9 Small Things You Can Do to Transform the Garment Industry

Clothing item, button, needle, and thread on a wooden surface
credit: dvortygirl

Last week I attended the first-ever World Ethical Apparel Roundtable (#WEAR2014) held in Toronto. It was a fascinating glimpse into a world and industry that I know little about, although I certainly learned a lot after two days of lectures and panel discussions. Because the conference was so industry-oriented, I was left thinking about how to apply the information to everyday consumers -- people like you and me who don’t manage garment factories or work as clothing retailers, and may feel as if we don’t have as much influence as those who are active within the industry.

And yet, we, as consumers, are ultimately the reason for the existence of these companies, which gives us tremendous power over which direction the garment industry will take in future years. As the Toronto-based non-profit organization Fashion Takes Action states on its website, “We believe it is important for consumers to understand the Buy It To Vote mentality, and the power that they hold within their wallets. The more consumers demand and pay for ethical, sustainable fashion, the quicker we can get to where we want to be.”

I left the conference ultimately with a great sense of hope. We can do this. We can make the changes necessary to transform an industry that is, in many cases, dangerous to garment workers and hazardous to both consumers and the environment. Alternatives do exist, some of which are based on shopping decisions, but many rely on simple adjustments to the way in which consumers treat their clothes on a daily basis. Here are some ideas for where to start.

Clothes can last a very long time, if cared for properly. It’s important to remember that “cold is the new hot” – washing in cold water is just as effective as hot and far more environmentally friendly. It’s also gentler on fabrics, as is hanging out clothes to dry, instead of stuffing them in the dryer. Learning how to mend can salvage many garments and increase their lifespan. H&M recently launched its Clevercare label initiative, which educates consumers about how to get clean, dry, wrinkle-free clothes in an eco-friendly way.

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Be as green as possible

credit: Rennett Stowe

Use an environmentally friendly laundry detergent in the correct amounts and resist the urge to dump generously – it’s really not necessary. Run your washing machine on its shortest cycle, with cold water, and always wait till you have a full load.

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Close the loop by donating back to companies that reuse or resell

credit: Green Eileen

Certain companies are working toward closing their manufacturing loops. Designer and retailer Eileen Fisher, for example, has a highly successful program called Green Eileen that collects donations (either in person or via mail) of gently used EF clothing and resells it at reduced prices. H&M; has a highly successful garment collection program that has collected 25 million shirts’ worth of material for reuse or recycling. The company’s ultimate goal is to send zero waste to landfill and figure out innovate ways to rework old textiles.

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Buy second-hand

credit: Steven Snodgrass

By purchasing second-hand or vintage clothing, you help reduce the number of items ending up landfill. You support thrift stores whose profits often go toward important charity work. You buy products of higher quality (proven by the fact that they’re still around for second-hand use) and save a lot of money.

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Seek out ethical, sustainable, and fair trade suppliers

credit: Wendy Firmin

There are companies who are dedicated to becoming more sustainable. Give preference to those who offer their workers fair living wages and provide clothes made of organic, recycled, or upcycled fibers. Start by searching through TreeHugger’s archive of green fashion providers.

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Look for certain certifications and affiliations

credit: OEKO-Tex

Because there is no single standard for the garment industry, it can be hard to identify which items are truly ethically made. There are a few well-respected certifications out there that can make the search a bit easier, though it’s hard to find all of these in a single place. - Certified B Corporation (non-profit certification for businesses that meet environmental, accountability, and transparency standards) - OEKO-Tex Standard (found on garments that have been tested for harmful substances) - Bluesign Certified (a third-party health and safety standard for chemical use in the textile industry) - Fairtrade International / Fair Trade USA (seeks to create greater equity in the international trading system, primarily through fair wages paid to workers) - GOTS (Global Organic Textiles Standard – defines high-level environmental criteria for organic textiles)

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Buy directly from small, local designers

credit: Luevo

The more “middlemen” eliminated from the purchasing chain, the closer you’ll get to the source of your clothes. If you buy from a small designer who actually sews the garment themselves, you’ll have a much clearer picture of what’s going on behind the scenes than purchasing from a huge clothing corporation. Look into a company like Luevo, which believes that pre-selling (“presumerism”) is the future of fashion. You can pre-order unique fashion from small designers and start-up companies, which provides much-needed support and great products.

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Buy wisely

credit: Eileen Fisher

There are many factors to consider beyond “OMG, I love that shirt!” Think about quality and how the garment is actually stitched and pieced together. Think about the cost per wear; you’ll get better value from a $350 pair of pants that fits fabulously, gets worn 100x a year, and lasts a decade than you will from something cheap that wears through in a few months. Think about cross-seasonal use, versatility, and longevity.

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Buy from companies that are willing to disclose information and be transparent

credit: Gildan via OEKO-Tex -- This is Gildan's wastewater management system in Honduras

I was surprised to learn at the WEAR conference that cotton basics company Gildan is very dedicated to environmental stewardship. Last year, 91 percent of its textile waste was repurposed and recycled (scraps literally turned back into fabric), saving 40,000 acres of cotton annually. Since 2010, the company has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 32 percent and is a member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. Me to We Style prides itself on providing socially conscious apparel that is eco-friendly (organic cotton, recycled polyester, bamboo viscose), sweatshop free, and made in Canada. For every item purchased, a tree is planted in the Maasai region of Kenya and 50 percent of profits are donated to Free the Children. Indigenous Clothing discloses all information about production on its website.