Students educate on fashion industry’s ethical concerns

Photo Courtesy of Tammy Davis.

The rise of fast fashion — a term encompassing brands like H&M, Forever 21 and Zara — has led to humanitarian and environmental concerns which VCU fashion students addressed on April 23 as part of Fashion Revolution Week.

Members of VCU Assistant Professor Tammy Davis’s Survey of the Fashion Industry course stood around campus with signs in an effort to educate students on the fashion industry’s negative effect on the environment and abuses faced by factory workers.

“They went to thrift stores or they went to their closets and pulled stuff that they had not looked at in years and remade it into something that they could and would wear again,” Davis said.

The fashion industry is the second biggest polluter after oil. Davis said becoming aware of the environmental impact has led her to think harder about her purchases.

Pesticides used to grow cotton used for garments and runoff from factories are some of the ways fashion pollutes in the production stage. Discarded garments accumulate in landfills —  the U.S. discards about 25 billion pounds of textiles per year, and 85 percent of that ends up in landfills, according to the Council for Textile Recycling.

This problem is perpetuated by the high rate at which North Americans purchase clothing due to the low prices offered by many retailers.

“Because we are able to purchase some of it so cheaply, we tend to purchase more. And by purchasing more, we’re not necessarily putting more money into the economy because it’s not being made here,” Davis said. “The cost of making it is so cheap it becomes disposable.”

Fashion Revolution Week was started in response to the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh which killed more than 1,100 people in 2013. Davis says consumers should take steps to investigate the brands they purchase from to see if they provide fair wages and conditions for their workers. Companies in developed nations should take initiative to better these conditions, she said.

“We’re the ones paying these workers, essentially,” Davis said. “We’re hiring them for their abilities and we have a responsibility to make sure they’re paid living wages.”

Davis suggests upcycling one’s own wardrobe by mending and making simple modifications like adding patches or buttons as a way to decrease pollution. Thrifting is also an option for purchasing new clothing, instead of going to retailers that attract students with their low prices.

“You can look presentable for less money and at the same time there’s less textile waste going into the environment,” said sophomore fashion major Marisa Tortora, one of Davis’s students. “A lot of the stuff you donate actually doesn’t end up in a thrift store, it ends up in a landfill in some foreign country.”

High volume donations to developing nations overwhelm local markets. Contrary to popular belief, these items aren’t always given away freely, but sold to retailers that charge for the goods.

“They will have to salvage through those [items] as jobs, but then it ends up killing the local fashion industries,” Tortora said.

Social media, particularly Instagram, has impacted the fashion industry through consumer culture, Tortora said.

Photo Courtesy of Tammy Davis.

“It is an art form, but with fast fashion coming in, it’s becoming less of an artisan craft and more of something we constantly consume,” Tortora said. “It’s easy to get an Instagram model to take a picture with something and then all of a sudden everyone wants that thing.”

Ethical Style Collective, a Richmond group founded this year, hosted a talk on ethical fashion at Verdalina boutique alongside the owner, Deborah Boschen. She opened the store five years ago with a focus on environmentally-friendly and ethical fashion.

“I never really wanted to sacrifice style for sustainability,” Boschen said. “I wanted beautiful clothes, I wanted the quality to be there, I wanted the style to be there.”

Boschen said she always asks brand representatives about the origins of the garments before purchasing, a practice she says they “are kind of funny about,” sometimes because they might not even know the details.

Boschen also makes an effort to make the entirety of Verdalina environmentally friendly by reducing packaging materials and recycling.

“It’s not just the brands, it’s what you can do as a business to be sustainable,” Boschen said.


Georgia Geen Spectrum Editor 

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