creating a buy local movement for clothing. We sat down for a chat so that I could learn more.

Note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

CL: Mary, thanks for talking with Chaise Lounge. My first question is, what led you to begin this project? It is a significant undertaking, so there must have been something that moved you.

Mary: There are a lot of reasons why I wanted to do this. First, now that I am living in a rural community, there is so much energy around both the By Local and Placemaking movements. The murals here in Keene which show the history of Keene and the farmer’s markets are two examples. People here are interested in grounding themselves, their values, in the community where they live. Creating a fibershed here makes sense.

Second, last year I attended the Radically Rural Summit where I heard Rebecca Burgess discuss her book Fibershed: Growing a Movement of Farmers, Fashion Activists, and Makers for a New Textile Economy. She discussed how so many American textile mills have closed, and we now go through these crazy gyrations to get clothing from abroad and then just throw them away after a few wearings. She talked about how in spite of the fact that California grows a tremendous amount of cotton, it is sent overseas for processing and then sent back. There was so much that she informed me of, that I bought the book. When I saw that she participated in this challenge that I am doing, I thought to myself, “I want to do that, too.” 

Also, I am a creative person and have never had the time to explore that part of myself in the way that I wanted. With this project, I will be able to create quality items that take time to craft with a bigger purpose.

CL: What do you hope to accomplish by wearing only locally sourced clothing for one year?

Mary: My hope is to make connections within the region. If you follow my blog, you will see that I am visiting local sheep farmers, people involved in clothing composting, dyers, and everyone involved in the process of making clothing on a local level. I want to increase the amount of fiber available locally and generally increase the conversation. My ultimate goal is to bring the Fibershed movement to southern New Hampshire underneath the umbrella of the Buy Local movement.

CL: For those of us who do not live in rural areas, what can we all do that will help with the problems that fast fashion creates? I have read several recommendations including:

  1. Instead of shopping on impulse or because we feel like it, create a capsule wardrobe that you can build on.

  2. Trade clothes with a friend instead of donating them.

  3. Be more mindful of the fabrics and locations from which your clothes come. 

  4. Shop at thrift stores to help recycle clothing. 

  5. Take the Slow Fashion 3-month #FashionDetox

What else can we all do that will help with the problems that fast fashion creates?

Mary: If there is a local retail store that sources their clothing from local sources, have them make a piece of clothing for you. If that is not possible, you can try to only buy clothing that was sourced and made in the United States.

You can also look at ways to repair, recycle or upcycle your clothing. For example, there is a start-up in North Carolina called Material Return that has a partnership with Smartwool®  to upcycle used socks of all kinds into dog beds and other products. The Carolina Textile District, which “connects makers, designers, and entrepreneurs to a reliable domestic supply chain in order to make quality products here at home.” is just one example of a fiber shed where all the players are already connected. 

CL: Mary, thanks for sharing your project and vision with us. I know that learning more about the detrimental effects of fast fashion has made me want to change some of my habits. Now that I have a better understanding of the issues, I know how I can make changes that matter, even if I am just one person.

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