Finding the origin of a piece of clothing is often a confusing and fruitless process for conscious consumers. Yet, we know how important that curiosity is: The fashion industry produces more than 8 percent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Greenwashing — the practice of falsely marketing products as sustainable — is rampant in the industry. Rapid fashion manufacturing is closely linked to violations of labor rights, subjugation of women and child labor.
I put myself in fashion as an outsider, and I always see myself as one. My career in the world of clothing started not in fashion school, but in law school and through working at the United Nations.
One summer, I was sent to Arusha, Tanzania, working at the International Criminal Court for Rwanda. I spend my weekends doing my fair share of hiking, and in Arusha one weekend every hike will lead you to a market. These meetings of producers, winemakers and entrepreneurs were vibrant, joyful, and irresistible to my winds. At first, I used these shopping trips to find souvenirs to return home.
The more time I spent here, however, the more I realized I was receiving more than just gifts I thought my relatives and friends would find beautiful. I started making relationships with people who were doing some of the things I was doing – the woman who had made my fresh but classic flower shorts, the man who weaved the baskets I hung on the walls. Visiting these markets, where fabrics, colors and patterns were rich in cultural significance, I also came to appreciate the beauty of the craft. Beyond the strange journey to the agricultural market, I have never had any meaningful interactions with the people and places behind what I consumed.
The conversations and discoveries I had in that market will come back to me in the months and years to come. I began to connect the points between the Sustainable Development Goals that the people of the UN were so focused on the things we had achieved. That is, environmental degradation and poverty, for example, were both linked to how our things are made and paid for and how we use them. How global business relationships are structured is a major determining factor in whether people have the opportunity to do things and earn a living to begin with. At the same time, the artisans I have met have shown exceptional creative talent and an entrepreneurial will – they have what it takes to make livelihoods sustainable for their families, communities and the planet. And if he could make a deal by working with people like that – craftsmen whose talents customers would be happy to meet and support him with their purchasing power? In the end, that impulse led me to co-found Zady — which brought me back to the Javits Center, facing the realities of the fashion industry.
As Zady evolved, I continued to dig deeper. If I was really most interested in advancing “sustainability,” would it be the best vehicle to make a company whose business model, when it came along, was to sell more things? And since citizens and the industry itself have shown that they don’t know their own impact, can I play a more useful role in shedding light on this information? In the end, I decided to stop selling clothes and focus all my attention instead of explaining the real impact of the fashion industry. I connect with experts who have understood every aspect of the impact of fashion on our world – agronomists, climate scientists, historians, fashion executives, factory executives and material scientists; work experts, organizers and workers; political scientists, toxicologists, psychologists, marketers and economists – to launch a research and action think tank – one step above your average think tank, where ideation sticks to the whiteboard. The New Standard Institute (NSI) is an effort to use information, data, and stories not for private gain, but for the public good.
My goal at the New Standard Institute is to provide rigorous research and data (and highlight when we need it most) on the fashion industry, which is not, unsurprisingly, known for transparency. As we’ll cover in the pages ahead, the processes and practices behind how our clothes are made will fly under the radar. As a result, the information that has been captured so far has been fragmented and often inaccurate. Data is a way of telling a story, and a pretty convincing one at that, but most of what we all do has little to do with data. (If we all acted only on data, we would be in a very different world now.) The stories that lead us to act are those that spark something in our spirits, that put a mirror to our own experience that reminds us of others who have the same values, fears, triumphs and dreams as ours. What you are about to read is that kind of story.
When I started writing Unraveled, I wanted to trace the life and death of a single pair of jeans – a garment that is ubiquitous in our culture, loved for function and style – from farm to landfill. This is an extension of the journey I started with Zady, trying to tell the basic origin story of a dress. But there were obstacles, as I had already discovered with Zady. Companies don’t have a clear understanding of their own supply chains, and many producers aren’t exactly willing to launch their doors open for scrutiny. These obstacles show how far the industry needs to go before it achieves anything close to true transparency. So while this story doesn’t follow just one pair of jeans literally, it follows where an average pair can go, alongside many other types of clothing (everything goes with jeans, right?).
In the story that follows we will visit the cotton farms in Texas, which was and still is a significant source of world cotton production, bringing together farmers who navigate the exchanges between the health of their land, their bank accounts, and themselves. In China we see how those raw fibers are spun into yarns, dyed and woven into denim. And in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh we will meet women in charge of cutting and sewing fabric in a final garment. Back in America, we go to an Amazon store to see how our jeans are shipped and make their way to our closets. We finally traveled to Ghana, where a nice chunk of our clothes landed after we had our way with him, becoming the final resting place of our jeans.
The history of jeans is the history of modern fashion and capitalism, another reason why they make us a particularly suitable hero for our journey. Today, 1.25 billion (yes, that’s billions with a “b”) pairs of jeans are sold worldwide every year, and the average American woman has seven pairs in her closet. I am obviously a big player in the fashion world, which is itself a major player in the global economy. The jeans we wear today have become an ironic symbol of the democracy that even American presidents have worn (until the dress that wears forty-five, that is). They’re billed like all Americans, but the truth of their creation takes us far beyond U.S. borders, and deeper into the place where we would never have thought to look. The history of our pair of jeans will take us around the world and back, reflecting the spread of our supply chains and the degree of cultural fusion that has allowed fashion to become the radically opaque and exploitative force it is today. .
I could give all of this in numbers and on paper, and there will be a few of those on the front pages, but more importantly this book introduces you to the people who are involved in making your clothes. What their stories reveal is that understanding the systems of creating and distributing clothes, how they are sold and the impact that marketing has on us, helps us understand our wider world and our role in it.
Until recently, this $ 2.5 trillion industry was relegated to the “style” section, connoting that it’s superficial, girly, fun, unimportant. Yet it is a huge industry. He is in charge of the incredible net worth of few people at the top of the list of the richest people on the planet. It employs millions of the most vulnerable people in the world – a majority of women – and also employs part of the nation’s highest paid workforce. And it has a significantly destructive impact on our environment, contributing, according to one report, at least the same level of greenhouse gases as France, Germany and the United Kingdom. The roots of our dress are also the roots of slavery and colonialism – systems of oppression that we will see are far from completely dismantled, and behind the conflicts for racial equality that are raging today. Our deeply unequal economic system is also the fruit of these systems. Seen together, the history of our clothes also helps us understand why our societies have become so divided. In the words of historian Sven Beckert, “Too often we prefer to erase the realities of slavery, expropriation and colonialism from the history of capitalism, craving a nobler and cleaner capitalism. We tend to recall industrial capitalism as ‘and male, while women’s work has largely created the cotton empire’ Part of my intention in writing this book is to put the fashion and clothing industry in their rightful place as ‘and not just a part of, but at the foundation of, industry and society as we know it.
I have come to believe that the reason why this industry is not taken seriously in the world of politics and business is because it has been relegated to the realm of social “minorities” – that is, women and people of color (and often both). Since the early days of industrialization, clothing has been largely made by people belonging to these two groups, and sold mainly to women; we’ll meet some of her children – the people whose hands make our clothes today – in the pages that follow. Even in environmental circumstances, fashion is often overlooked. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve talked to significant environmental donors about the impact of the fashion industry during my work for NSI, to which they would respond, Oh, you have to talk to my wife about that, loves fashion. (This would of course be significant if the wives of major environmental donors had held purse strings, but in my experience, they didn’t.)
The lack of attention has allowed the industry to operate with very little regulation and no significant media coverage, while its (mostly male) executives earn huge sums of money on the (mostly) work of the media. women and the acquisition of women. I write this book as someone who is both deeply disturbed by the industry and the society that was created in the effort to sell more of it and appreciate the power and pleasure of clothing. The knowledge of how our clothes are made, marketed, sold, worn and discarded is a powerful lens through which to better see the truths of our world and its history, whether beautiful or ugly. Clearly seeing is the first step to dismantling the urgent injustices that this book describes and to give birth to not only a more just, but pleasing and flourishing society.
Yes Unraveled: The life and death of a garment by Maxine Bedat, published June 1 by Portfolio, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Maxine Bedat.
Maxine Bédat is the founder and director of the New Standard Institute, a think tank that addresses sustainability and employment issues in the fashion industry. Previously he was the founder and CEO of the sustainable fashion initiative Zady. His first book is Unraveled: The life and death of a garment.
We hope you enjoy the recommended book here. Our goal is to suggest only things we love and think you can, too. We also like transparency, therefore, full disclosure: We may collect a portion of sales or other compensation if you purchase through external links on this page.