Revolution and …Fashion?!?
Wine, Women, and Revolution Warmly Welcomes Ekaterina Sedia
Hello, listeners and readers and welcome to Wine, Women, and Revolution, with your host Heather Warburton, coming at you from New Jersey Revolution Radio. Today we are honored to be joined by special guest Ekaterina Sedia. Kat is currently a Professor of Biology at Stockton University in South Jersey. This is where she met our writer and assistant producer, Leah, and connected her to NJRR. Heather and Kat became close comrades through work in activism.
Though this may strike some of you as unexpected, today’s topic is fashion. Kat teaches a class on the history of fashion called Fashion and Society. Kat notes that there is a societal expectation that an interest in fashion means that one will dress fashionable, but this is not always the case. An interest in something cannot always translate to practicing that thing directly. Kat has always been interested in textiles and fashion history, and it came to her attention that fashion has been a catalyst for social movements. She looks at the class as an opportunity for herself and her students to explore those connections and examine the lens through which they see their clothing.
One of the main things that Kat discusses in her course is the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. In this accident, huge numbers of female immigrant factory workers were injured and killed because they were locked inside of the factory. This incident brought attention to the plight of the workers and suffragists were attracted to the movement that was created for women’s industrial rights. Domestic laborers organized and New York City’s garment industry was somewhat reformed and became a way to rise out of poverty into the middle class.
A few years ago, there was a factory fire in Bangladesh that tragically killed close to a thousand people. The story was similar; the factory was locked so that the workers could not go outside and take breaks. Workers had even pointed out that there were cracks in the building but were told by management to ignore it and go back to work. Many people hear about this incident and believe that the same positive resulting changes will occur there that happened in New York over 100 years ago will happen again. However, the labor pool for the fashion industry has become so widely spread that this will not be possible. If workers demand concessions, labor can be outsourced to a different poor country.
The Truth Behind The Fashion Industry
The modern fashion industry is extremely profit oriented. One may ask themselves, “but couldn’t they have afforded fire extinguishers?” Yes! But they wouldn’t buy them because it would chip away at their profits, even if in a miniscule way and at the benefit of the preservation of human life. The network of global exploitation is all about greed.
Clothing is usually more expensive when it’s made using fair labor. However, this does not mean that all expensive clothes are produced ethically. A majority of clothes are marked up for little reason besides brand name, even when those brands use cheap labor from sweatshops. Disposable fashion is also very real; it’s the planned obsolescence of clothing. It’s how all the conglomerates are maximizing profits these days — things you use become things you use up. This planned obsolescence generates a great magnitude of waste and perpetuates the system that pays fashion workers slave wages. To those wondering about the injustices faced by global fashion workers, Kat recommends the documentary The True Cost, which she describes as a very depressing look at the destructive effect of industrial exploitation on human life.
The value of human life can never be overstated. This being said, there are also other negative effects of the fashion industry’s exploitative and profit-obsessed global framework. For example, the environment is endangered. Regulations do exist but it is often the case that corporations ignore them or even write their own laws, which bend according to their needs. Kat cites a saying from ecology. “There is no nowhere. Everything has to go somewhere.” Clothes don’t decompose easily, if at all. Some industries “self-regulate”, but this, obviously, translates to no regulation.
What Companies Do
People often, in good will, donate their old clothes. For example, Kat shares, H&M has a drive in which customers can donate unneeded clothes items and receive a discount. The assumption people make is that these clothes are distributed locally to those in need. However, in many cases, it goes much deeper than this. There are usually more clothes at the end of the day than people who need them. Often, the remainder of the items are shipped in bulk to the global South. There, these shipments have have disrupted local economies by saturating the clothes market with inexpensive options. Research is not done into the needs of global communities before the clothes are dumped there.
What Can Be Done
The internet is a good resource for finding independent artists who create clothes ethically and sustainably. Kat mention Etsy and Instagram as particularly effective channels. Meanwhile, she warns against “fast fashion” — production based on fast cycling through the trends: think H&M and Zara. These types of brands overproduce by necessity. If it’s bought new and for cheap, a garment was most likely not produced ethically. One of the best things to do if you’re concerned about where the clothes on your body were sourced, shares Kat, is to purchase second hand.
Unfortunately, although purchasing responsibly is a good thing to do, that practice alone cannot address the root of the problem: the deeply entrenched global mechanism of exploitation. Kat comments that she should not have to do 2 hours of research to see if a shirt she wants to buy was made by child slaves. If you make friends who create clothing and buy from them, you can be sure of your source. Also, you may not need as many clothes as you think you do. It is a good idea to ask yourself if your needs have already been met before purchasing a new clothing item.
The Root Issue
Ultimately, the problem is capitalism. Capitalism only cares about profits. It does not have regard for human life or sustainability, though companies may pretend to do so if it’s profitable for them. There is no future for this planet under capitalism. Our current solutions are band-aids at best. The system has to change, and that’s why Heather and Kat had this discussion here today.
We are here to bring awareness to these issues that people don’t talk about. There’s no part of your life that this horrible exploitative system doesn’t reach, right down to the very clothes on your body. We thank Kat Sedia for lending us her time and expertise to bring attention to a subject that is often overlooked. Thank you to our listeners as well, we would not be here without you. Remember to donate if possible. Even a few people giving a few dollars a month makes a big difference for us at NJRR. The future is yours to create, go out there and create it!
-Leah Giannantonio, for New Jersey Revolution Radio