Ethical Fashion: Introduction to an Ongoing Series by Nadia Dawisha

Last week we met Nadia for the first time and felt an instant connection as we talked about all types of issues hindering the current fashion and textiles industry -- from conscious consumerism to defining "sustainable fashion" we shared our current understanding of the topics at hand. Nadia is currently researching the "democratization of fashion" and how advertisemtns and marketing efforts drive the consumer industry. Today we're excited to announce Nadia will be joining Redress Raleigh as a contributor to our blog with her ongoing series on Ethical Fashion!

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Nadia Dawisha is the author Listen Girlfriends, a critical conversation on media and culture. 

Nadia Dawisha is the author Listen Girlfriends, a critical conversation on media and culture. 

This past summer, I decided it would be a good idea to clean out my apartment while I was moving to another place. It felt really good to ‘detox,’ so to speak, and I relished throwing out old advent calendars in the back of my storage closet, jewelry that was either falling apart or just kind of tacky (do you really need a huge gold peacock ring Nadia, do you?), and clothing that I wasn’t really feeling anymore. As I threw out everything with fervor, something hit me (I think when I picked up a pair of feather earrings that I bought before I began to think seriously about cultural appropriation). I realized that everything I was tossing out was mass-produced. And that when I came across a necklace given to me by my mother, or the Zuni ring that was made by an actual Zuni woman (instead of a ‘Native-inspired’ design made by factory workers abroad), or the Tagua nut necklace that I bought from an artisan in Puerto Rico whose face I still remember, I just couldn’t let it go. Not only did I consider these items art in the way that they had been lovingly hand-crafted, but I had a personal connection with the people who had made them or given them to me. It was easier for me to toss out the shirt I got from Urban Outfitters or the earrings I bought years ago at Forever 21, because I had no knowledge of who made them. They meant little to me.  I didn’t value the work put into these items as much because I knew nothing about it, or the people behind it.

When I wrote my first post on why I blog about fashion, I revealed my complex feelings about the industry, and I have started to document its many contradictions which I find to be both fascinating and so unbelievably challenging. Despite my appreciation for fashion as a mode of expression, I have always been disillusioned with the labor exploitation behind the glamorous façade of the industry. Even though I had been involved in anti-sweatshop campaigns before, and had enjoyed vintage and artisan made products, I still found myself buying into the status quo of retail that encourages mainstream consumption of ‘fast fashion‘ (or buying more clothes at a discount) on the one end, and the idealization of unattainable high couture on the other. Why was I bragging about the great bargain I had scored at the designer discount site, knowing that by doing so, I was also discounting the labor and people behind it? Or drooling over the latest purse Blair Waldorf carried on Gossip Girl, despite being aware that high couture is often a means by which the show reinforces class divisions? Why, girlfriends, wasn’t I connecting the dots?

2011 Redress Eco-Fashion show featured Pamor Designs, an organic jewelry and accessories brand.

2011 Redress Eco-Fashion show featured Pamor Designs, an organic jewelry and accessories brand.

The revelation I had this past June standing in my room staring at all of that stuff (and given the total trauma of moving that mountain of possessions, I did wonder did I possess them, or did they posses me?!) was what I would mark as a significant moment in how this movement of sustainability started to truly penetrate my consciousness. Sustainable fashion implies that the product has been made with thought and consideration of its environmental and social impact, and in the following months, as I read about the textile fire in Pakistan that killed more than three hundred people, or the ‘apparel trend‘ report that revealed how companies like Wal-Mart and Forever 21 are ignoring claims of child and forced labor from their workers, or how exporting this cheap labor means a loss of industries and jobs in the U.S, I felt a need to share this information with others. When I read Elizabeth Cline’s book Overdressed, I was shocked to learn that garment workers overseas are earning just one percent of the retail price of the clothing they produce, and that the wages of garment workers could be easily doubled or tripled with little or no increase for American consumers. I wanted to understand if Nike could afford to double its pay to its thousands of shoe factory employees without raising any of their consumer prices, why weren’t they doing it?

Although I had always been aware of the exploitative labor behind the clothes we wear, I had never really considered the harmful environmental impact of the conventional textile industry’s manufacturing process. And then, once I learned about the cancer-causing chemicals that are found in the very fabrics we wear, I knew I needed to connect the dots not just between culture and labor, but between environmental sustainability and cultural economies. Jean Cocteau once noted that “style is a simple way of saying complicated things,” and indeed in today’s world, the clothes we wear should not be dismissed as merely frivolous things, but as signifiers of the truly deep social, environmental, and economic structures of unconscious consumerism.

For the last few weeks, I have been interviewing major industry players, from garment workers to activists to designers, who are making sustainability their focus. I will be incorporating these interviews in a series that I hope will expose the contradictions and lack of transparency in the industry, as well as the ways in which we can start to connect the dots between all of these different concerns and issues within this complex industry. This series will feature:

  • An interview with Marci Zaroff, who coined the term ‘Eco Fashion’ and has been instrumental in drafting Fair Trade and Organic textile standards for the industry in the U.S. In this interview, Marci will provide some basic information on the environmental impact of the textile industry, fair labor practices and why an Indian cotton farmer is committing suicide every half hour. I will also be asking Marci to help us respond to questions and critiques about sustainability, and to help us pinpoint which companies are truly committed to ethical labor and environmental practices, and which ones are just using social responsibility as a way to attract more people to their product. 
  • I will then be interviewing Callie Brauel of A Ban Against Neglect (ABAN), a non-profit that empowers street girls in Ghana while helping to clean up the environment, by upcycling waste into adorable accessories and jewelry!
  • If that wasn’t enough inspiration for you, then stay tuned for an article on the non-profit MamAfrica, based in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The co-founders, Aline Malekera and Ashley Nemiro, created the organization to provide holistic services for refugee women in the town of Bukavu, and are incorporating the art of sewing in their mission to empower women both economically and socially. This post will also reveal how our technology consumption is tied to the conflict minerals crisis in the DRC, and will offer resources on how to become a more empowered consumer outside of the fashion industry.
  • Next, we will turn to issues of culture (because culture needs to bediscussed!), and how television shows like Gossip Girl, magazines likeVogue, and brand advertisements influence not just how we consume, but how we see ourselves and shape our identities. Is new media and the rising influence of fashion bloggers challenging the false messaging of advertising? Or am I just a complete fraud? 
  • Then…get ready, because we’re going to be tackling the issue of labor, from sweatshops to social movements like Fair Trade and Ethical Fashion that are providing a counterpoint to exploitative labor. This section will highlight the textile company Alta Gracia, which produces university apparel and pays its workers a living wage (while maintaining very affordable prices) and is consistently ranked as having the best monitoring practices in the industry. I will be interviewing three people who have been active with Alta Gracia: Amy Kessel, a student and trade justice organizer from Temple University; Jim Wilkerson, the director of Trademark Licensing & Stores Operations at Duke University; and Maritza Vargas, who works as a garment worker in the Alta Gracia factory. She will be telling all– about her former struggles as a union organizer working in a sweatshop factory, and the truth behind the ‘Fair Labor Association’s’ monitoring practices (spoiler alert: the truth isn’t always pretty!).
  • Next we will discuss the connection between fashion and art, and question whether the artisan/sustainable movement brings the ‘art’ back to a textile landscape increasingly known for its homogenous and cheaply produced products. Also, do artisan-made products empower cultures that are often treated like trends in fast fashion? Two bloggers who created online boutiques as a way to counter cultural appropriation and stereotypes will weigh in on these questions. The first is Jessica Metcalfe, whose boutique Beyond Buckskin exclusively features Native-American designers, and the second is Enyinne Owunwanne, of the online site Heritage 1960 that has become a retail destination for an alternative view of African fashion, lifestyle, and design.
  • Then the series will turn to the different fashion/jewelry designers who make it a point to incorporate sustainable practices in their lines while empowering marginalized communities both in the U.S. and abroad. Interviews will include couture designer Kahindo Mateene from the African-inspired line Modahnik, former Harper’s Bazaar editor Ariela Suster from the El Salvadorian accessories collection Sequence, Native designer Kristen Dorsey from the Native jewelry line Kristen Dorsey Designs, and Eco-fashion designer Lusmila McColl from the line McColl & Clan.
  • Finally, how do we turn awareness into action? What is the difference between awareness that is merely used as a brand gimmick or a shallow substitute for engagement, versus one that can be a tool for positive change? Sophia Hyder, who has worked in development for the last ten years, will be weighing in on these questions. Her recently launched line Evolvemint sells Eco-friendly scarves made by women in Bangladesh, and she has also developed a ‘pink’ line that donates money to a breast cancer foundation that uses its funds not for awareness, but for financial assistance to underinsured women. I will also be talking with Rick Awdas, who created the site Ethical in Style so that people could learn more about sustainable brands and have access to an enormous database of ethical fashion options.
  • I will also be answering reader questions (umm…so excited!) about how to go about different sustainable practices, like DIY (do it yourself) clothing, thrift shopping, and/or just buying less. Want resources on where to get information on ethical fashion and sustainability in general? Don’t worry peeps, girlfriend will be hooking you up!
  • Oh, and I just might be throwing in giveaways of socially conscious items,cause it’s all about the extras that gets thrown in your gift bag, right? 

Basically, the reason why I began this blog in the first place was to start conversations, and my purpose for this series is not to preach perfection, but to encourage conscious choices through increased awareness of issues related to sustainability, specifically in regards to the garment industry. I truly believe that when we don’t know where our clothes are made, than we lose that sense of community and human connection that is so important. I hope to highlight the importance of handmade products that help to personalize the process of production and revive the relationship between those who make the clothes and those who purchase them. My intention is not to dismiss fashion (obvi), but to envision improvement by examining where culture and labor meet, and the effect that this has mostly on women. My hope is that by using fashion as my ‘example,’ I also can help create awareness on other related issues, like the environment, suspect practices in certifications and labeling, and labor.

So, let’s do this girlfriends!

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