pile of clothes

If you’re currently in a public room – any public room – there is a one-hundred percent chance everyone in the room will have at least one thing in common: they will be fully clothed.

Clothing matters.

No, I’m not talking about your style. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Class A Fashionista, or if sweatpants and a hoodie are more your style. Clothing matters because it’s everywhere, on everyone. Until it becomes publicly acceptable to walk around in the nude, or until we find ourselves on a Barcelona beach, what we wear will continue to matter. As consumers we only see the final product, tagged and ready for the runway. The impact of the textile industry (i.e., production and distribution of clothing) is particularly hazardous because, as consumers, we are so disconnected from the production line process that we seldom stop to consider how environmentally or socially harmful it is to produce even the simplest item of clothing.

In the apparel sector, carbon emissions occur at every step of the production line. The apparel sector is estimated to be responsible for five percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. This is about equivalent to all the planes flying in the world, also equal to Russia’s total carbon emissions. Making matters worse the textile industry uses enormous amounts of water, energy, and chemicals. Your favorite pair of jeans? It takes approximately 1,000 gallons of water to make them. And even if we ignore the carbon emissions or water waste, pollution remains a serious problem: the textile industry is the number one industrial polluter of water in the world.

Instead of asking “who you’re wearing,” ask, “where you’re wearing.”

Globally, the livelihoods of millions of garment workers are dependent on the apparel industry. In Bangladesh, clothing and apparel is the biggest export sector, employing nearly 4 million people (2013). The relationship between the U.S. and Bangladesh revolves around the garment industry, with the U.S. being Bangladesh’s number one destination for Bangladeshi clothing and textile exports.

Our dependence on Bangladeshi-made clothing is something we rarely think about. But it dramatically impacts the lives of the garment workers who create the clothes on our backs.The workers who are paid some of the lowest wages in the textile industry globally: approximately $63 USD monthly. The workers who risk their lives working long hours in perilous conditions. The workers whose lives are never seen until a tragic accident, such as the Rana Plaza Collapse, takes the media spotlight for a minute or so.

The old consumer mantra, Shop Till’ You Drop, fits well. Except, while we shop, it is others who are literally dropping.

Thankfully, there are alternatives to purchasing these so-called “unethical garments.” Stores such as Everlane, Eileen Fisher and Patagonia offer radical transparency of a garment’s life-cycle and its impact. That transparency is a welcome step forward - and a moral challenge for all of us.  We must all challenge ourselves to be conscious about what we wear. Is your $10 shirt worth the consequences? Shop less, think more. And if there is ever a choice between an unethical piece of clothing and no clothing at all? Well, I’d rather be naked.