How much can we know about where clothes come from?

How much can we know about where clothes come from?

So far with the Slow Fashion October conversation (here and on the #slowfashionoctober feed), we’ve been sticking mostly to the pleasant parts — talking about the ways and means by which we can and do opt out of Fast Fashion (see Long-Worn and Handmade) and feel good about those choices. That’s all a lot easier to talk about than this week’s subject, Known Origins, which is sticky on multiple levels. I finally watched The True Cost Saturday night and was reminded in technicolor that the more you know about the actual global humanitarian and environmental crisis that is our clothing industry, the more hopeless it can seem. There was not much in there I didn’t already know, and yet it kept me awake that night — and honestly, just thinking about it makes me want to cry.

Can I describe the problem of fast fashion in a paragraph? I can try. Major corporations in the western world want to sell us as much clothing as possible, and to reap the highest profits possible. They’ve decided the best way to do that is to sell things at impossibly cheap prices. While the prices have plummeted in the last couple of decades, the cost of making clothing has not gone down — someone has to grow (or manufacture) the fiber, weave it into cloth, cut and sew the cloth into clothing, ship it across the ocean, distribute it to stores, advertise it, and still put half of the purchase price into the brand’s bank account (with a good chunk of that, in turn, going directly to the CEO). And yet, they’ve decided even a complicated garment like a pair of jeans should cost less than $20. (I’m suddenly being followed around the internet by an ad for Walmart jeans for $6. Think about that!) That means they need a factory to sell them the jeans for a few dollars, including the cost of the fabric and the hardware — and the labor. That mathematically can’t be done in America, where we have minimum-wage and other labor laws, so they do it in countries where there are no such laws. People in places like Bangladesh and Cambodia are working in garment factories for a few dollars a month (and we’re not talking about a 40-hour workweek), being poisoned by the toxic waste that’s continuously dumped into rivers (because there are no regulations, either) or worse: dying in unsafe buildings when they collapse or burn down. They are literally giving their lives so our clothes can be as cheap as they are. And they are cheap in other ways, too: If the corporation is only going to make a few dollars per garment, they better also make sure we buy new ones every week. So they’re literally clogging the planet with shipload after shipload after shipload of badly made, largely synthetic (read: non-biodegradable), sweatshop-labor clothing. We, on the whole, buy them up as quickly as they crank them out, in record numbers of garments-per-person, and dispose of them just as quickly. And of course, there’s nowhere for them to go.

Those are the known origins of most chain-store clothes. So what about the opposite? There are people in the US and elsewhere trying to bring back garment jobs and industry — people like Elizabeth Suzann, for example, who I know a little bit socially and admire tremendously. I don’t know of a better example in this regard. Liz has insisted on in-house production since the moment her company grew beyond just her sewing alone in her spare room for her Etsy shop. Every garment is sewn in her Nashville studio, where you can walk right in and see the cutters and the sewers and the big bright space they work in. All along, many of the garments have been sewn from cloth woven for her here in Nashville by my friend Allison Volek-Shelton of TN Textile Mill (formerly Shutters and Shuttles). And for her latest collection, she’s gone so far as to source the wool from Imperial Stock Ranch (makers of Imperial Yarn) in Oregon. If she could, I believe Liz would raise and shear sheep on her property and grow cotton out back. She wants to know that every laborer, every bit of waste, every detail all along the way is handled with care and respect for the humans and the planet. The “problem,” such as it is, is that making clothes in the US is unusual and thus difficult and thus costly. Even though they cost a fraction of factory-made (often synthetic) designer goods, not everyone can afford her clothes — and decisions like known-origins wool only drive the prices higher. But for those who can afford them, it’s critical to support her efforts and those of anyone like her, because it’s the only way any version of a garment industry will become viable in this country again. Others will see that they’re doing it successfully, and they’ll do it too, and as it becomes less rare and less difficult — as resources return to support these businesses — prices will come down.

Likewise the farmers. Imperial is a great example of a yarn where you can know exactly where it came from and what sort of people and practices you’re supporting by buying it. In Texas and California, there are cotton farmers who want to grow cotton without poisoning the land and themselves with pesticides. There are people spinning that organic cotton into yarn and weaving it into cloth, and again, because these things are rare, they are difficult and comparatively costly. But if enough people buy the cotton and the yarn and the cloth, then they’ll be able to keep doing it, and hopefully more farmers will follow suit. The only way it can happen is through consumer demand.

As garment makers, if we care about these issues, we want to know more about where our yarn and fabric come from. As I’ve said before, yarn is increasingly easy. Just a few years ago, when I was first knitting, there weren’t that many yarns in the world that were transparent about their supply chains, making public efforts to support what’s left of yarn infrastructure in this country and encouraging its regrowth. But these last few years have seen a huge surge in small-batch yarns and mini-mills. Knitters have begun paying attention and supporting small yarn producers with their purchases, and creating a market so that more and more people have jumped in. It’s still the case that the people selling the yarn often aren’t able to make any money on it — even at $24/skein. The costs are still too high. But the more people keep making it, the more business the supporting businesses (scourers and dyers and mills) do, the more things will change.

The same can’t be said for fabric, unfortunately. Whether in finished garments or as bolts in the fabric store, fabric is much harder to trace. There’s a rise in blue-jeans manufacturing in LA these days — more and more brands supporting the factories there, and consumers supporting them in turn, which is a fantastic step in the right direction. But in most cases, there’s still no way of knowing where the cotton came form or how it was dyed. If you ask a big bolt fabric company about the overseas factories they work with, you’ll get a boilerplate response about how they abide by all the labor laws. But the point is: there aren’t any; that’s why they manufacture where they do. It’s the same as the big clothing companies.

So what’s a concerned consumer who can’t make 100% of their clothes (from traceable materials) to do? That’s what I’d like us to talk about this week — the small steps we can take with regard to our consumption. What are the better-if-not-perfect sources for store-bought clothes and shoes? What clothing and shoe brands are doing production responsibly — at home and overseas? Where can we find fabric we can feel good about? How do we continue to support and grow the known-origins yarn market? And how do we convince the mega-corporations that our clothes don’t need to be dangerously cheap — that there are some of us who’d rather pay a fair price and know the workers were fairly paid, too.

PHOTOS: (Top) a mountain of discarded clothes and (middle) Texas cotton farmer LaRhea Pepper, both from The True Cost; (bottom) a model in Elizabeth Suzann’s 2016 Cold Weather Collection shot with the Imperial Ranch sheep that provided the wool


PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion October: Elsewhere 3

90 thoughts on “How much can we know about where clothes come from?

  1. This weekend I hemmed four pairs of my son’s uniform pants. It was not fun sewing and the results were not IG-worthy. But it was a chance to think deeply–and uncomfortably–about the folks who make my son’s clothes. I feel like the more I engage with the labor of making clothes, the more I “get” the point about fast fashion. I also found myself thinking about how I’m mothering him around body norms. The reason i have to hem the pants is that my son grew–at the waist. He’s 7. And still i found myself fretting about whether or not his body is “normal” as I tried and tried to find a pair of pants off the rack that would work for school. I’d rather try to change him then the freaking pants! That’s another cost of fast fashion.

    thanks for a thought-provoking post.

  2. Clothing used to be a capital purchase, which is why it was willed to others after death. It will never be inexpensive if it’s quality, no matter if everyone is transparent about origins and trying to be as eco-conscious as possible. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just reality.

    As a spinner, dyer, and hand weaver as well as knitter I no longer try to sell my yarn. I use it exclusively for myself – as you said, it’s too expensive for most even when I only make a tiny profit (if any at all) on each skein. So my family benefits from my crafting, and I sell small items like dish towels to pay for my other supply needs.

  3. I have a possibly silly but real request on the sustainable-brands guidance front: Which are the brands that make snugger-fitting clothes? It seems like every time I check out a sustainable small-designer site, the aesthetic is very similar: loose, earth tones. Price aside, that won’t appeal to everyone. Thoughts, all?

    • This is 100% speculation on my part, but I think for the small-batch (in-house production) designers it’s probably a combination aesthetics and necessity. Things need to be kept pretty simple if you’re going to be able to make any money on it. Fitted clothing means more pieces (more cutting, more sewing, more fabric usage and potentially waste) but it also means having to do actual sizes, rather than S/M/L or One Size.

      • I am such a maker and my garments are exactly as you describe Danielle. And the reasons are just as Karen has speculated. My designs are minimalist, loose fitting in earthy tones. They are minimalist to appeal to a broad range of customers, loose fitting to accommodate most sizes and in earthy tones because I use natural dyes.
        I only make my pieces either as one of a kind or very small batches because I work from home and am a one woman business with limited space but also reuse fabrics and don’t like to cut too much waste.

    • I have the same reaction to a lot of these clothing lines, Danielle. I don’t have sources to point you to as alternatives, unfortunately. This aesthetic issue is part of the reason I try to sew as much of my new clothing as I can.

    • I’m with you here. It’s not solely a matter of personal preference, but a lot of people have restrictions about what they wear to work. Where are the ethically made pants suits? And other business casual wear? (I’m lucky I can usually wear what I want, so I’m speaking hypothetically on those last couple questions.)

    • Have you seen Pact clothing? They are made in India but are GOTS certified, which means the cotton is organic and also includes fair labor practices. Most of the clothes are fairly form-fitting (and I find they run a tad small). They sell basic casual items like t-shirts, socks, underwear, leggings, dresses, etc. I find them to be somewhere between fast and slow fashion, and they are quite affordable.

    • I recently discovered the fair trade brand Mata Traders. I haven’t bought anything from them, but they have a lot of sundress styles in bright and fun ethnic fabric prints hand dyed and sewn in India.

    • Alabama Chanin has a wide range of organic cotton jersey garments—grown in Texas and sewn in their community in Alabama—available on their site. They have silhouettes ranging from loose to very fitted. They have a newer collection of machine-sewn pieces that have a lower price point. And they also offer their materials for sale on the site for those that can’t afford the finished garments.

      I recently read this article while researching where fabric comes from:

      Interesting company…I definitely admire what they’re doing.

  4. I am lucky to have both the income and inclination to buy quality, sustainably made clothes — yet, most often, I can’t find them. As another commenter said above, they usually come in a specific shape and style that doesn’t work for either my body shape or my lifestyle. I don’t understand why sustainable designers all seem to go for one of the same two aesthetics — twee or Kinfolk-y. I have to wear suiting at work every day. That’s impossible to find in a non-fast-fashion category. Aren’t the corporate/professional types among us at least equally likely to be able to afford this quality of clothing?

    • There are a number of designers that make clothes in the US. The fabrics, a different story. Check out the blog Corporette she did a series about slow fashion and has lists of designers. Karen Kane ,Jason will, Nichole miller just to name a few that at least make most of their line in the US.

    • Check out Alabama Chanin ( All pieces are handsewn in the USA made of all organic cotton grown from US farms. Natalie Chanin’s story about the founding of Alabama Chanin and its on-going efforts are an inspiration. What is also great is that she encourages people to become makers in their own way and has published several books which include her designs, stitching and beading techniques, and construction ideas. You can purchase fabric and amazing kits from her website, along with finished products and home accessories.

      I have been making one of her poncho’s the stitching process is much fun and meditative as well. I feel like I am supporting and discovering a long lost art of hand making clothing (no sewing machines allowed). As with knitting, this is addictive.

      • I LOVE Alabama Chanin… One thing that is interesting is that her clothing is very expensive (over $1,000 for a skirt, etc.) and when she decided to sell the supplies and kits, her designer friends said she was crazy, that she would lose her clients for the finished garments. Instead, people realized how much work went into each piece once they started doing it themselves and they understood the value and the pricing.

        • Thanks for the link! Her clothes are absolutely gorgeous! All the embroidery especially is stunning … might inspire me to finally learn how.
          In fact, I’d probably buy a piece or two from her if it wasn’t all casual. :(

  5. Yarn trends in the US are finally going towards specific sheep breeds. Imperial manufactures yarn from their flock of Oregon Columbias. Lani Estil (Lani’s Lana) is selling yarn from her rambouillet flock in NE California. There are others doing this also. One of the problems is that the people purchasing wool do not like the colored wool and pay as little as $.25 per pound. I was advised by a notable yarn seller that we in the US, with wool sheep can’t compete with companies that are having their wool spun offshore. Lani was selling all of her white wool to Pendleton but not the colored. She is now marketing yarn from her black sheep that is mixed with white to produce a gray, as well as the black. Jill Hackett in Ferndale, California, is also getting into the market with her sizable flock of perendales. It is just a question of time before we see fabric being sold from the wool of these sheep.

    I am a weaver/spinner/dyer/kntter that actualy welcomes these brave new yarns and will make clothing from them.

    I recently was asked to hem a pair of trousers for a grandson’s Boy Scout uniform. They were cut off grain and the rush hemming job did not come out very well. I don’t know the actual cost of these pants but I am sure that they were not cheap. If they were made in an American factory, would they have been better? I hope so.

    • Not necessarily. And there’s also no *guarantee* that a US factory isn’t a sweatshop. Or that brands that charge more aren’t paying just as little for their production. Etc. The problem is in any situation where we can’t know — where there’s not this level of transparency — and we have to guess/assume or take people’s word for it.

      • This is a really good point–as consumers, we rely on labels to mean the same thing everywhere they are applied, but sadly that’s not the case.

  6. Responding to Danielle and Jenna. I’ve wondered about this and my theory is that there is a lot more waste in a manufacturing system of fitted clothes. The more fitted the piece, the fewer of our unique bodies will be happy. Even selling suits as separates, which would help sales, seems like it would be much too expensive for “sustainable designers” and the waste would conflict with core goals. A good seamstress and quality fabric may be an option?
    I’m disturbed to read that small yarn companies are not making money at $24/skein. That probably means we need more processing capacity. I hope they can hold on until that happens.

    • I think it largely boils down to the lack of options within the supply chain — everything has to be shipped to TX to be scoured, then to New England to be dyed and spun (often in two different places), then back to whomever is selling it. And if the farmer got a fair cut to begin with, there’s just not much left after all the processing costs.

    • Even if I just buy a quality skirt suit (wool, tailored, made in the EU if I can find it), it can run upwards of €700. A lot of that price is because nobody even seems to be making women’s suiting in 100% wool with a non-acetate lining anymore — I’ve only found a few brands. Margaret Howell is one of my favourites, beautiful, but not always suited to my body shape. (It can also look a bit “Yorkshire farmer joins a City hedge fund” sometimes.)

  7. I am enjoying these thoughtful posts and the comments very much.
    I live in the UK and here too, much of the garment, cloth, spinning capacity has disappeared. I am taking part in OneYearOne Outfit and that has led me to look very closely at what is produced in my fibreshed. It isn’t very much, but what there is has turned out to be high quality and beautiful. I have thoroughly enjoyed making the clothes and found myself looking forward to winter so that I can wear them.
    It’s a very slow process, but one that has changed my mindset.

    • Hi Norma, I’m interested in what the OneYearOne Outfit is about – I did a search but not sure I am coming up with the right thing. Do you have a link or description of the idea?

      • My reply to you may have disappeared. If so, the link I sent was to thisismoonlight.wordpress. Let me know what you think

      • If anyone is interested in tracing fabric in the UK, I would recommend Scottish tweed. In recently bought several metres of pure wool Harris and Braenish tweed – the wool is from Scottish sheep, spun and woven and dyed by hand in Scotland, and sold from the mill in Scotland. I will be making my suits out of it for work. can’t get more traceable than that. It is possible.

  8. Great post! so much to take in. I buy outdoor and active wear from Patagonia, Ibex, Duckworth, and Prana. I do sew a lot of my clothing and sourcing fabrics is a bit of a challenge. It can be difficult to find particular fabric types in colors I like. As a result, I have opted to limit my color palette to reflect that. If I were to buy something RTW I would look to brands like Prairie Underground, ES, Eileen Fisher, and others like that. For me, I find it is harder to find the fabrics to make my own vs buying off the rack. I am extremely fortunate that I could if needed to afford those brands. I would though, have a much smaller wardrobe as a result but that would probably be a good thing. Honestly, I have more clothes than I need.
    As for convincing corporations that my clothes don’t need to be cheap. The rebel in me doesn’t care about huge corporations! :)There are many many people in this country that are barely getting by, both money wise and time wise. Slow fashion is so not an option for many. So how do we address that? People need clothing they can afford. Some may suggest 2nd hand but if you are time poor there are limitations and coupled with the lack of quality of goods I see in my local thrift stores it could be quite a challenge to outfit a family in thrifted clothing. One option I do think of that I see underutilized in my area is the idea of clothing swaps. Perhaps that could be a more efficient way for families to try to opt in….
    Shoes are a huge challenge for me. I have a very hard to fit foot. I also don’t care for most of what I see available in women’s shoes regardless of how it is made. I find so many of the shoes out there are utter crap! I am very lucky when I find something that fits and I like it. Rarely happens. About the best I can hope for is to find something made in the US. But that doesn’t addressing the environmental issues from tanning or any of the other products used.
    Lastly, I fit in the regular size chart. What about people that are petite, tall or plus sized?????? From what I see out there, it is SLIM pickings for just about anything. I do know that Eileen Fisher offers bigger and petites sizes. maybe Elizabeth Suzann too? I truly feel for people that do not fit in the regular fit charts.
    Oh Corporette did a blog series on slow fashion and she listed some manufacturers that at least made their garments in the US. There were labels listed for more office type of wear. Designers like Karen Kane, Nicole Miller, etc…..SOme of the issue with some office wear is that maybe people desire clothing that doesn’t wrinkle, well that involves a chemical process to the fabric…..

    • I rarely find usable clothes in the thrift stores in my city, especially for kids. Everything was cheap to begin with and is worn out. And the prices of fast fashion items in thrift stores aren’t much less than buying new. For my kids, I just don’t have good options. I make some things for my daughter but my son is 10 and in 5th grade. It is NOT COOL to wear stuff your mom made at that age lol. Except of course a Halloween costume…

  9. BAM. You nailed it. When I watched the True Cost (maybe a year ago) I was gobsmacked. There are many uncomfortable truths about the materials alone in the clothes we are wearing. I’m not sure what to do about it other than buy the best I can afford.

    • Unfortunately, paying more doesn’t mean the parts or processes were any more responsible. If something is impossibly cheap, then you know it’s shady — there’s no way around it. But unless the brand that’s charging more is also disclosing more, there’s no way of knowing if their doing things any better or just making more off of us. We have to insist the people we buy from be more transparent.

      • I know. I wrote the comment in a rush and my meaning wasn’t very clear. I meant the best I can afford that’s also ethical. But that’s nearly impossible to find when it comes to fabric.
        I did have the opportunity to see real tartan wool plaids in a mill in Edinburgh, Scotland. They were something like 40-50 pounds per meter. I didn’t buy any, obviously. But wow, it was gorgeous.

  10. I think about these issues a lot as I run a textile and fiber art org where most of the members are studio artists. One of them, Leisa Rich ( is married to a tech guy and both have been very interested in and experimented with 3-D printing of textiles. She sees the day when we will all print what we will wear daily, with no waste, as what was worn yesterday will get reused as the supply.

    I don’t understand the logistics on how this would work, but I have seen enough happening in the tech area of textiles to “get” that we are on the verge of huge changes in how textiles are made. Videos have been going around on Facebook about fabric being made out of banana skins, cow pies, pineapple skin and so on. I think the push to find alternatives that use our resources in a more responsible way is finally finding some traction. I only wear natural fibers as synthetics, even some silks, make we sweat too much. But, cotton is very hard on the soil and even organic cotton taxes the earth. I love linen and wool…

    We won’t see these new technologies do much until they are cheap enough for anyone to use. The biggest problem, I think, is that most people have no clue nor thought for where anything comes from. We have so much poverty in the world and are seeing clashes in Africa and Asia where wildlife competes with the basic necessities of the poor who are encroaching on their habitats, desperate for firewood, food, housing and land. We cannot progress with green ideas or serious changes in our markets until there is a stable middle class worldwide.

    I also think about how other industries are so wasteful. I am fixing, repainting my kitchen right now and have worked with rehabbing old houses and construction waste just boggles my mind… That’s a whole other story, but it is all connected as we just have to be smarter about how we live in all aspects. It’s depressing, but also encouraging to see conversations happen and hopefully a ripple effect will also send a message to the big companies about what we, as consumers, want. Walmart is now the largest organic buyer in the world. They don’t do it because they believe in it, but because there is a demand for it.

    • And yet, they’re marketing $6 jeans “for the whole family.” So they need to start hearing about that as much as they did (apparently) about organic produce.

      Totally agree with you that the conversation has to be broadened — it can’t just be this small subset of us talking amongst ourselves. I wish there was some way to make viewing of The True Cost mandatory in middle schools!

      • From what I can tell, my friends’ kids are much more informed about many social issues than we were when we were little. I’m 53 and have no kids, but many of my friends have kids who are now in their 20’s and they seem to be very conscious about climate change, recycling and other green topics. But, they are middle class, well educated and traveled.

        I also work with an artisan’s collective and wrote a post about how important upcycling is in the chain of making: There is a video in the post, The Story of Stuff, which should also be required viewing for everyone. They have their own site and do a lot of education around consumerism:

        I’ve been in retail for over 20 years, selling things that nobody needs. I think that is a place of tension for many of us who advocate a simpler life yet need others to buy what we have so that we can pay our bills…

        Now that I am knitting, I am paying even closer attention to where yarn comes from. I’ve bought most of what I have on eBay. I call it “dead people’s yarn”. :) We have several members on my other site ( who are fiber farmers (growing plants or raising animals) and I can’t afford their fibers, but I love, love, love what they do and part of me wishes I could have that life, living on the land, raising animals, etc. Then I think of how hard their lives are physically and know that I just couldn’t do it, but I can still support them.

        A final thought: I compost and I forgot that I had a tin bin full of fabric in the garage. I didn’t realize that it wasn’t sealed and moisture got in and all of that fabric was moldy and gross, so I threw it in the compost bin, figuring it would all turn to dirt. The natural fibers did, but the synthetic stuff was a horror to see. I made a commitment then and there that I want all of my clothing to be biodegradable.

  11. I wrote an article about organic cotton farmers in the US for Seamwork magazine earlier this year, and interviewed folks from the co-op LaRhea Pepper started:
    It was really eye-opening to talk to the farmers, and a lot of what they said comes down to what Karen is talking about above: there needs to be a market for domestic, organically grown fiber, or the farmers can’t grow it. There’s a list of places you can buy fabric made from their cotton at the end of the article if this is something you’d like to support! Domestic wool fabrics have been slower to reappear, but are some are now available from places like O! Jolly! (beautiful knits) and Organic Cotton Plus which now sells a woven “local wool.”
    All of us can only do what our budgets and research time allow, but I do believe that every time we can make a better choice, whether it’s choosing a natural fiber garment, a more timeless style, or fabric we can believe in, it makes a difference! The key is not to just give up because the issues seem too big. Start wherever you are and do whatever you can, it counts!

    • Thanks for the link, Tasha! I think I included that in an Elsewhere at the time and never made it back to read the whole thing — didn’t realize about the Resources link at the end.

    • Sally Fox of Vreisis/Fox Fiber cotton mentioned this: that the market for domestic organic cotton dried up and she had to cut her acreage way down.

  12. This is something that has certainly been in the forefront of my mind this week. I work in the industry and every once in awhile, a factory compliance report will come across my desk. Let me also just state that most of our customers do not require a registered factory to make their goods.

    Factory compliance or not, it is still really hard to know if it’s really “good enough”. There are a bunch of certification forms and I’m sure some are more stringent than others. Basically, to me, it’s really hard to tell from some of these reports whether the employees are treated well or not, even with a passing mark. Also, if dealing with a dishonest factory, subcontractors are sometimes used without your knowledge. Unless the company has an ever present eye in the factory, it’s very hard to monitor.

    Some things on the report shock me time and time again. Simple things like no soap available in the bathroom or in the canteen area for the people who handle the food. Last week, the factory was unacceptable because the inspectors could not verify that the employees had charge over their own timecards, therefore no guarantee they weren’t working more hours than allowed or that they are being paid at or above minimum wage. Minimum wage, by the way, will only net a worker about $249 US dollars a month. That’s about $1.55 an hour based on working 40 hours a week! Also of note, as long as the factory is paying at least minimum wage, they get a passing mark. If they are paid better, no specific callouts.

    I stopped buying clothing years ago opting to make my own, but I still feel like a bit of a hypocrite in regards to working for a company that participates in the fast fashion world. However I still need to make a living and there just aren’t a ton of responsible companies out there. I hope this begins to change more and more so I have a choice in my career as well!

    • It’s sad to think $249/month is actually on the high end. There’s a bit in The True Cost about workers in one of the countries trying (and failing) to get $160/month, which would have been a huge leap from what they’re actually making. There was one group or factory where they start out at $10/month.

      And there’s no mandate for 40 hours, is there, with the factories you work with? What is considered “more hours than allowed”?

      • 40 hours a week is standard and after 40 hours they are supposed to get overtime rate. However regulation states they aren’t supposed to work over 60 hours a week.

        It is sad that $259 is on the high side, that is China’s minimum wage. That’s why you will see a lot of fast fashion coming out of Vietnam, Bangladesh, and India. The regulations are pretty much non-existent, they can pay the workers pennies, and goods can be sold in store for under $5. It’s so sad.

    • From what I can see on their website, they don’t say anything about the fabrics or like say the source of the cashmere. Cashmere from what I understand has been really bad for its herd practices that is decimating the landscapes in areas that raise them. If I am wrong someone do not hesitate to correct me! So how I understand it if a company doesn’t specifically tell you that this type of fabric is used with this type of dyes then might as well assume they are not sustainable or environmental friendly fabrics or processes.

    • I think Everlane started off as being radically transparent about both their pricing + manufacturing, but it seems like they’ve moved to being just transparent about pricing but not so much about sourcing.

  13. I’ve been running a sustainability non-profit in the US for last six years and working with big name brands in the apparel industry, on their strategies. There’s a lot of incredibly well-intentioned, driven, hard-working people in sustainability in those companies, but they make great progress and then there’s a bad quarter or a collection doesn’t sell well, and investment is cut and they can’t implement at scale. Very frustrating. The shareholder system – and particularly the need for quarterly reporting to Wall St (and endless need to show profit growth) – is one of the biggest systemic barriers to change and a key driver for fast fashion.

    Personally I like Everlane a lot: great style and I’ve met the founder and while he’s less interested in sustainability per se, he’s really committed to his transparency mission which is a great route to sustainability.

    I have two questions / issues. (1) I’ve recently moved back to the UK and feel like I’m starting from scratch in terms of identifying more responsible producers / brands, it feels way behind the US. Would love to see any recommendations anyone has (besides People Tree!!) (2) someone (a friend – not someone inside one of those companies) told me that some ‘Made in US’ garments are made in sweatshop conditions in some of the remote offshore US territories. Out of sight, out of mind and hiding behind the Made in US label. Does anyone know if that’s true, and how you figure out which companies are doing that?

    • Living in the UK, it does come across like there are more options in the US! Aside from People Tree, I like Braintree, and Traidcraft (more for gifts). I get activewear from BAM Bamboo Clothing. And Nomads have good fair trade vibes (but aren’t certified, or it’s not clear on their website if they are, but they appear to be founded on trying to trade ethically). Hopefully that’s a few options better than regular high street brands, but I’d be interested to hear from anyone else with recommendations/comments myself!

      • I can’t seem to find many within the UK to my taste either.
        I am a maker – my clothing is all made from natural fibres and dyed with botanical/herbal colours. I am introducing more organic and GOTS certified materials as I grow.

  14. I use the Baptist World Aid Australia’s fashion report to help make more informed decisions when buying clothes. Each company that sells clothing in Australia is graded. From the website:
    “The grades awarded by the Australian Fashion Report are a measure of the efforts undertaken by each company to mitigate the risks of forced labour, child labour and worker exploitation in their supply chains. Higher grades are given to companies with labour rights management systems that, if implemented well, should reduce the extent of worker exploitation.
    Our research team assesses each company’s labour rights management system according to 40 specific criteria. These assessments consider three critical stages of the supply chain as a proxy for the entire supply chain: raw materials, inputs production and final manufacturing. ”

    My only concern in avoiding clothes that are not ethically produced is I’m taking away someone’s income – and I mean the person at the end of the chain, the little people not the company. Maybe instead we need to find a way to convince companies to produce more ethically. I would happily pay more per item knowing that the workers have fair conditions. I remember as a child clothing wasn’t a throw away item. Even the basics were expensive and were looked after and handed down.

  15. There’s an Australian app called Good On You that rates brands on how well they treat people, animals and the environment. It’s a small start to decoding where to buy clothes if you’re not making them.

  16. This is very well said. I just want to inspire people not to despair and assume that it is too hard to even try. I want to encourage every single person to have the confidence to know that we can do better. We have more fair choices than ever before…which hopefully means that our voices are being heard…and more transparency will come.

    The beauty is in the “slow” of slow fashion. Fair happens one choice at a time.

  17. I really appreciate this. I try to buy a lot at Goodwill and other such thrift stores, so I’m not just contributing to big-box consumption and doing more recycling of perfectly good clothes at a budget. But I would love to move in the direction of buying pesticide/toxin-free clothing and knowing that the hands that created it were appreciated!

  18. I think that between our efforts to be makers, menders and supporting those companies that make quality, ethically produced pieces, we can start to do our part. I truly appreciate Karen taking the time to bring attention to this issue. You’ve reignited my concerns and energized me to figure out how I can do more.

    I’ve been reading Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth Cline. She does a good job of summarizing the shift from owning few articles of quality clothing and their costs were a larger percentage of our income in the 1900s; to today where Americans spend a very small fraction of our income on many disposable pieces of clothing. She also points out that just because something is from a designer label with a high price tag does not guarantee that the item is quality made. I love this lesson and it has brought a new sense of consciousness to some of the purchases that I make.

  19. “In this state of total consumerism – which is to say a state of helpless dependence on things and services and ideas and motives that we have forgotten how to provide ourselves – all meaningful contact between ourselves and the earth is broken. We do not understand the earth in terms either of what it offers us or of what it requires of us, and I think it is the rule that people inevitably destroy what they do not understand.”

    This quote from “The Art of the Commonplace” by Wendell Berry gets at the heart of the issue. When he references the earth, I read it not only as the physical earth, but also the people of the earth. It is sad to realize the extent of disconnectedness, so much so, that people are suffering every day for our lack of restraint.

    One of the keys to reestablishing this connection, is to learn how to provide for ourselves, whether that be growing our own food or sewing our own clothing. Whatever few steps we can take to foster this connection, we will grow in understanding of, as Berry says “what it (earth) offers us” and “what it (earth) requires of us”. We cannot continue living as we do and expect to remain unaffected.

    We also cannot become expert gardeners, sewers, or knitters overnight. There are certainly other benefits, however, built into the process of learning these lost skills. The process affords the opportunity to connect with the earth, with others, with our Creator – and truly with ourselves; connections which have by and large also suffered great loss in our industrial driven consumer economy.

    Thank you Karen for providing a place for such an important discussion.

    • Love that you mentioned Wendell Berry. So true. And I think it’s ok that we all aren’t expert knitters or gardners. I know I’m not. I stopped gardening but I support my local small farmers and ranchers by buying their goods.

  20. Elizabeth Cline’s “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Price of Cheap Fashion” is a must read. She had a website with lists of ethical and sustainable clothing manufacturers, but it looks like the website is down.

  21. For those who sew, is a good option. Full disclosure: I know the owner, Sonia Gingerich thru sewing circles, and she means what she says on the website… “We are an online shop specializing in textiles that are healthier for people and the environment. Our focus is on finding beautiful fabrics made with natural fibers in countries with fair labor practices.”

  22. FYI, Icebreaker clothing has a “baacode” for their woollens that lets you trace where the merino has come from. The style isn’t for everyone, but they have pieces that are fine for where I work as well as technical clothing for climbers and hikers and whatever

  23. I read your post with interest. While there are many things wrong with fast fashion, the fact is, clothes can be manufactured cheaply in developing countries because the basic costs of living are staggeringly cheaper than those in developed countries. I’ll talk about food in two countries where I have had personal experience of the cost of living — India and Thailand — both of which had well established garment manufacturing industries before the fast fashion craze of the last decade or so.

    The $20 per pair of jeans, which seems so shockingly low, is 700 Thai Baht. In Bangkok, the most expensive city, I can get an entire meal (rice, 3 vegetable and meat dishes, some fresh fruits for dessert) for 40 THB, which is less than a dollar. So I could (obviously by eschewing expensive restaurants) eat three nourishing, freshly made, meals for less than $5 a day, and those prices allow the vendor to cover costs and make profits.

    In India, my grocery bills for an entire month were 6,000 INR, which is about $80 a month. This includes staples (rice, flour, cooking oil, sugar, etc) and vegetables, fruit and limited meat. And covers three healthy meals a day. Lunch and dinner would be typical Indian meals: cereal (rice/roti), one ‘dry’ vegetable, one ‘wet’ vegetable, one protein source (dal or meat — the meat say, once a week) and some fresh fruits. Breakfasts were simpler, with bread, cheese, eggs, etc. Obviously, eating out would cost extra, as would buying extravagant food or a highly carnivorous diet.

    None of the vendors who sold the ready cooked meals to me in Thailand, or brought farm fresh vegetables to my door on carts every day in India were ‘poor’. Were they ‘rich’? No. But they had enough to feed, clothe, house their families, buy cell phones, etc.

    And please don’t forget, some of the largest consumers of cheap clothing are lower income bracket consumers in developing countries. Even my friends and I — well in the upper middle class income bracket — would consider a $30 shirt (about INR 2000) on the more expensive side, since that price is so much higher than others from well made, local brands. Manufacturing for multinationals was utterly profitable for garment factories, at least in the early days — I remember how people from the newly liberated (former USSR) central Asian countries would charter planes to come and buy planeloads of clothes by the kilo from the ‘export rejects’ wholesale markets in New Delhi.

    So yes, there are many things wrong with current fast fashion: sucking rivers and seas dry, pollution, waste, making farmers dependent on multinational seed corporations by selling them non-propagating seeds, poor labour laws. But focusing on price alone gives a skewed picture because, except for a tiny handful of countries, the cost of living in most of the world is low.

    • This perspective is SO interesting. The economic complexities surrounding textile manufacturing (and, for that matter, food production) are sometimes hard to wrap your head around. Someone pointed out to me, too, that in many places where clothing factories employ young women (girls, really), it’s a way for them to make money so they don’t have to get married at a terribly young age. Certainly their conditions could and should be better, but those jobs are an improvement over the alternative. So not everything is so cut and dry.

      The environmental toll on the other hand, like rivers running red or blue or whatever color is being dyed that day, and the terrible health effects people in those communities suffer from the toxic waste. That I have a harder time accepting.

      • Exactly! The situation is always complex when the ‘victims’ (for want of a better word!) are human, because they have a right to exercise their choice, and they may often choose what we — from higher income backgrounds — would not understand. In my experience, it is way easier to work on cases with non-human victims (wildlife, environment) because then you can do what feels intuitively right.

    • The worker isn’t getting the $20, though — the chain store is. The factory might be getting a few dollars of that, and the worker a few pennies. It’s well-documented that these workers are living in extreme poverty and many of them working in horribly unsafe (even abusive) conditions. I linked a video awhile back about young women (I think it was in the Philippines) who chose prostitution over garment factory jobs because it was the better of the two options. Efforts to pass any sort of wage laws or protections are thwarted because the companies and countries don’t want the brands to take their business elsewhere, so the workers are kept in poverty while the brands (and their CEOs, especially) reap enormous profits.

      The fact that those pennies will buy more in a developing country than they would in the US is beside the point — the pennies are still not enough to live on.

      • Of course, the worker will only get a small percentage of the $20 from each pair of jeans, but they are also making more than one pair of jeans per month. As for not having enough to live on, I have personally worked on cases involving Uzbek women who preferred prostitution in Thailand over working in factories back home. Interestingly, it’s not that they were unable to feed themselves on a factory salary, but that the temptation of earning in one night (with less physical labour!!) more than what they would earn in a month back home was very enticing, as was the ability to buy pretty things. Money is money, at whatever scale you operate, and once you get a taste of exponentially higher earnings than what you are used to, it is amazing what most people will tolerate for the sake of that extra money. You are perfectly right about many factories with abusive and unsafe conditions, and as consumers we need to be careful about where our money ultimately goes. But there are also many, many factories (garment and others) in developing countries where labour is unionised and relatively protected from exploitation. If you look at their wages, it may still seem low when converted to western currencies at current exchange rates, but still enough for those workers to live on, in their home countries. Hence my point that simply looking at their wages and saying “OMG they must be horribly desperate to work at those wages” isn’t necessarily a valid argument because in their countries they can actually afford essentials with those wages. Instead, we need to look at deeper questions: does that industry/country have minimum wage laws? Are those laws realistic? Are workers even aware of those laws or their rights? Etc. Besides, of course, all the environmental issues where the clothing industry absolutely deserves its villainous reputation.

  24. Loving reading all the comments and your post. This has been such a great month thinking and writing about a subject that I am very passionate about.

  25. I read “The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion” 4 years ago, and it literally changed my worldview. I also watched “The True Cost”, last year, and it was a hard thing to see. You are so right that consumer demand drives the fashion industry (and basically everything else too. . .) The reality is that money talks. In the last 4 years I have seen an increase in fair trade fashion brands, and awareness of the issue, though, so my hope is that the message is getting out there, and that things will continue to change! One of the points that someone brought up last week, was about how to ensure that the slow fashion movement doesn’t become just a trend- I think it is in bringing slow fashion back to being “normal”, just like it was 20+ years ago. And, for sure, supporting the fair trade and ethical brands is one way to keep slow fashion in the forefront, and help to normalize it.
    We each do what we can. Thank-you for sharing these thought provoking questions!
    The Artyologist

  26. Thank you Karen! For people looking for specific clothes for their size, I can recommend working with a seamstress. You can find fabric that is organic or fair trade, have the seamstress make clothing that you want or need, and be happy. I have the luck that my sister is a self employed seamstress, so I know this process well. She makes clothes for me, and I pay her the normal wages, and clothes are a bit more expensive than if you buy in good brands stores. But they last for years, they fit perfectly in the style you want and you know the source.

  27. hi karen. what a great month so far! i just wanted to add something about the myth that cheap production is only happening in the global south. in america/europe there people are exploited by the fast fashion industry. ever heard about foreign trade zones? they are technically denationalized zones, taxes and tariffs dont apply there. but global garment trade happens there, too! i never thought of that, but it is a huge enabler for fast fashion i think.

    i wrote a blog post this week about some of the points you make, incl. mechanics of fast fashion.
    also, garment workers are to a great extent WOMEN! it is a gendered issue not only just because women buy more clothes than men (though that changes, too, i guess). i gathered my thoughts on that on my site! would love to hear what people think.

    and have you heard about the ‘one year one outfit project’ by @thisismoonlight? i did not participate this year but what the others have done last year is amazing!

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  30. I don’t get to sew things very much these days, and I feel terribly guilty buying off-the-rack for myself. I personally have the majority of my own clothing coming from our local thrift stores. I started doing this in high school out of the thrill of finding “old lady”, vintage-ish stuff. Eventually I just felt a bit of a disgust with myself if I bought something out of a mindless consumerist attitude, not to mention the ethical issues. And so today, and probably depending on where a person lives, the clothes are all from the typical shops, and the same concerns I had about those off-the-rack items creep up on me even when buy from the Salv’y. At least I’m helping the stuff not end up in the landfill so soon, but still the main issues don’t go away either.
    By the way, you didn’t mention hemp and I wonder why we are still relying so heavily on cotton, which, although a pretty plant, is harder to maintain

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  33. Am coming to this conversation rather late, but I wondered if anyone has mentioned Rachel Faller of Tonlé? A friend shared a Huffington Post story about the company where they work with remnant fabrics. Obviously they know nothing about the fabric’s origins, however they are keeping these scraps from the garbage heaps and seem to be paying their workers a fair wage.

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