A few weeks ago we were down in the Village and went in search of the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Have you heard of it? On March 25, 1911, it was the location of one of the deadliest industrial disasters in U.S. history. 146 garment workers died in the fire. Until the World Trade Center tragedy 90 years later, it was one of the worst man-made disasters in the history of New York. But it had an impact far beyond New York.
The fire resulted in large-scale changes to labor laws which brought many improvements in worker safety. Even now, the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire is commemorated here to remember the garment workers’ lives that were lost and the positive changes that occurred following the fire.
As horrible as that massive loss of life was, it pales in comparison to what has happened last year in Bangladesh. First there was the fire in a Bangladesh factory that killed more than 400 workers. This was followed shortly thereafter by the collapse of a different Bangladesh factory. Over 1,100 workers died there. That’s more than 10 times the loss of life at the Triangle Shirtwaist building!
There are so many things I want to say about the topic of how fast fashion impacts our world today. More than can be reasonably written (or read!) in a single blog post. But here’s a start.
You know how, a few years ago, the Slow Food movement took hold and we realized that we really should know more about what we eat, where it comes from, and how if affects our bodies and our environment? We started shopping for our food locally, asking questions about where our food comes from and how it’s produced. Good, right?
Now that same cultural shift is happening with our clothing. In much the same way as the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire caused big changes in labor laws, the Bangladesh tragedies are causing many of us to re-think our approach to apparel today.
Cheap fashion has become such a way of life for us. But what happens to all that cheap clothing when we’re done with it? And what does that cheap clothing do to us, to our surroundings, our society, and our economy?
In Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, Elizabeth Cline investigates the world of cheap fashion, tracing the growth of the cheap clothing industry, the resulting decline of middle-market and independent retailers, and our obsession with sales and “deals.” She traveled to factories in China and Bangladesh to research the impact of the enormous increase in cheap fashion imports, and she explores how the pressures of cheap fashion have changed garment detail and construction, simplifying the clothes we wear so they are all mostly the same nondescript styles that feature low-quality craftsmanship and poor materials.
Many of you who read this blog already know this, or you understand a lot of it. You already make a conscious choice to invest in quality clothing that’s made well and will last, rather than getting sucked into the best “deal” or the latest trend. You recognize that our sartorial choices have a wider impact than just the cost to our wallets. Maybe that’s even why you sew.
But cheap clothing still has an appeal, doesn’t it? We are still susceptible to sales and bargains. And most of us own far more clothing than we really need. Worse yet, we discard outrageous amounts of clothing and textiles every year. And the big question is, how do we change this? Are we, as home sewists, doing enough? And what choices are the right choices?
I thought I knew a lot about this topic. I mean, I’ve worked in the apparel industry. I know that textile workers are underpaid and often work under hazardous conditions. I listen to the news. I followed the collapse of the Bangladesh factory with absolute horror. I understand the impact on the environment that manufacturing has in third-world countries. And when I buy clothing, I buy quality items that I keep for a really long time and try to avoid cheap, throw-away fashion as much as possible.
But then I heard Ms. Cline’s interview on Fresh Air with Terry Gross and realized that there’s so much I didn’t know. So I read the book and learned even more. Far more than I can talk about in a single blog post and still do the topic justice.
I’d strongly encourage you to pick up a copy of the book. It’s a quick read. (Todd always refers to books like these as “books that should have been a New Yorker article” because the information could have been compressed quite a bit. But authors need to make a living too!)
If you don’t have time to read the book, at least listen to the Fresh Air interview. I think the author makes some very important points, and we have a responsibility not just to ourselves and our children, but to people all over the world who are affected by our choices. Here’s what you can do:
- Listen to the interview on Fresh Air. You also download the podcast in iTunes by following the link. Listen tonight while you’re sewing or washing the dishes. It doesn’t take long.
- Read the book.
- Visit the website. You’ll find lots of great resources, including a shopping guide to help identify designers and manufacturers who abide by ethical, sustainable, and environmental standards. (Natalie Chanin is on that list!) And I especially like the list of Ten Simple Tips For a More Ethical and Sustainable Wardrobe.
- If you’d like to discuss the book or anything relating to the book, you’re welcome to comment here or drop by our discussion forum to do so!
And if you’re ever in New York and want to visit the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, you can find it at 23–29 Washington Place, now known as the Brown Building . There’s a commemorative plaque on the building.