Instagram @samimiro/ Courtesy Ayesha Barenblatt/ Rabya Lomas and Rida Suleri Johnson/ Santa Puac
A recent McKinsey study on fashion consumption found that most people rely on brands to define what “sustainability” means for them. The problem with this method is that there is no universal understanding of what makes a piece of clothing sustainable. It’s not just an eco-friendly fabric, a vintage find, or recycled packaging. It’s all of it and more. The space left by this vague definition has allowed those seeking to profit from our growing interest to swoop in and sell us what seems good enough, not what actually is any better. Sustainability was never meant to be a marketing tool for fashion to exploit, but rather a goal to change the enormous impact that clothing, especially fast fashion, has on the planet.
Luckily, the growing interest in the past few years has led to louder scrutiny from advocates, workers, and designers across the industry. These people are seeking to reframe sustainability in fashion from a way to sell more clothing to a change in lifestyle that puts equity first — and it’s working.
Author Aja Barber, for example, writes and creates content speaking frankly on fast fashion’s problematic ways. “Fast fashion was created to exploit the people at the bottom – both the workers and the consumers,” she writes in her book CONSUMED: The Need for Collective Change: Colonialism, Climate Change, and Consumerism. On Instagram, Barber often posts videos contextualizing problems that result from the huge amount of clothing we buy and discard, especially in the United States and Europe.
“The greatest change I’ve seen since I started having this conversation over a decade ago is that people are actually listening (instead of throwing ripe tomatoes in my direction),” Barber tells InStyle. “People are coming to terms with the fact that perhaps the way we’ve done things isn’t just terrible for people and the planet, but also not good for our closets either. Folks genuinely want to change their ways and that’s super exciting!”
Other advocates, like Ayesha Barenbalt of Remake, have used this growing public interest to rally support behind legislation that would make fashion more equitable for workers. The brand gives consumers the tools to engage with sustainability advocacy outside of just shopping for new clothing, such as petitions that are available to sign and social media templates to contact specific brands about worker issues. In April 2022, Remake launched a campaign asking Victoria’s Secret to pay back wages to workers who were laid off from a factory that made some of their clothing. The result was a huge victory that garnered hundreds of supporters and an agreement from the brand to pay the owed wages.
This is Everybody’s In, a celebration of people making the world a better place for everyone in 2023. You’re ‘in’ if you’re making an impact. Read on to see who’s with you.
Worker rights is an important piece of any sustainability conversation. After all, the fashion industry’s ability to produce at mass quantities is because of the exploitation of its workers. On average, 85% of workers in Los Angeles make less than minimum wage while producing almost 15 billion dollars worth of product. That’s why workers and union leaders decided to organize and pass laws — like SB62, California’s Garment Worker Protection Act — to fix loopholes in the way garment workers are paid.
Santa Puac, a former garment worker in Los Angeles, is now an advocate at the Garment Worker Center. “I’m proud to support my fellow garment workers by talking to them about their rights as workers and being an example to them,” Pauc says. “I am not afraid to say no to mistreatment.”
Still, there is so much more to do, she explains. For example, there are ways workers are taken advantage of outside of pay. “We need to prohibit them from working with the doors closed. Now, most of the factories are locking their doors with padlocks,” she says, adding that bringing in legal supervision could ensure these rules are being enforced. “I think it would be good for our organization to create a team of investigators to enter the factories and investigate if the factories and brands are really paying by the hour or not.” Globally, garment workers are often paid pennies per garment they sew, which creates inhumane conditions and makes a living wage almost impossible.
On the designer side of the equation, there are plenty of great brands looking to change the impact that the industry has had. Sami Miro, for example, decided to create upcycled vintage clothing using pieces sourced and created within a 25-mile radius of her brand’s headquarters in Los Angeles. “Our garments are created from locally sourced deadstock and vintage fabrics, as well as exclusive plant-based and certified fabrics we developed in Los Angeles from natural fibers devoid of chemicals and with minimal water usage,” Miro explains, recognizing the importance of each element that goes into the finished product. “All of our sewing partners are family-owned and operated for whom we are committed to providing fair wages and safe working conditions.”
Despite any clever marketing or cute campaigns, fashion doesn’t have a future (let alone a sustainable one) without the honest work of people within it. They lead by example pushing brands to change and giving people who love fashion the blueprint to help. As Miro puts it, “I always strive to positively influence others by providing proof that one can do what you love, while also doing better for the planet and the community.” And, we would add, that’s always a good look.
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