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The Worldview of Birmingham’s Sustainable Fashion Movement

Samra Michael, owner of Cross Dressin', wears repurposed shirt with Birmingham skyline as a backdrop. (Marvin Gentry, For The Birmingham Times)
By Ameera Steward
The Birmingham Times

There are several reasons sustainable fashion has become such a hot commodity. One can be attributed to the effects of fast fashion.

Sustainable fashion is a movement centered on fostering a shift toward fashion products that prioritize ecological integrity and social justice; the term refers to clothing that is designed, manufactured, distributed, and used in ways that are environmentally friendly and socially conscious.

Fast fashion, on the other hand, involves the manufacturing of inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends, regardless of the impact on the environment or workers, in many instances.

Unfortunately, some big brands produce those materials in factories located in places, such as India or Bangladesh, where workers receive minimal wages, as low as $80 per month, and endure unsuitable work environments. In some instances, these producers are believed to hire individuals in violation of child labor laws and other regulations. What’s more, fast fashion has a negative impact on the environment, as a result of greenhouse gases released into the air or the possibility of a chemical waste spills from factories.

These harsh working conditions and environmental effects are part of the rising popularity of the sustainable fashion movement.

“I think one of the biggest problems is [conditions in the factories], tying fashion to modern-day slavery when it comes to people in those countries. [Some people have found that may also go on in] California, in some of the sweatshops in Los Angeles,” said Lakeicia Shanta, a consultant with Kering, which has brands like Gucci and Balenciaga in its portfolio, and the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA).

“It’s going to take consumers caring enough about what’s happening for things to change,” she added. “It’s always going to come down to the people [I work with]—we have to make sure we have a standard.”

According to a 2019 article in Harpers Bazaar, titled ‘How to Decipher “Sustainable Fashion,” the apparel industry has been “responsible for garment worker deaths from unsafe conditions, including … workers in Delhi, India.”

In some instances, women working in California-based factories wear adult diapers because breaks are either denied or deducted from their paychecks, said Lacey Woodroof, owner of basic., a shop located on Morris Avenue in downtown Birmingham.

Those conditions are just wrong, she added: “Their 15-minute [break to] go eat an apple or go to the bathroom will be taken out of their paycheck. … It’s worse in other parts of the world because they just say, ‘We’ll fire you.’ It’s not that they’re not going to pay you—besides, they don’t pay much to begin with. It’s not only ridiculous but also unfathomably unethical and just wrong.”

Jordan Joiner and Collin Balentine, founders of Ragz Vintage Clothing, believe big companies and designers need to stop outsourcing, or obtaining goods or a service from an outside or foreign supplier, especially in place of an internal source.

“They wouldn’t be allowed to do that here [America]. They wouldn’t be allowed to pay a worker 12 cents an hour or for the day,” said Joiner. “I feel like in a lot of those smaller places, [workers] kind of just get taken advantage of. … If you’re not going to treat people the way that they’re supposed to be treated [overseas], … bring it back over here, where you have to operate correctly.”

For Leslie Gomez, owner of Tryna B Studios, what’s happening in the factories is a bit more personal. She said she sees her own family and parents in those workers.

“Being a child of immigrants, just the thought of it and … my family coming from a place like Mexico, … I could never see myself using those types of companies to mass produce my own products. It’s too close to home for me,” she said. “I feel like it’s like that for a lot of people of color because there are little kids and people of color everywhere around the world being used.”

The moment consumers stop shopping with the big brands, those companies will go back to their marketing teams to see what they’re doing wrong, Gomez explained.

“[The brands and companies] have full marketing teams to figure out how to best sell to [consumers], so we must be something special,” she added.

Samra Michael, founder of Cross Dressin’, an online vintage and upcycled clothing store, said the consumer has the most power because “we fund these brands with our dollars.”

She added that when consumers make the decision to be more sustainable and demand a change in the industry “that is so powerful, but, ultimately, we’re not the ones wasting and polluting. So, on that front, [the brands] have the most influence. … It really is a joint effort.”

According to Kristyn Edwards, founder of Cede Supply, an online shopping experience, and Lana Watkins, co-founder of Your Closet Inc., an online vintage and repurposed store, the shift toward sustainability is a two-way street.

Watkins said, “I think everyone needs to hold everyone equally accountable.”

Edwards said, “It starts with the retailer explaining and educating their audience, but the consumer has to normalize seeking out information from the source and educate themselves on how they impact the retail business structure.”