In April of 2013, the world was forced to pause and examine—perhaps for the first time—the dark underbelly of cheap fashion (or fast fashion) when the Savar building (or Rana Plaza) collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing 1,129 garment workers, and injuring thousands more. This tragic accident received a great deal of news coverage, but what many people don’t realize is that the building also contained a bank and various shops on the lower floors as well, all of which had heeded evacuation warnings the day before. Meanwhile, garment workers, some 5,000 employed in the building, were ordered to return to work the following day, an order that, if refused, threatened to cost them a month’s pay. The pressure that garment factories are under to meet the production demands of big-business is so severe, that despite visible cracks in the building’s structure, workers were coerced into returning to what, for many, would be their last day of work. Sadly, this tragic event is far from an anomaly. However, due to the publicity this instance received as the largest garment-related disaster in world history, the fashion industry, and the ethics involved, were thrust into the spotlight like never before.
It is hardly a surprise that in our globalized, fast-paced, immediate-gratification age, convenience reigns supreme. But it is not very often that we think to question the consequences of convenience. Most people are vaguely familiar with the idea of sweatshops, but few are aware of the vast social and environmental impacts that are intrinsically bound-up, from beginning to end, in the production and life-cycle of their clothing.
The swift rise of fast fashion has come under sharp criticism in recent years, particularly after the disaster in Dhaka, for its contribution to poor (read: horrific) working conditions in developing countries, shoddy workmanship, as well as the overwhelming pollution it generates at every step of the production chain. Perhaps the most visible consequence of this model is the way it has shifted Western consumption habits so significantly that we’ve come to view our clothing as utterly disposable. Despite the fact that textiles are among the most renewable of materials, the average American produces 82 pounds of textile waste every year. The U.S. alone produces a whopping 11 million tons of textile waste annually, the vast majority of which ends up in landfills, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions that further aggravate climate change. Suffice it to say, our insatiable consumption of cheap fashion in the West is directly linked to the advancement of various forms of systemic injustices, most of which we will never personally witness.
Having lost touch with how our clothing is made, we’ve likewise neglected to take note of the many hearts and hands that are so intimately connected to their production. As a result, we’ve come to feel entitled to products that impoverish others and devastate our delicate ecosystems. What’s out-of-sight is out-of-mind they say. But as people of faith called to responsible stewardship of God’s good creation, we simply cannot afford to look the other way, continuing to support the oppression of the global poor, and destruction of the environment.
The Scriptures tell us again and again that the kingdom of God belongs to the poor and the marginalized (i.e., Luke 6:20-22). As those who carry the name of Christ out into the world, (particularly in light of our Western privilege and the responsibility that comes along with it), we are charged not to oppress the widow or the orphan, the stranger or the poor (Zech 7:9-10).
We ought to frequently consider how our own lives are reflecting Christ, who, “though being in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a [human] slave” (Philippians 2:6-7). How well are we doing at identifying, in solidarity, with the garment workers slaving away to make our clothes? How often do we dismiss our call to earthly stewardship by purchasing things we don’t need only to send them to a landfill without a second thought? How seriously are we considering our neighbor when we dismiss the impact climate change has on the global poor who have no means to insulate themselves from its immediate and devastating consequences?
Or, to put it more concisely: how closely are our actions in line with our ethics?
If you’re feeling convicted right about now, you’re not alone. That is precisely how I felt when I first began learning about the negative impact my own consumer habits were having on creation. And I still feel it living an incredibly privileged life while creation groans, waiting with eager longing for its freedom from bondage to decay, which is inextricably bound up with the lot of humanity (Rom 8:19-22). And yet, conviction need not cripple us, rather it ought to serve to propel us toward repentance (that is, a reorientation), a repentance which leads to actions that are progressively more in line with our ethics as followers of Christ.
You might be asking yourself how changing our consumer habits actually helps those working in sweatshops in developing countries. Or to what degree do our consumer habits actually impact climate change? The answer might surprise you. The idea of withholding our dollars from companies who employ unsustainable, unethical practices in their manufacturing strikes many as antithetical, since jobs such as these appear to be the only option for so many. However, this view neglects to take into consideration the immense power and influence of the consumer dollar. The more people withhold their dollars from companies who fail to use sustainable, ethical practices, the more companies will shift toward sustainable, ethical practices. The motivation behind the change may not be altruistic, but the result is the same. The effect is already visible, as new companies are frequently emerging, setting higher standards in this regard. Likewise, more companies have begun to launch initiatives aimed at increased commitment to sustainability and ethics. Companies like Patagonia and Everlane especially have set an impeccable standard in this regard for others to follow, leading us toward a more sustainable, ethical future. The path forward is not necessarily an easy one, but it is an important, worthwhile one.
If this information is new to you, I leave you with some of my favorite resources to aid you on your own path toward greater consumer responsibility and Christian integrity.
The True Cost (available on Netflix, iTunes and Amazon Prime)
The Machinists (available on Youtube)
Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, by Elizabeth L. Cline
Introduction to Evangelical Ecotheology, by Daniel Brunner, Jennifer Butler, and A. J. Swoboda
Ethical Fashion Guides:
And when all else fails, never underestimate the value of shopping second-hand.
Cayla Pruett is a student at Portland Seminary working on her Masters in Theology. With a deep love for learning and education, she aims to remain “in school” forever by becoming a professor. Her affection for the Scriptures, love of nature, and passion for social justice have compelled her toward advocacy for Christian responsibility as it pertains to social and environmental stewardship. When she is not reading or writing papers, you can likely find her cycling around the city, playing tennis, or sipping Pinot at an Oregon vineyard with her best friend, Amy. Cayla is part of Bridgetown Church in Portland, Oregon.