Many garments purchased by Americans are mass produced by low-paid workers in factories in Asia. (Shutterstock)

Many garments purchased by Americans are mass produced by low-paid workers in factories in Asia. (Shutterstock)

Broken fashion industry needs mending

Your shirts, shoes can help advance environmental justice

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Last Thursday, many San Franciscans donned their party pants to celebrate Earth Day. But on Friday it was time to put the work gloves on again. Protecting the planet, like addressing systemic racism or honoring your mother, isn’t something to delegate to one event on one day. It requires mindfulness and a willingness to question choices, including something as simple as the impact of a T-shirt.

“Our privilege may shield us from recognizing when we’re inflicting harm,” said Manpreet Kalra of Art of Citizenry, an initiative working at the intersection of sustainability and global development.

Kalra was speaking at an after-Earth Day event on transparency within the fashion industry. San Franciscans may already know most of our sweaters, sneakers and other garments are mass produced by low-paid workers, primarily women, in Asian factories. The enormous environmental impact of “fast fashion” is also getting more attention. For example, the textile industry may use more than 26% of the world’s carbon budget by 2050, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

But distance and distractions can shroud these realities. As San Franciscans re-emerge from the pandemic lockdown, there’s an opportunity to also reimagine our closets as portals to connect us to the planet. Through their “Reclaim the Climate Narrative” campaign, Kalra and others in the industry are encouraging us to value the resources and suppliers behind our clothes as much as we may value their labels.

“The modern garment industry is designed to make profits for investors in the global north while exploiting countries in the global south,” Rachel Faller, the co-creator of tonlé, a San Francisco-based sustainable fashion label, and one of the campaign founders, told me. “I think it’s a modern extension of colonialism.”

In 2008, Faller moved to Cambodia on a Fulbright Fellowship to study fair trade and sustainability. She remembers seeing giant bundles of clothes and fabric piling up in second-hand stores and markets — castoffs from factories. After speaking to the factory owners, Faller realized they were at a loss too.

Suppliers in Asia are being forced by big brands to produce too much too quickly. This is creating large amounts of waste. Some factories are even burning the extra fabric, which can be made with petroleum-based material, to make power.

Joyce Hu of Wildlife Works, a Kenyan factory with market offices in San Francisco, sees a similar impact in Kenya. Second-hand clothes from North America and Europe are flooding the country. Besides creating a lot of waste, this overabundance is undermining local production and cultural expression.

“Instead of seeing people wearing clothes that they made, they’re wearing clothes that are discarded from the country where I live,” Hu, who is also working with Kalra, Faller and photographer Chloe Jackman on the campaign, told me. “I feel shame when I see western garbage being thrown at countries that have historically and continually been used for extraction.”

The pandemic has exacerbated some of these problems. Fashion brands canceled orders, stranding suppliers. Last year, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association reported that 1,150 factories were saddled with $3.18 billion worth of order cancellations.

This broken system needs mending. To value people and the planet, San Franciscans should take care of their clothes, both new and used, so they last. Hang-drying can save electricity. Investing in companies, such as tonlé and Wildlife Works, can help respond to systemic problems in the fashion industry. And buying second-hand can breathe new prana into a pair of yoga pants.

Bay Area-based secondhand clothing site, thredUP, developed a fashion footprint calculator to help consumers learn how much their closets impact climate change.

“Buying a used item of clothing can reduce its carbon footprint by 82%, making resale one of the most impactful ways to reduce fashion’s overall environmental impact,” Madeline Aaronson, thredUP’s director of brand, told me.

The pandemic has offered a hard lesson in interconnectedness and respect. We put on our masks because we know that our choices impact the health and safety of others. San Franciscans should bring the same mindset to our shirts, shorts and shoes.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.

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