On a warm spring evening, in the basement of Greenheart Exchange in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, dozens of ethical fashion activists and devotees assembled to discuss the fashion industry’s challenges and opportunities. The panel discussion took place on April 25 (Fashion Revolution Day), marking the sixth anniversary of the deadly Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh. That catastrophe continues to be a reminder of the abuse in the garment industry and the human toll of an unjust fashion system.
The diversity of thought represented by the panelists and attendees produced a riveting discussion with depth, breadth and respectful disagreements—outcomes only produced when knowledgeable people discuss in earnest.
At a time when the national “discussion” revolves around the extreme tweets, statements and policies of our commander-in-chief, an insightful and respectful public debate was chicken soup for the soul.
The several dozen attendees sat in snug rows on chairs and floor cushions, enjoying snacks and refreshments. Moderators Holly Greenhagen, freelance apparel pattern-maker and Chicago Fair Trade volunteer, and Andrea Dennis, co-chair of Chicago Fair Trade and director of Greenheart Exchange, welcomed the attendees and kicked off the discussion.
For no less than two hours, designers, manufacturers and academics wrestled with the challenges of a global, opaque and gargantuan problem: fashion. As is the case with most interesting discussions, no one produced the proverbial silver bullet. However, panelists and attendees offered a plethora of ideas to improve, alter or dismantle entirely the current fashion system.
Anna Brown, a Pilsen-based independent apparel designer with an eponymous line, offered thoughtful yet practical insight. Ms. Brown advocated for consumers deepening their understanding of and relationship with their clothes, while also favoring government regulation to ease the consumer’s burden.
Next to her sat Jamie Hayes, who brought personal experience in fashion as well as knowledge of immigrant and labor rights to the conversation. Ms. Hayes is owner and designer of Production Mode, an ethical apparel line, and co-designer of Department of Curiosities, a slow-fashion lingerie and nightwear brand. In her opening remarks, Ms. Hayes laid out one of the most critical issues in fashion: the continued exploitation of marginalized and oppressed people.
Melissa Gamble, a former attorney and current associate professor in the Fashion Studies Department of Columbia College Chicago, shared insights informed by her extensive leadership experience, including launching Chicago Fashion Incubator and serving on the board of directors of the Driehaus Design Initiative. Ms. Gamble helped frame the conversation within historical context, discussing the effects of NAFTA on U.S. garment production.
International entrepreneur Theresa VanderMeer, founder and CEO of WORK+SHELTER, an ethical cut-and-sew manufacturer in New Delhi, supported the conversation with her first-hand experience as a producer. Ms. VanderMeer described the various motives of the brands her organization manufactures, but also lent practical perspective on running a garment business.
Clad in a polkadot jumpsuit and bold eyewear à la Iris Apfel was Chicago-based artist, designer and assistant professor of Fashion Design at the School of the Art Institute, Abigail Glaum-Lathbur. Ms. Glaum-Lathbury advocated for collective government action to institute standards defining “sustainable” garments. Without any government standards, argued Ms. Glaum-Lathbury, it is unfair to ask consumers to make informed purchasing decisions. While an audience member contended that government regulation would never happen, Ms. Glaum-Lathbury countered such mentalities foreclosed upon the possibility of change.
Rounding out the panelists was designer and owner of fashion line Adilah M, Adilah Muhammad. Currently in residence at the Chicago Fashion Incubator, Ms. Muhammad produces her apparel line in Chicago. Crystalizing the sustainable artist’s conundrum, Ms. Muhammad mused over striking the right balance between creating a relevant collection and maintaining some level of sustainability.
The panelists, moderators and audience members wove a complex and intersectional conversation, circling and emphasizing several central themes. While the discussion of some themes produced reams of potential solutions, other conversations highlighted the conflict inherent in the issue.
The Artist’s Conundrum
Approached from many angles was the artist’s conundrum of sustainable creation. Artists create things. That process uses resources and creates waste. So should we stop designing and shopping all together? Could we create fewer capsules and more basic garments? Could we source fabric and dyes responsibly?
The panelists ruminated; are we all just trying to do less bad?
Panelists had a firm grasp on the garment industry, which systematically exploits marginalized people to the benefit of consumers seeking impossibly cheap garments. The opaqueness of globalized supply chains restricts consumers’ understanding of the impact of their purchasing decisions. When no one knows the entire production process of a garment, retailers can make whatever claims they want about their “green” products. Obfuscation is the weapon of choice for most brands.
Government Regulation and Enforcement
And when greenwashing abounds, the burden falls on the consumer to sift through the noise. However, there are plenty of products and services Americans rely on the government to regulate: food, medicine, water quality, etc. Government regulation and enforcement of industry-wide sustainability standards are needed now. Advocates for ethical fashion must mobilize en masse to demand action from their representatives.
The panelists also highlighted ways consumers could change their behaviors in order to create a better fashion system. Fostering a personal relationship with your wardrobe was a favorite line of the panelists. Suggestions for accomplishing this ranged from shopping locally and meeting the maker, to commissioning one-of-a-kind pieces, to learning basic sewing techniques, to buying fewer clothes (or stop buying clothes entirely). Although government regulations were endorsed by many panelists, all voiced a need for consumers to educate themselves, to the best of their abilities.
As the evening drew to a close, Chicago Fair Trade Executive Director Katherine Bissell Cordova shared some parting words. Eager attendees flocked to panelists, keen for some one-on-one time. A painting student at the School of the Art Institute, Nadia Porycky said she was just getting her toes wet in the ethical fashion scene.
Other attendees were further along their ethical fashion journey. Estefanía Calvo, a business consultant, lamented the lack of ethically-made professional attire options. Weeks later, she serendipitously took the mat next to this author at barre class. Ms. Calvo shared she planned to return to her native Spain to begin an ethical fashion line with her younger sister.
Ms. Calvo’s decision to forgo a lucrative consulting job to pursue a career in ethical fashion illustrates the aforementioned “turning point” is upon us. Early adaptors have begun to defect from mainstream apparel and soon more conventional consumers will follow. The question is, will consumers continue to shoulder the burden of deciding which brands are “ethical,” or will they lead the fight to institute government regulations? That is a question for another panel.
© 2021 Emma Westfall