Monday, October 28, 2013

It's been too long..

This blog has been looking unloved for too long.

I have been absent for many good, sensible reasons. First, I have been busy writing about gender and clothing, which didn't quite fit with the NWL focus. Second, there has been an explosion of blogs and social media about sustainable consumption, and I felt less pressure to add my two cents. 

Still, I feel the occasional tug to check in here and update any readers about my personal journey and share my insights on events and trends in Consumerland. I've been curating three collections on -- Aging Well, Looking Good, Fashion and Culture, and Pink and Blue. Aging Well, Looking Good is my stockpile for my next book (mental title: Age Appropriate). Fashion and Culture is a resource for my course, Fashion and Consumer Culture. Pink and Blue is all things gender and appearance. Notice: I have no ethical/sustainable/minimalist consumption collection. 

Frankly, it seems like we first-world denizens have all the information we need about consumerism and its impact. If our grandchildren come of age in a dirtier, more dangerous, more divided world, it won't be from lack of facts, but lack of will.

Friday, November 9, 2012

How Will Climate Change Affect What We Wear?

Right after Hurricane Sandy, I got a query from the Huffington Post about the relationship between climate change and fashion. It was exactly the same kind of query that got me started on this blog eons ago. Here is the article, which I think is pretty well-done and represents my answers very well. As always, the comments are worth a read.

Here is the longer email reply I sent the writer:

These are really complex questions, considering that "textiles" include materials ranging from agricultural products to petroleum products to recycled materials, and their production and transformation into clothing takes place all over the world. Fibers such as cotton and linen require land, water and a hospitable climate to grow. Similarly, wool and other animal fibers depend on the same resources as meat production. The man-made fibers, ranging from petroleum-based materials such as polyester and acrylic to regenerated cellulose and protein materials (rayon, lyocell, PLA) each have their own production processes and requirements. If you expand the sustainability question to include not only climate change but other environmental factors, such as pollution, the issue gets even stickier.

The short answer is that climate change will impact plant fibers in the same way as the food supply. It isn't just a matter of higher temperatures; the real impact is in the higher likelihood of drought and catastrophic, crop-destroying weather. We may also see greater threats from pests and plant diseases. For petroleum-based fibers, the availability and cost of crude oil is an obvious factor. Recycled and regenerated fibers show promise, but not all are truly sustainable. For example, both lyocell and rayon are regenerated cellulose fibers, but the rayon process is much dirtier -- and that includes rayon made from bamboo, which is often promoted as sustainable because of the way the plant is grown.

I doubt that we can attribute specific styles such as cropped pants to climate change, though consumers may be more interested in clothing strategies that help them cope with "unseasonal" weather -- summer weight but springlike clothing for 80-degree days in March, for example. These strategies may include layered clothing or zip-out linings, zip-off sleeves, colors and fabrics that can span seasons. In a weak economy, I can't see consumers expanding their wardrobes. Retailers and manufacturers may be feeling this uncertainly more than consumers; when summer temperatures extend into October, it throws the traditional seasonal retail calendar out of whack. 

As for "whether natural vs. synthetic textiles are better for our changing climate", I am assuming you are asking about sustainability, not comfort. The uncomfortable truth is that overconsumption is a major factor in climate change. We buy much more clothing today than we did a generation ago, and too much of it is "fast", disposable fashion. If we define "sustainable fashion" as made of particular fibers but still ready for Goodwill in a few months, we are deluding ourselves.

Rather than predict the future, I'd like to offer my own personal wish list for sustainable fashion. 

  • 80% of my wardrobe would consist of basics (underwear, socks, classic skirts, jeans, plain tops) that would form the backdrop and foundation for the 20% of my wardrobe devoted to really special pieces (accessories and festive clothing)
  • the 80% basic wardrobe would be made by fairly paid workers, using environmentally sound materials and methods
  • the 20% "special" wardrobe would artisan-made, either by me (in my ample free time) or a fairly-paid craftsperson.
  • a robust textile products recycling system, including refashioning, second-hand clothing and raw material recycling similar to existing paper, metal and plastic systems.
  • expansion of clothing rental programs for women -- wedding dresses, formals, high-end maternity wear.
  • better labeling so consumers could easily identify green, ethical and fair trade products.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Forever 21, sweatshops and the hidden cost of fast fashion

It's the inconvenient truth of the rag trade: an abundance of cheap, trendy clothes -- also known as "fast fashion" -- carries a hidden cost of human misery. For the American consumer, it is easy to ignore the problem of sweatshop labor because, like the migrant workers who harvest our food, the people who make our clothing are mostly invisible. "Sweatshop" once referred to a system of production, where garment producers contracted with middlemen to handle unskilled tasks on a piecework basis. Because of the fierce competition among these subcontractors, this "sweating" system tended to not only depress wages, but place tremendous pressure on the middlemen to do just about anything to increase productivity, resulting in long workdays, crowded workplaces and grinding working conditions. After the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911, labor laws and unionization helped improve conditions, propelled by consumer demand for sweat-free products.

Since the 1970s, the gains of the Progressive Era began to be eroded, first by relocating of garment production to parts of the US with fewer unions, and then to countries with less worker protection. Out of sight, out of mind.

Every once in a while, we are reminded that sweatshops still exist within our borders, despite the legal protections available. In a recent news story, LA Times reporter Shan Li described a Labor Department investigation of fast-fashion icon Forever 21 for "'significant' violations of federal laws on minimum wage, overtime and record-keeping by vendors supplying the company". It is important to understand that, since 1994, the federal government no longer defines a sweatshop by the contracting arrangement by according to non-compliance with federal or state labor laws. For the truly wonkish, there is a searchable database of investigations at the Department of Labor Database (try a search on apparel, filtering by OSHA violations, for example). For those with a more activist inclination, check out Sweatfree Communities and the National Consumers League.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Next Generation

My daughter is having a baby!

Well, not for another few weeks, but it's still given me an occasion to step back and consider procreation, parenting and consumption for the first time in many, many years. Maria was born in the twelfth year of our marriage, after much discussion and ansgt about our relationship, our finances and the Future of the Planet. I was part of a that group of Baby Boomers who delayed parenting, considered being child-free and, when we finally took the plunge, committed to no more than two children. So becoming a parent was, in part, a decision that had ethical dimensions. So did the preparations: cloth diapers, cutting down my childhood dresser to create a changing table, using home made or hand-me-down clothing. But it was clear how hard it would be to escape consumerism.

I wish my daughter and son-in-law well. They have a much stronger community of support than we did, because their friends are on the same path. Her husband was raised in a very self-sufficient household, on a farmstead in West Virginia, and he knows how to plant, preserve and pickle. They are both very selective about what they use and buy, to an extent that intimidates me! After all, I gave up on cloth diapers at three months.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Student testimonial

It's not often that teachers get to hear about how they have influenced their students. Even more rare is feedback on workshops or short presentations. Today I receieved a lovely email from someone who was in a workshop I offered over a year ago based on my "Voluntary Simplicity and Anti-consumerism" course. That class was essentially an introduction to the anti-consumption strands in American culture that have co-existed with materialism from the very beginning. It was not a how-to course in voluntary simplicity; it was part history and part cultural studies. But as nearly always with the material I teach, whether gender or consumption related, the discussion often veered to personal experiences and choices. This is what my student wrote:

It changed my life.

I had a series of very hard conversations with my loved ones about how I felt my family’s consumption patterns were actually lowering our quality of life. After a year of research and planning, we purged about 90 percent of our possessions (including almost my entire personal library) in order to move from a 3 br house with full finished basement to a 2 br apartment. The book donations alone were roughly 50 boxes. I feel almost deliriously unburdened.

Sometimes I berate myself for not being more of an activist, not being on the front lines. But working behind the scenes is not the same as standing on the sidelines, is it?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Occupy your closet?

As part of the Occupy movement, I am participating in a teach-in on my campus on November 3. I will be doing it in the Fashion and Consumer Culture course which will be conveniently in the middle of a unit on sustainability. When I saw the teach-in notice, I immediately saw the connection between economic injustice and consumerism, but I wonder how much I will have to explain to get students into the conversation. What do you see connecting the two?