Rapid Blog: Do you know where your clothes come from?

This installment of Rapid Blog comes to us from Becky VandenBout, founder of Joon + Co. A brand new local women's clothing retailer, Joon + Co. vows "that every single item they purchase through us has been thoroughly vetted and meets the appropriate criteria to be considered ethically sourced and socially responsible." VandenBout's essay is her own, and does not necessarily reflect the views of Rapid Growth, or its parent company, Issue Media Group.
When you’re out shopping for that little black dress or the perfect Fall handbag, are you thinking about where those items came from, who made them, the materials used? Probably not. The ethical fashion industry is trying to change that.
When you’re out shopping for that little black dress or the perfect Fall handbag, are you thinking about where those items came from, who made them, the materials used? Probably not. If you’re like most consumers, you’ll gravitate toward the things that are your style, are priced right, and are the most convenient without putting much thought into the composure and construction of the garments you’re purchasing.

The ethical fashion industry is trying to change that. Rather than making customers hunt for the consciously made pieces like they used to, ethical fashion designers and retailers are rounding them up, putting them right in front of our faces, and showing us that fashion and integrity can go hand in hand.

“That’s great and all, but what does it really mean for an item to be ethical?” you ask. Great question. Ethics is a notoriously muddy subject due to the subjective nature of the topic. Ethical to one might not mean ethical to another, so when we speak in terms of an ethical industry, such as ethical fashion, it’s important to clarify what criteria a business uses to determine the ethical-ness of an item.

The criteria used on many ethical shopping blogs and stores usually falls into one of these categories; vegan/cruelty free, fair trade, sustainable/eco-friendly, locally made, community based/diversity-driven. These help prevent some of the most gut-wrenching aspects of the fashion industry: sweatshop labor, animal cruelty, and environmental toxins and waste.

As consumers, we need to be aware of what we’re buying. I’m not saying that we need to obsess and overanalyze everything we buy, but simply do the legwork when it comes to the brands and stores that you trust. Do a quick Google search, or use a tool like the Chrome extension DoneGood to ensure that what you’re buying aligns with your values. If you live a natural, sustainable lifestyle, look for companies that use organic cotton and other eco-friendly fabrics like tencel, which is soft, silky, and sustainably made from farmed eucalyptus. If you’re vegan, don’t limit your compassion for animal well-being to your dinner plate. If you’re passionate about women’s rights, put your money toward companies that empower women and preach diversity. Following influencers that you trust is another great way to find ethical fashion that aligns with your lifestyle.

Two of the biggest challenges that have plagued the ethical fashion industry in the past are the higher price tags and lack of availability of high quality, aesthetically pleasing pieces. Recently, however, that’s all changing. Companies like Everlane are focusing on providing affordable and transparent pricing models. Cuyana is heading up the minimalist, direct to consumer model, and Reformation is fighting the green fight for all of us who buy their seriously swoon-worthy pieces. Don’t have time to research the ethics of the many, many brands out there? Retailers like my own, Joon + Co., are doing the legwork for you by finding one-of-a-kind pieces from smaller, indie labels and sorting through the more well-known ethical brands like KowTow, Groceries Apparel, and Angela Roi to bring you curated collections of items that not only fit a specific aesthetic and style, but are all doing their own bit of good in the world.

The “slow fashion movement” is a term you might hear in the ethical fashion industry. Slow fashion is a method of producing garments in a more intentional and thoughtful way by using original and versatile design, fair labor practices, and producing less waste by making fewer products. In contrast, fast fashion companies like H&M, Zara, and Forever 21 are dropping new styles daily and selling pieces for so little they feel almost disposable. They stay up on trends, but often at the cost of independent designers, and produce low quality items from synthetic fibers without much regard for how the materials will biodegrade.

Fabrics like polyester, rayon, and nylon can take up to 200 years to decompose in a landfill and their fibers, dyes, and sealants are toxic to the environment and to people. Some fast fashion companies do offer recycling programs, but with the amount of clothing being recycled today, donation centers are filling up, and the unwanted clothes, like that trunk load you took to Goodwill last week, usually end up in landfills.

It’s easy to turn a blind eye to the ethics behind our clothing because we aren’t there when they’re made, and we forget about them once we get rid of them. Out of sight, out of mind, right? This makes it that much more important for us to be conscious consumers. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that in 2016, Americans in the U.S. disposed of about 12.8 million tons of textiles, which breaks down to about 80 pounds per person. If even half of that is comprised of non-biodegradable synthetics coated with toxic chemicals, consider the environmental impact that has, not to mention health impacts for future generations.

In West Michigan right now, for example, it’s coming to light that in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Wolverine World Wide, a global shoe and apparel company based in Rockford, MI, dumped tannery waste throughout the area which contained perfluorinated chemicals, used to waterproof shoes, into local dump sites. These chemicals have been linked to certain kinds of cancer, reproductive issues, and thyroid problems, among others. Local residents, finding illegal dump sites in their neighborhoods, are threatening to sue and cancer studies are under way. While this was decades ago, it’s easy to imagine the grim consequences of today’s fashion industry with increased manufacturing efficiency, reduced cost, and mass overproduction if we don’t start adjusting our consumer behaviors accordingly.

The generation entering college next year, having watched their parents work through a major recession, will be the first to make less than their parents. We’re seeing a huge return to the city, as opposed to suburban living, with younger millennials partly because housing costs and student debt have grown so high. They would rather spend their money on experiences and be more immersed in culture than on things like houses and cars, which is subsequently helping to drive the minimalist movement: fewer, better things.

One of the questions I get asked the most when speaking about Joon + Co. is, “...but is there a market for ethical fashion?” Yes, yes, and more yes. Ashley Bovin, a West Michigan resident who works at Black Truck Media is striving for the simplicity and sustainability of a minimalist lifestyle. When I asked how this translates into smart wardrobe choices, she replied,

“I've done my fair share of thrift shopping over the years, but I'd like to work toward incorporating some new, high-quality pieces into my wardrobe. I love the idea of creating a ‘work uniform,’ which would feature staple pieces you can mix and match and wear throughout the week. The idea is to make it easy to decide what to wear in the morning—one less decision to have to make in the day. Of course, to be a sustainable uniform, the pieces have to hold up over time, and I'm learning that fast fashion pieces just don't last. ”

Take note that through the radical transition the retail industry is currently experiencing, the companies that are thriving have realized the need to innovate; have a story, a purpose, a conscience.

The future of retail is in authenticity and trust, which is one reason the fashion retail industry is evolving. People are moving away from the big brands, department stores, and malls, and putting their trust (and money) in companies who are earning it. It’s time for designers and retailers to pivot and provide a more transparent, honest environment for their customers to buy their items, and it’s time for shoppers and influencers to start holding fashion companies to higher standards. We need to let the fashion industry know that we won’t tolerate practices that poison our planet, hurt our animals, and take advantage of our people, that we will put our money into companies that have given us a good reason to trust them with it.

Images courtesy of Studio Phrene, phrene.com.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.