Babies — coming as they do into the world without any clothing, gear, or regard for mommy’s sleep patterns — generally lead to shopping. But one day, as I looked at baby clothes at a store that shall remain nameless, I held up a T-shirt that retailed for $4.99. I may not have known the actual conditions under which that T-shirt was made, but I did know that something was wrong in the state of Bangladesh. Quite simply, I didn’t want my children wearing clothes that some other child or mother had made without being paid fairly or being given safe, healthy conditions in which to work.
But as I set out to determine which companies bought their clothing from manufacturers that ran fair, safe operations, I discovered that the wool is frequently pulled over our eyes.
“You can safely assume the clothes you’re wearing were made under pretty horrific conditions,” says Androniki (Niki) Lagos, lead researcher for Co-op America’s Responsible Shopper guide. Labor conditions are undeniably the most pressing issue facing the clothing industry. Garment workers — most of whom toil in third-world countries — are paid less than what they need to live on, and they endure crowded, often unsafe, and unsanitary conditions where they have no rights and no recourse for the abuse. In the United States, Lagos says, “chances are, the factories are better than, say, in China, but they are still largely worked by immigrants.”
Making clothes can be an ugly business in its effect on the planet as well. The conventional way of growing cotton, the most common fabric, requires megadoses of insecticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers — many of which are known carcinogens. Indeed, it takes approximately a third of a pound of chemicals to grow enough cotton to make just one T-shirt. Clothing dyes contain toxic chemicals that are released into our water systems.
Juliet Schor, the author of Born to Buy, reports that “between 1996 and 2002, the number of pieces of imported apparel purchased by each American consumer rose 83 percent . . . All that acquisition has led to a culture of ‘disposable clothes’, dramatic increases in consumer discard rates, and mountains of perfectly wearable but economically valueless garments piling up all over the country.”
However we look at it, what’s on our backs ain’t too pretty. What can we do about it?
Most of us equipped with a Visa card and a social conscience are left bewildered. But there are things we can do:
—Buy clothing to last.
You and your kids can adjust your attitudes to clothing and purchase items that will see you through several seasons…or several children.
—Choose eco-friendly fabrics and processes whenever possible.
For example, organic cotton dyed with vegetable dyes produces a T-shirt that’s far easier on the earth than its conventional cousin.
Kids’ clothes are ideal for consignment shopping. Seek out stores in more affluent areas and look for high-end labels, as better-made clothes can usually stand the test of time (and more than one wearer).
There are plenty of eco-friendly, fair trade offerings online, generally from smaller independent labels.
—Pressure your favorite retailer.
Ask companies about their method of production and where they get their clothes made. Tell them, “I want to shop with you, but I want to feel good about it.” Ask them, “What are you doing to ensure workers are being treated according to the Fair Labor Standards Act? How do you monitor this? Have you terminated contracts in which there are violations?” Lagos says that companies take these concerns seriously, making letters and e-mails worth your effort.
—Support those green-fashion pioneers.
Companies such as American Apparel, H&M, Patagonia, Timberland, Levi Strauss, Loomstate, and others are setting the bar for other companies — and they’re setting it relatively high. Support their initiatives by purchasing their clothing with a conscience.
—Host a clothing swap.
My friend Barbie gets together with a group of women about once a season (new additions are always welcome to keep the clothes pool fresh). They cull their closets of those clothes that no longer fit their bodies or their lifestyle, or that they simply don’t wear anymore. They bring the clothes to the swap, where, after enjoying wine and hors d’oeuvres, everyone picks and chooses from the items, tries things on, and, without fail, goes home with a few great new things to add to a much emptier closet. Any leftover clothes are taken to a women’s shelter.LESLIE GARRETT is a mother of three and author of “The Virtuous Consumer: Your Essential Shopping Guide for a Better, Kinder, Healthier World (and one our kids will thank us for!)”.