We’ve all heard the quote “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
Well, this post is about being the change you want to see in the fashion industry. But it is also about being a critical consumer of information as much as being a critical consumer of clothing, and it is about using your power—whether that is your voice, your dollar, or your Instagram feed—but using it responsibly. As we stand perched on the edge of a tipping point, the actions we as consumers take can make a difference in either direction.
It is encouraging to see that consumers and fashion industry stakeholders are beginning to acknowledge—and to try to address—the environmental and social impact of our collective clothing habits: Oceans clogged with trash and microplastics, rivers contaminated with hazardous chemicals, greenhouse gas emissions that inch our global climate toward disaster, and garment industry workers toiling in unsafe buildings, for poor wages, while being subjected to harassment and abuse.
The issues are real. They are complex. We do them a disservice when we oversimplify. And while posting a selfie in your new bamboo pants with the hashtag #sustainablefashion may be motivated by the best of intentions, I would argue that under-informed engagement does more harm than good.
I have a confession to make—and maybe you saw this coming: Gandhi never said “Be the change you want to see in the world.” According to numerous sources, including this New York Times article: “The closest verifiable remark we have from Gandhi is this: ‘If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. ... We need not wait to see what others do.’”
And while the simplistic version of this quote that adorns bumper stickers and coffee mugs may inspire some bit of good, it loses nuance, and power, in the process. So my invitation is this: dig deeper. Look beyond the buzzwords and try to understand more of the story.
The first step is to think critically. Then, shop critically.
There are some great resources out there for people looking to genuinely engage on this topic.
- GoBlu International puts out a free twice-weekly blog called The Fashion Sustainability Week in Review that sums up the latest industry news.
- Good on You is a consumer-facing app that gives a broad rating for many major companies based on three categories: People, Planet, and Animals (you may be surprised at the ratings!).
- Fashion Revolution or The Garment Worker Diaries are great places to start for people more interested in the social issues.
- Read the Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report from the GFA.
- Find your favorite brand’s sustainability report, read it, and research the parts you don’t understand. Then let the company know what you think.
As you form your own opinions and priorities, be sure to test them with some basic research; Don’t jump on the vegan clothing bandwagon only to be surprised to learn that your purchases are made of plastic, or coated in hazardous chemicals that are known to be dangerous to workers.
Education is the best way to help the situation, as long as action follows suit.
It would be ideal if consumers could easily find out—and understand the meaning of—details such as where a garment was made, what types of chemicals were involved, and what the workers were paid. I believe we will get there in the future (in fact, GoBlu has created an app called The BHive that is a stepping stone in this direction for brands and manufacturers). But until we get there, I suggest asking yourself this quick list of questions before you make a purchase:Love: Do I love it?
- You’re inviting this item into your life for the foreseeable future: will you be happy to see it in your closet for the next decade? A longer life means a better footprint.
- Does this item meet a legitimate need? Is purchasing this item the only way to fill it? Could you rent, borrow, mend, tailor, or thrift instead?
- Can you commit to the care instructions indicated on the tag (e.g. iron, hand wash)? Can you perform basic mending and repairs (e.g. fix a button, close a seam)?
- Will this item stand the test of time in terms of style, and in terms of quality and construction?
- Can you use your voice to tell this company why you think this purchase fits your values? Or to find out more information so you can make that determination?
Use the acronym “Little Mindset Changes Transform the World” to remind yourself of these five questions, and to remind yourself of your power.
This is a pivotal moment and all of our choices matter. Let’s commit ourselves to make them intentionally, communicating about them truthfully, admitting our own blindspots, and continuing to learn along the journey.
Gandhi was an early pioneer in activism involving clothing through the swadeshi movement. His early life also inspires ongoing controversy, particularly in relation to charges of sexism and racism. There is quite a story here, too.
Ariel Kraten is a Co-founder of GoBlu International. She first became passionate about environmental justice while serving in the Peace Corps, and she has worked to advance sustainability in the apparel industry for nearly a decade.