Fast Fashion

Hamline alumna fights for ethical fashion

Kristina Stuntebeck, Managing Editor

Going green and eating organically are earth-friendly concepts that have been at the forefront of ecological consumer dialogue for a number of years now and have become relatively commonplace terms. But, there’s one aspect of sustainability that is yet to make a breakthrough in many people’s thoughts and actions: fashion.

Kestrel Jenkins, a 2007 Hamline graduate and founder of AWEAR (“a project intended to inspire us to think about where our clothes are made, what they are made of, and who made them”), is looking to change that.

“We have food, we have shelter, we have clothes. It’s our main necessity,” Jenkins said.

Last week, Jenkins came back to Minnesota to co-present at Hamline’s International Roundtable Series, along with Sarah Ditty, a 2006 graduate and editor-in-chief of SOURCE Intelligence magazine, who joined the conversion from London via Skype. Jenkins later participated in a discussion with students pursuing certification in International Journalism (CIJ).

Jenkins and Ditty entitled their presentation “Fashioning Ethical Clothing Supply Chains” and discussed the process of and issues with outsourcing garment production to foreign countries.

The women mentioned how clothes used to be individually tailored, making them more costly and in turn, people would have fewer garments and take better care of them. Retailers like H&M and Zara, which manufacture 10 million garments a day, created the concept of “fast fashion” and the idea that a greater quantity of garments for less money is better, which quickly began to spread across the nation. In the fight to achieve the lowest costs for clothing, production costs needed to be cut, leading to outsourcing the work to countries such as China and Bangladesh, where there are fewer factory regulations to ensure safety and ethical treatment of workers.

“If you look at the number of factory workers that have gotten injured or sick or died, it’s disgusting,” Jenkins said. “They are touching toxins every day.”

A recent example of such dangers was the Bangladesh factory collapse in May 2013, where thousands of people were killed or injured after going to work in an unsafe, cracking building. One of the reasons it is difficult to prevent tragedies is because the issues aren’t black and white. The trouble lies in who’s responsible. Is it the city? The country? Supervisors? Companies who do the outsourcing? Who needs to be held accountable for maintaining a safe, ethical working environment?

Jenkins and Ditty said the best way everyday people can help raise the issue is by starting a global dialogue. Disasters bring issues to the surface, but it shouldn’t take a devastation to keep important dialogue going. They said outsourcing frequently leads to human trafficking and modern-day slavery and consumers shouldn’t turn a blind eye to it.

However, they said it’s not only workers who may suffer – the globe does too. Fashion is a $450 billion global industry, second only to oil, and is the second largest polluter of clean water, after agriculture.

Despite a push for clothing manufacturers to go organic, there is a large amount of fear involved with the idea. If a cotton crop isn’t sprayed and gets one white fly, the entire crop will be ruined. 270,000 Indian cotton farmers have committed suicide since 1997 because their livelihoods depend on the crops, according to Jenkins and Ditty’s powerpoint.

There are many issues in the system and it will take many years for significant progress to be made, but there is a slow shift starting as awareness spreads.

Ditty said 150 companies have now signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. The legally-binding five-year contract requires independent safety inspections with public reports, the suppliers used by companies, and mandatory repairs and renovations, among others. Severe repercussions, such as the termination of their business, can result if these standards are not met and conditions are not improved.

Two percent of clothing purchased in the U.S. is made here, but 2012-2013 saw the first increase in U.S.-made clothing in decades.

“London is ahead of the game in talking about this,” Jenkins said, describing the eco-fashion section in the city’s newspaper. “The U.S. is shifting more recently. California and New York are really pushing the needle and there are brands popping up everywhere.”

Reformation, VOZ, Everlane, Zady and Honest By are some examples of companies Jenkins and Ditty named as taking a sustainable approach to the production of garments. There is a push for “transparent fashion,” where the supply chain is made more public and consumers know exactly where their clothing and its components are coming from. Maker’s Row is a website that enables individuals to find factories within the U.S. that make everything from fabric to bookshelves, enabling the public to shop more responsibility.

Jenkins mentioned a pop-up clothing stand in Minneapolis called Velvet Moon as one that is easily accessible to locals.

“It might be more accessible here because it’s happening here,” Jenkins said. “Look for designers in Minneapolis.”

Some expensive brands may seem out of reach to college students, but they aren’t the only options. Common stores may have American-made materials that aren’t prominently displayed or labeled.

“Your purchasing power is empowering yourself to go in the right direction,” Jenkins said. “Ask if there’s a ‘Made in the U.S.’ section.”

She said thrifting can be a good option, but repurposing is better. She suggested finding a tailor on Craig’s list for local a custom work or doing it yourself. Having a clothing swap party was another suggestion.

“Think about what you have. It’s not all about pushing ‘buy, buy, buy,” Jenkins said. “If you create it yourself, it’s probably going to be a lot more satisfying. Having a story behind it is much more meaningful than ‘I got it for two dollars.’”

Communication Studies Professor Suda Ishida was present for the last 20 minutes of Jenkins and Ditty’s presentation and supervised the following discussion with CIJ students, and expressed the same idea when it comes to the price of U.S.-made products compared to outsourced ones.

“Don’t think about the cost of the product; think about the cost to the environment and workers behind the scenes,” Ishida said. “It could actually be more expensive than the one you think is more expensive.”

Senior Sarah Sheven, who is part of the CIJ program, also attended both events and shared her impressions from the financial perspective of a college student.

“I’m someone who’s more likely to look at the cost of clothing rather than the ethics of how it was produced. I think it’s important for people similar to me to consider [ethics] so we can start thinking a little differently about our fashion choices,” Sheven said. “In the future, when I have a higher paying job, I definitely think sustainable fashion will be something I look at. Even now, it will be food for thought. I think that’s a good first step for a lot of people: just becoming aware.”

Ashleyn Przedwiecki is an AWEAR advocate who works in the same scene as Jenkins, promoting education and advocacy on the issue. She encouraged people to not get overwhelmed by the large-scale concern to the point where they feel helpless to make a difference.

“What I’ve come to realize, as a passionate individual about this, is I want everything to change right now. Don’t do nothing because you can’t do everything. Do what feels good for you. Inspire change through example,” Przedwiecki said. “Small actions and small steps lead to big change. If we all do them together, that will make the change.”

Jenkins said students on campus can get involved to urge Hamline to shift to U.S. products.

“How cool would it be if you were the first bookstore to have a conscious behind it? Get a group, figure out how to get a meeting with who does the buying and selling,” Jenkins said.

Przedwiecki said it’s important to ask questions and demand to be heard.

“Show that there’s a demand for it and that you guys want it and they will change it,” Przedwiecki said.