Six Books on Sustainability and Some Things I Learned

So many clothes; so many problems with their production!  What is a person to do?

A stack of old clothes.

Try not to think of this as a really long post, try to think of it as a quick way to sample six books on sustainability, and see if any of them intrigue you.  I have linked to their pages at Google Books and most of them have pretty good-sized samples there if you would like to read more.

Green Essentials:What You Need to Know about the Environment by Geoffrey C. Saign, 1994, Mercury House.

In 1994, what was essential to know about about the sustainability of cotton, fabric, dyes, textiles, and fashion?  Apparently, nothing.  This 528-page book mentions that the Aral Sea was shrinking due to irrigating arid land, and names the cotton boll weevil on a list of invading insect pests, but otherwise there is no mention of any of these other topics.  It’s interesting to me that 20 years ago, Sustainable Fashion wasn’t in the mainstream of environmental concerns.

The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard, 2010, Free Press, a division of Simon and Schuster.

Confessions of an Eco-Sinner:Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff by Fred Pearce, 2008, Beacon Press

These two books are very similar, in that they cover all sorts of products that we buy and discard.  There may be more information packed into Leonard’s book, but I felt that Pearce’s is more readable, less frenetic.

Leonard’s is organized by the steps of production — extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal — and within each of those steps she writes about different items.  There are only 7 pages in her book on cotton and clothing, but those 7 pages are packed with unforgettable information.  She spends a lot of time on the miserable labor conditions of women in Haiti who sew for Disney (you can read updates about those conditions and a plethora of other Disney issues on the Corporate Research Project website).

Pearce’s book devotes a chapter to each item we use or wear on a daily basis – coffee, cell phones, wedding rings, socks.  Four of the chapters cover with the manufacturing of new clothes, and one covers the resale of donated clothes.  Pearce flew all over the world and talked with a sheep rancher in Australia, garment workers in Bangladesh, and cotton farmers in India, among others.  His vivid portrayals of these individuals provide a handle for understanding the complex stages of production.

This was my favorite book from all of these.  The last four chapters cover reasons for hope and after reading all this depressing information, I really needed those!

Pearce has more hopeful things to say about Africa than I have ever read before.  Here is a cotton farmer in Mali.

And here is a gorgeous pile of handwoven scarves from Swaziland.

These next three books all came out last year, and they cover a lot of the same information, but each one has a slightly different angle.  I need to reread all three to absorb their information better.

Sustainable Fashion: Past, Present, Future by Jennifer Farley Gordon and Colleen Hill, 2015, Bloomsbury Academic

This book originated from an exhibition at the Fashion Institute of Technology.  It traces the history of several aspects of the fashion industry, such as dyes, fibers, and craftsmanship from the 18th century on.  It is illustrated with photos of historical clothing — they are only in black and white!  but many of them are shown in color on the exhibition’s website.

A major point in this book is that there is no perfect fiber or fabric.  Speaking of cotton, the authors say, “…the fiber’s designation as organic often ends at harvest, without accounting for further stages of its life cycle — many of which are not sustainable.”  (Kindle Location 1538 of 6770)  (Sorry, I can’t find out how to make “locations” change to “page numbers” in e-books.)

[Update from 2021 — I had linked to a thorough review of this book, but that link is broken, so I will have to reread and review the book myself.]

Fixing Fashion:Rethinking the Way We Think, Market, and Buy Our Clothes by Michael Lavernge, 2015, New Society Publishers

This book was written by a fashion industry insider.  Among other positions, he was a sourcing manager for Sara Lee, which at the time owned Hanes (who owns Playtex, Champion, etc. etc.).  Throughout the book he relates how difficult it is to establish and maintain a transparent chain of supply — companies change names, buy each other out, spin off divisions, etc.  His blow-by-blow details of corporate takeovers prove his industry knowledge, but I could have done with a little less of them.

Lavergne sort of fell into his career in apparel manufacturing, at the same time the North American companies were beginning to outsource jobs overseas.   In each chapter he tells a little about how his career played out, and then how that relates to industry trends. He is honest about times he wasn’t prepared for the realities he met, or didn’t know what he needed to, so it’s interesting to see how those challenges illustrate the larger changes in industry.

Like Sustainable Fashion, this book covers a lot of textile industry history, but there were two subjects that were totally new to me.  The first: Just because a clothing label says the item came from a certain country, doesn’t mean the workers that made it did.  Lavernge writes,” Entering the US market is no easy feat; the US has built up some of the most complex sets of customs and tariffs rules in the world… ‘free trade’ deals are more correctly described as managed trade agreements.” (Location 1075 of 4277, italics his.)

He details events in 1994: “… a Western-educated Jordanian businessman, Omar Salah… was able to convince disparate political actors from Israel, the U.S. and Jordan to facilitate a special export processing agreement allowing goods manufactured in Jordan to enter American markets free of import duties and restrictions.”

“While much of the early work done at the international level in promoting the trade deal had sold the concept based on its potential contribution to regional peace, stability and the creation of employment for Jordanians, the reality on the ground turned out to be something quite different.  Instead of acting as a catalyst for local job creation, international apparel firms from China and South Asia were given the green light to import the vast majority of their factory laborers from their home countries.  According to data from the Jordanian Ministry of Labour, by 2006 just over 66 percent of the 54,000 QIZ [Qualifying Industrial Zone] employees were foreign ‘guest workers.’… the other 34 percent, who were Jordanian nationals, were often assigned tasks in teams and multiples of three or four people, when half that number of employees would have sufficed.  Job titles were being created simply to achieve quotas for local hiring and job creation.” (Location 1156 of 4277)

Lavergne goes on to compare two of those factories, one run poorly and one run well — having workers brought in from China and Sri Lanka doesn’t necessarily equate with unfair treatment, but this is one example of a hurdle to supply-chain accountability.

These are Sri Lankan workers actually in Sri Lanka.  Reading these books was tough going for me but I have loved researching images on these issues.

The second topic that was new to me: the role of auditors.  He writes about this in detail for pages, so I’ll sum up.  Let’s say that an American retail company says that from now on, it is going to hold all its suppliers to Fair Trade Certification standards.  They send an inspector to a Bangladeshi factory, and he finds it has no fire escapes.  Are they going to shut down the whole factory while proper fire escapes are built?  No, the auditor reports back to the retail company with the non-compliance issue, and a “corrective action plan,” or CAP.  Depending on circumstances, the factory owner may be told he has two months to build the fire escapes, after which his orders will be cancelled.  After those two months, the auditor goes back, finds out the fire escapes still haven’t been built, dutifully reports the truth, files another corrective action plan, and the cycle continues.

“The auditing industry that has evolved over the past 20 years or so to serve the outsourced needs of international brands and retailers is now a multi-billion-dollar goliath.” (Location 1756 of 4277.)  Lavergne explains that the monitoring and auditing industry is as prone to corruption as are the clothing factories — bribing the auditors may be cheaper than fixing the faults in the plant, or auditors may threaten a plant with a bad report unless they get some supplemental pay.

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Once we have purchased that Fast Fashion item, worn it a few times, and gotten sick of it?  What do we do?  We virtuously give it to a charity thrift shop, where it is passed on to someone in need, right?

Well, not exactly.  To find out what really happens to it, we go to —
Clothing Poverty: The Hidden World of Fast Fashion and Second-Hand Clothes by Andrew Brooks, 2015, Zed Books.

This book goes into great depth on what happens to our discarded clothes.  Only about 6 – 10 % (depending on whose statistics you read) stay in the donor country at their thrift stores, the rest gets baled up and resold, usually ending up in Africa.  Even there it is not just given to needy people, but is sold and resold.  That might be fine, but the market vendors there have to buy the bales sight unseen, with no assurance that the garments inside will be ones that they can actually sell.  (Think about the market for a bale of Canadian winter coats in Nigeria.)  The garments that do get sold undermine the market for traditional clothing, driving established businesses into bankruptcy and increasing dependence on these foreign handouts.

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One of the facts that stayed with me from this book, is that Oxfam has a huge role in this process. Brooks interviewed Tony Clark, a general manager at Oxfam’s processing plant for donated clothes, Wastesaver.  “Oxfam’s role as a campaigning organization advocating for change in the cotton sector sits uneasily with its position in the second-hand clothing system of provision.  Clark commented that ‘[i]t was quite an eye opener for me’ speaking to colleagues within Oxfam who are campaigning against US cotton subsidies and promoting fair-trade clothing. ‘Oxfam was reluctant to talk about clothing ending up in countries they worked in…which could affect local industry.'” (Location 1455 of 5493)

Oxfam had started a small sorting plant in Dakar that employs 25 people, but the spokesman Clark said, “We can’t shift everything from a commercial to an ethical basis because the risk is too great…[we] invested £300,000…[we are] paying full duty, putting us at a commercial disadvantage in-country.”

I remembered this when I was watching the film The True Cost – Livia Firth from Oxfam was shown berating a spokeswoman for H & M stores as to exactly how much was the “living wage” they paid their garment workers.  But according to Andrew Brooks, Oxfam’s practices are contributing to these problems as well.

So, if we can’t in good conscience buy new clothes or donate old ones, and instead we wear vintage clothes, then we can feel virtuous, right?

Not exactly.  According to Brooks, “Hipster sensibilities and uniqueness cannot persevere in isolation for long, hence interest in vintage clothing has crossed over and steadily become co-opted into the mainstream as retro trends are remade by fast-fashion brands.” (Location 2945 of 5493)  “The emergence of vintage boutiques has been part of gentrification in the North’s global cities…” (Location 2953)  “The cultural economy which surrounds consumption – exhibitions, blogs, themed parties, commercialized nostalgia – is all part of the social landscape that enables vintage clothing systems of provision.”  (Location 2995)

This book was the toughest read for me.  The tone is unfailingly pessimistic, and the author seems to hold each and every person in the “global North” personally responsible for every ill that besets the “global South.”  (Maybe it was that comment he made against blogs.)  But still, I am glad I read it.

So, that’s roughly 1500 pages on sustainable fashion condensed to less than 2000 words!  I plan to do another post on some of the solutions proposed to these problems, and I also want to keep researching the sustainability of craft fabrics and yarns.