At the start of âUnraveled,â a new book on fashion’s dark underwear, author Maxine BÃ©dat describes a stroll through a factory in Guangdong, China that specializes in acid-washed jeans, making his way through her. path over dark puddles of “bubbling contents” that had spilled from industrial washing machines and splashed across the floor.
It’s a hundred pages before she was warned not to wear makeup at a landfill in Kpone, a region of Ghana where 2.8 million used clothes are added per week, because “chemicals in the landfill would freeze the mascara on my lashes.
The book is the latest entry in a growing genre of non-fiction: the consumer horror story. It’s as scary as any adult tale Roald Dahl has ever written. (Indeed, if he were alive today, he could well imagine a fashionista getting swallowed up by a mountain of discarded adornments.)
But as we prepare for the re-emergence, and how and where to shop becomes a topic of conversation again, is it scary enough?
Subtitled “The life and death of a garment”, “Unraveled” claims to trace the history of a pair of jeans from the farm where cotton is grown through its spinning, dyeing, cutting, sewing , its shipping and, ultimately, its disposal.
It is a journey which, according to Ms. BÃ©dat, crisscrosses the world from America to Asia and vice versa before ending in Africa, and involves detours in advocacy, the history of unions, the psychology of marketing and economic policy.
Really, however, “jeans” are more of a symbol in the book. The author doesn’t actually deconstruct the life of, say, your 501s, but rather uses denim as a near-synonym for “the garment most people own” and a tool to illustrate how surprisingly difficult it is to meet. seemingly harmless questions. : Where and how are my clothes made? How do they get to me? What happens when I’m done with them? Not to mention the pretty horrific reality of the response when it finally arrives.
In this, he joins âTo Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World? “By Lucy Siegle,” Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion “by Elizabeth Cline and, more recently,” Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes “(with documentaries like” The True Cost ” ).
All of this highlights the damage to both humans and the environment from the endlessly hectic cycle of cheap shirts, skirts and slip dresses; the growing addiction to the promise of the different and the best embodied by an outfit fresh out of the box; and the tendency to throw the old in the trash. Or the donation bin.
Yet, at this point, it’s really not news to anyone that fashion is a major contributor to climate change. For years, one of the biggest news online has been the (now widely disowned but still parroted by many) data point that fashion is the second biggest polluter on the planet.
Since the Rana Plaza clothing district disaster in 2013, the exploitation of cheap labor by global fashion brands has come under increased scrutiny. Over the same period, big and mass brands have become comfortable (and flowery with) the language of sustainability, each striving to be more carbon neutral than the next.
And that was before the pandemic, which caused the fashion world to go downhill. Stores were closed, workshops darkened, fabric factories closed, orders for fall clothing canceled, and spring shipments refused at department store loading docks. With so much tragedy and fear in the world, with people squatting in their homes, clothes were the least of the issues.
At the same time, stories circulated of textile workers in far off lands in dire straits as losses trickled down the supply chain.
Predictions were made that this was finally the time when the industry would grapple with the system it had created; that a reset was in progress. Designers, retailers and publishers have come together. Maybe, they said, this is our awakening. We couldn’t change our models of overproduction and overconsumption, markdowns and waste, so nature changed them for us. Maybe we should take the opportunity and restart the system in a more rational way.
There have been calls for President Biden install a fashion czar to surround the industry. (So ââfar this has gone nowhere.) High-end designers have started discussing the joys of upcycling and using their own dead stock. Much has been said about the booming resale market and the Gen Z migration to second-hand clothing and away from fast fashion.
These days, however, all anyone can talk about is the Great Unmasking, when we’ll all party like it’s 1921 and dress for it. The brief hubbub on sales and season reform has subsided. All this repressed social energy is also, apparently, potential purchasing energy. How it’s used will determine if it all really sticks.
Because now, in the same way that a sale price tag can make us think that we should buy something that we might otherwise pass up, whether a dress is made, say, from recycled polyester or orange peel has become part of its appeal.
In the same way that the possibility of recycling an old garment is part of the justification for its replacement, because in doing so, you will not increase your wardrobe – although, as Ms. BÃ©dat points out, you will still increase the volume of clothing in the world, which makes the problem worse. Personal math and public math don’t always match.
And one of the unforeseen and ironic results of the genuinely valuable conversation and awareness that books like âUnraveledâ have sparked is that sustainability itself has been turned into a selling point.
This is perhaps the most horrific development of all.