Popaganda: Climate Anxiety, but Make It Fashion

In the third episode of Popaganda’s GLAMOUR season, host Carmen Rios tries to figure out what sustainable fashion looks like—and assesses the devastating impacts of the industry on the planet.

Carmen calls on experts A. Tianna Scozzaro from the Sierra Club and Sarah duPont from the Amazon Aid Foundation to zoom in on the waste and destruction fueling the fashion and jewelry industries. She also talks to feminist fashion bloggers Cat Chiang, Aditi Mayer, and Leah-Jane Musch to figure out how indivdual consumers can buy better and drive change with their fashion choices.

The clothing industry is the second-largest polluter in the world, second only to oil. Dangerous and illegal gold mining is clearing the Amazon rainforest and all of this destruction is only set to increase—unless all of us break out of the buy-and-goodbye fashion economy designed by fast-fashion corporations. Building a fashion economy where the environment and the workers along the supply chain are treated with respect is possible—and the experts in this episode outline solutions at the top and shop by shop that can help us build it together.


Photo via Columbia Pictures

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[theme music]
CARMEN RIOS: Hey! I’m Carmen Rios, feminist digital media superstar and host of Bitch Media’s Popaganda podcast. This is the third episode in our GLAMOUR season, and after escaping diet culture and casting some self-love spells, I’m ready to look outward, like, at the planet, and the ways in which we need to stop making it suffer for fashion.
[recorded clip of a climate justice rally plays]
LEADERS: What do we want?
CROWD: Climate justice!
LEADERS: When do we want it?
LEADERS: What do we want?
CROWD: Climate justice!
LEADERS: When do we want it?
CROWD: Now!!!
CARMEN: The clothing industry is the second largest polluter in the world, second only to oil, 70 million barrels of oil, which are used each year just to make polyester alone. It’s also the second largest polluting industry when it comes to clean water, second only to agriculture. Because each year, half a million tons of plastic microfibers are shed whenever plastic-based textiles like polyester are washed. All told, 98 million tons of nonrenewable resources like oil, fertilizers, and chemicals—less than one percent of which will ever be recycled—and 93 billion cubic meters of water are gobbled up by the fashion industry every year. And according to data compiled by the World Resources Institute and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, textile production emits around 1.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year, more than the combined emissions of all international flights and maritime shipping. But fashion isn’t just about apparel. Clothing isn’t the only adornment overwhelming the Earth. And if we don’t get our bejeweled act together, the Amazon rainforest will be gone in 40 years.
[recorded clip plays from River of Gold trailer]
SPEAKER: We’re at that moment where, if we are not acting, the scale goes in another direction. This is critical moments, you know, more than ever in history.
[pensive music]
SPEAKER 2: The Amazon is at a real crossroads. It’s very close to a tipping point.
SPEAKER 3: Goldmining is one of the underlying things that’s destroying this enormous rainforest.
SPEAKER 4: It’s like the Wild West.
CARMEN: Sarah Dupont, the president and founder of the Amazon Aid Foundation, explored some of the human and environmental costs of gold as the producer and codirector of the award-winning documentaries River of Gold and Mercury Uprising.
SARAH DUPONT: I started working in the Amazon rainforest about 20 years ago with some of the best Amazonia scientists in the world. And they had identified this area and group as being one of the most important areas on the planet to protect because it not only had some of the highest levels of biodiversity on the planet, but it also is where the Amazon lowlands abuts up against the Andes mountains, which is one of the greatest gradations of microclimates on the planet. So, the theory was, back then 20 years ago, that this area would be important as climate change role, this area would be important as climate change came forward and the species need to migrate into higher elevations. So, this migratory corridor is really important for keeping species from going extinct. And it was a theory back then, and now actually, they’re starting to prove that species are definitely migrating into the cooler and higher elevations of the Andes mountains. Super important.
So, I went down there with scientists, and I learned through their lens the importance of the Amazon, the implications of its destruction, and solutions for protecting it. But also I was a witness to a new destruction of the Amazon from small-scale and unregulated gold mining. Because when the prices of gold, after 9/11, the prices of gold shot up from $250 an ounce to as high as $1,600 to $1,800 an ounce. Miners came to the area to mine for gold.
CARMEN: Artisanal, small-scale gold mining—a process underway in over 70 countries around the world right now—requires a lot of space. For Sarah, watching miners clear the forest to make room up-close made a lasting impression. It’s an image that also impacts all of us.
SARAH: I just love the forest so much that to watch the destruction and all these amazing species be just destroyed without even another, without a second thought. These are homes to millions of species, and some of the most biodiverse areas in the world. So, for me, any destructive, any cutting down of the forest is just really, really disheartening. Because I also understand, because of my relationship with the scientists, what the Amazon means as, as a system. We need about 80 percent of the trees intact to keep the hydrological cycle going, which is the most important function of the Amazon every day. It releases approximately 20 billion tons of moisture into the atmosphere, seeding in the clouds with rain, and we need 80 percent of those trees standing. And we’re now around at around 81 percent. So, we are heading into the tipping point now. Some the major scientists, the global leads, just came out with a statement this month saying that we are losing the Amazon at the rate we’re going now. So, it’s extremely critical. So, any image to me of destruction of the Amazon is disheartening.
There’s a scene in the film where they cut down a tree. And I don’t know if you remember that, but it’s this huge tree. You’re in the part of the film where they’re showing these huge pits and these people working in terrible conditions in these pits. And they cut down this humongous tree. And to me, that’s one of the most devastating issues because I know what lives in those trees. I know what those trees do as a system. And it’s just, it’s, to me, it’s just like suicide. Our forests are one of the most important systems for the stability of our climate. They’re a huge in helping us mitigate climate change. So, to me, it’s all about the trees.
CARMEN: In fact, beyond the brush, small-scale mining is creating a lot of lasting problems for a lot of us. The process differs from chisel mining because it uses mercury, which is then released into various ecosystems where it might remain for up to 10,000 years. As a reminder, mercury is toxic. It causes brain and organ damage, and it shortens your life span. Small-scale mining is the largest emitter of mercury on the planet.
SARAH: So what happens is that for instance, in Peru, a lot of these people came from the Andes mountains, and they didn’t really, they were kind of poor. And when the price of gold rose, they came down into the lowlands of the Amazon because they knew that it was sort of like a Wild West. And gold mining, this type of mining, the technology has been used for centuries, in that they come in, and they either pan for gold. It’s a little more sophisticated now, but they mostly use mercury in the process. Mercury binds with the flecks of gold. So, what they do is they destroy the forests. They take hoses, and they use different technologies, but hoses to separate the stone from the sediment, and then they put it through a series of sieves. So, at the end, they have just like a sediment. and just with flecks of gold in it. And then they get in a barrel, and they pour a bunch of mercury into the barrel. And the mercury is like a magnet that binds with the [inaudible] and then they pull it out. And then they have a big clump of mercury and gold. Then they burn off the mercury. And that’s when it gets super dangerous ‘cause it does something called methylmercury, which is where it’s one of the most dangerous forms of mercury. Mercury is an element that stays in the system for hundreds of years, and in some cases, thousands of years.
CARMEN: 100 tons of mercury are being released into the Amazonia atmosphere every year, poisoning the entire planet in the process. In Peru, which is known as the ground zero for the problem in the Amazon, nearly $3 billion of illegal goldmining money is made each year. And 76 percent of all the region’s population have mercury levels three times above accepted healthy limits when they’re tested. Indigenous children feel the impact the worst and sometimes have as much as 33 times more than healthy mercury levels.
The bad news? Fashion production, at these rates, will move us dangerously close to an environmental Armageddon. By 2050, the industry could use over 26 percent of the carbon budget in a two-degree-Celsius world. The worse news? Production is only increasing, and so is the size of all of those trash heaps full of our old clothes. By 2050, the industry could be using up to 300 million tons of non-renewables each year, dumping 22 million tons of plastic microfibers into the ocean in just a 35-year span. The sort-of-good news? We’re finally talking about it.
A. TIANNA SCOZZARO: I think people are finally paying attention to a few things. One is that the volume of clothes that we buy now versus even just 15 years ago is extraordinarily high. And so, we see the impact of that in really three ways. The intensive cost of making the clothes, through the dyes and the transportation and all the implications of the footprint of creating new textiles. And then the second is the waste at the end of the life cycle. So, people are buying more clothes, wearing them for a shorter amount of time, and the vast majority of those clothes are now ending up in landfills. And then the third piece that’s really important, that’s not necessarily environmental, but is the social impact. We know that women are a huge percentage of the textile worker industry and working long hours, low-paid jobs, often far away from their families. The impact on the individuals who are producing these textiles is increasingly something that I’m glad people are considering in how they’re purchasing clothes.
CARMEN: That’s A. Tianna Scozzaro, the director of the Sierra Club’s Gender Equity and Environment program. I called her up to get a birds-eye view of the problems plaguing the planet by way of the fashion industry and try to figure out where we could start going right, instead of wrong, as consumers who participate in it.
A. TIANNA: I think a large part of it comes back to just the volume of clothes that people buy. The average consumer today buys 60 percent more clothes than they did in the year 2000. And we keep those garments half as long. So, maybe you go out and buy a new New Year’s Eve dress that you wear once, maybe twice or a trendy crop top for the season. And the impact of that short-term use is really what’s driving the waste. And some of the other pieces of it, like the volume of water that’s required to create a product or the toxic chemicals that are part of making the dyes are, of course, prevalent. But I think it’s really, the driving factor is the short-term, low-priced, really widely available fast fashion that has increased people’s purchases of short-term clothes. And then the other part of it is basic things like when we wash our clothes less, they last longer. And so, thinking about the whole life cycle of not only purchasing the clothes, but how we treat the clothes is all part of the conversation.
[theme music returns]
CARMEN: Feeling any climate anxiety yet? Notice the creeping shadow of existential angst emerging, reminding you of the fact that the stuff that makes you feel like your best self is going to make it impossible for future generations to even exist on the same planet that you’re on right now? Yeah. Me too. That’s why I set out to make this episode and why I reached out to climate-conscious feminist fashion bloggers from around the world for their advice on how I could get dressed without getting depressed. I talked to Leah Jane Musch while she did her laundry in Australia. Leah’s a self-described former fast fashion addict who is now a slow fashion activist writing regularly about sustainable fashion at UnmaterialGirl.com.
LEAH MUSCH: I was pretty much on the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to anything that is sustainable or ethical fashion related. I was like a serial shopper. I was shopping every single weekend. I would kind of pride myself on my ability to find really cheap clothing, which is quite hilarious now that I look back on it. And I was previously a shop owner, so I actually had my own little clothing store, which I opened when I was 21. And so, I was deep in the fashion retail space. And I had been running my business for about three years, and it had been going really well. But I started to just feel like it wasn’t having much impact. I wasn’t really growing. And I got a little bit restless.
And I guess my Inception moment was, weirdly enough, in a yoga class where I more or less somehow managed to break my ankle. And I ended up being hospitalized, and I had to have surgery. And I ended up being in a wheelchair briefly. And I had a lot of time to read about this thing called social enterprise. I’d never heard of these businesses that were actually having positive social and environmental impact, and I realized that that was something that had kind of been missing in my business. And so, I decided to sell my store. And I went, and I found a social enterprise volunteering group in Brazil. And I flew to Brazil, and I started learning all about how business could actually be used as a force for good.
When I was in Rio, I was working, I was doing this social enterprise consulting volunteering trip with a group called Social Starters. And so, we were teamed up with our own person that we could mentor, and I was actually mentoring a young fashion designer. And it was through working with her that I discovered that sustainable fashion can actually be the solution to a load of business problems. So, I came back, and I was really inspired from working with her. And I watched the documentary The True Cost, and I decided to challenge myself to no longer buy from fast fashion stores and instead do things like shop secondhand, go to clothing swaps, start trying to learn how to sew, start making my own clothing. I started being proud to be wearing the same thing multiple times. I started just opp shopping, and I started trying to see, I basically told myself I’m not gonna buy anything new for at least six months. I challenged myself to find better ways of consuming fashion. And it was surprisingly easy and it was so much more rewarding and it was way more creative.
CARMEN: I called up Cat Chiang while her cat climbed onto the refrigerator in Seattle. Cat is the one-woman show behind the Restitchstance blog, a community and resource for consumers looking to become eco-friendly and ethical fashionistas.
CAT CHIANG: I started blogging about almost three years ago now, and I started the blog mostly for a creative outlet. But I knew that I wanted to a blog about fashion, because it’s fun; it’s a personal interest. But I also knew that I didn’t want to promote fast fashion. And it started as a concern about the welfare of garment workers because I knew that fast fashion was really exploitative. And I didn’t want to promote unethical labor practices, especially as someone who has values. I didn’t want to promote companies that went against my values and my feminist beliefs. So, I started looking into ethical fashion, and then I learned that sustainable fashion was just as important because it’s all interconnected. And you basically, if you support fast fashion that’s bad for the environment, that, in turn, is bad for communities of color and women all over the world. So, I wanted to be able to…I basically just wanted to be able to write about and create about things that were in line with my beliefs.
CARMEN: And I connected with Aditi Mayer, a public speaker, photojournalist, filmmaker, and creative consultant whose blog, ADIMAY, is focused on the intersections of style, sustainability, and social justice. We talked by phone while she was away from L.A. and posted up in the Bay Area.
ADITI: My conception story with the whole sustainable fashion world really happened with Rana Plaza, which was a factory collapse that happened in Bangladesh in 2013. I was just about entering college at this time, and I think it really framed a more political coming of age in my own life. And it really coincided with this huge catastrophe that I really call the biggest mass industrial homicide of our time. So, basically what happened was in Bangladesh, there was this eight-story factory. And the day before this factory collapse, they actually found structural cracks in the building, and the factory was ordered to evacuate. So, all of the corporate offices on the bottom were emptied out, but there was so much upper pressure from upper management to have workers complete orders that they were forced to stay. And when you think about the demographic that often makes up garment workers, it’s usually marginalized groups that don’t have the luxury of foregoing a day’s salary, so they stayed. And the next day, at about 8:00 or 9:00 in the morning, the factory collapsed, and it killed over 1,100 workers. Over 2000 people were injured.
And for me at the time, I really started thinking about fashion’s disproportionate effects on people of color globally, but especially women of color. And that kind of framed my understanding of fashion through a lens of colonization. When I think about colonization, it’s very much a system that profits off the extraction of labor, the extraction of resources. And if you look at the global flows of labor in the fashion industry, we see that the major supply chains that we have today are literally marrying colonial trade routes 150 years ago, especially in the fashion industry. So, for me, it really became about we cannot remove this conversation around sustainability in fashion from decolonization at large.
CARMEN: All three of the bloggers I connected with had a similar conception of what was wrong with the fashion industry, and they all knew that fixing it was a feminist issue.
ADITI: I think it’s important to note that when we’re talking about this issue on a meta level, it’s the same communities that are often garment workers are poor, marginalized folks in the global South that are disproportionately affected by climate change as well. And so, within the fashion industry, it being so large, there is a huge intake of natural resources like water and in the process of growing things like cotton and the natural, the material level of fashion. But then we have things like dying and very intensive processes, industrial processes in producing things like polyester or dying clothes that really end up polluting those same waterways. In India specifically, a lot of villages, they have the runoff from factories, and that’s the same water that they’ve been drinking. And there’s such high rates of health issues coming into certain communities, and there’s a very distinct understanding that this is coming from those factories.
LEAH: Fast fashion is definitely a feminist issue, because I think it’s around 85 percent of the 40 million garment workers in the world are women. And they are some of the most underpaid and suppressed people in this entire crazy chain. So, that was a big part of the True Cost documentary that really hit home, is when they’re interviewing these women, and it suddenly brought to life the people that are behind the clothes that I was personally wearing and I was buying. And I constantly try to be aware of my own privilege, and because that is a huge thing to be able to consume fashion in an ethical, sustainable way can definitely be privileged as well. Because I do have the choice of where I put my money and who I choose to support.
CAT: Maybe the best way to talk about this is through the lens of environmental racism, which is a concept that environmental degradation tends to affect those who are people of color, people in low-income communities. Even in the U.S., whenever big environmental disasters or pollution happens, it’s most often affecting those who don’t have the privilege to basically escape it. So, when you talk about the fashion industry and all of the environmental impacts it has and who that’s impacting, it’s usually people of color, it’s usually low-income communities, and it’s also people in countries that are outside of the Western sphere who are often impacted by Western imperialism. So, it’s just all this big mess of [laughs nervously] the environment as kind of this extension of all these systems of oppression that we learn about as feminists, you know?
CARMEN: This kind of intersectional, feminist approach to sustainable fashion has largely been absent in mainstream conversations, but eco-feminists have been working to advance it.
A. TIANNA: Unfortunately, the folks who advocate for see these priorities often see them differently. They see there’s folks who care deeply about women’s rights or social issues and people who understand the bottom line of the environmental impacts. Increasingly, I think we’re seeing the intersection of these come to light for individuals, but I think we need both in tandem. And that we’re right at the precipice of people being willing to pay what is implied in paying people a living wage, what the price tag would mean for t-shirts and jeans. I think people are opening their minds to feeling good about the products that they buy, and this is an exciting chapter.
CARMEN: What these women had in common was a powerful vision for a new kind of fashion economy: one that is centered on respect for the planet and every single person in the industry supply chain. That economy looks like a circle instead of a straight line connecting all of us to our own eventual extinction.
LEAH: The biggest thing that I’m kind of interested in is looking at the circular economies. So, that doesn’t always just relate to fashion. That can relate to all sorts of different things that are being designed. But making sure that when a piece of clothing is created, the entire life cycle of that piece of clothing is considered from where the crops for the fabric are grown, from where it is dyed, what dyes are actually used, who is actually sewing the garment, what happens when it’s been sold in the store and you’ve owned it for 10 years, and where does it end up? So, having a lifecycle plan for the products and the fashion that we’re creating, I think, is super critical.
ADITI: Sustainable fashion as it exists now is an alternative market, which begs the question, why is it that the traditional fashion industry has normalized labor exploitation? You know, the fact that we even have this whole alternative industry that’s like, wow, we’re ethical, that should be a baseline understanding, right? So, right now we have a very linear structure in fashion. You get something, you wear it for a while, and you throw it in the trash. But if we could think about the fashion industry through a lens of circularity, of where it’s constantly being reused and repurposed, that’s what we need to do. Because we don’t have the luxury of just throwing things in the trash anymore. That ends up somewhere. That ends up in black and Brown communities globally, whether we’re talking about incinerators and landfills in America, to the fact that things are shipped off to foreign countries to the point that even they’re saying, “Stop it” because they don’t have the same infrastructures around waste, right? They just have these huge piles of clothing from the Western world that thinks that these folks really need our clothes. But it’s not that black and white.
CARMEN: The reverberations of a feminist fashion economy would be massive and go way beyond the things that we wear.
ADITI: I think there is a major parallel between sustainable fashion and intersectional feminism in centering marginalized voices. So, when I think about conscious consumerism, conscious consumerism is linked to broader issues of social justice, whether that’s the fight for workers’ rights all across the globe, to the exploitation of resources internationally. So, as much as I value sustainable fashion as a way to share my perspectives on the intersections of culture, aesthetics, identity to the politics of labor, I don’t want the conversation to end at what we wear. Fashion is a vehicle for me to kinda explore greater issues of where we stand structurally in systems of inequality. So, whether you’re talking about gender, identity, class, race, all of those conversations are entrenched in fashion. So, fashion is very much a vehicle on how we could understand where we stand and how we could work towards a more just future.
[theme music returns]
CARMEN: So, how do we start building a feminist fashion economy and dismantling the oppressive one that’s in place right now? Dressing ourselves is a corporate tale as old as time, and overturning our conceptions of it will be an all-hands-on-deck activity. Every single person involved in the process—consumers, workers, corporate overlords, and regulatory bodies alike—have a stake in this and the power to drive change within it.
ADITI: When I think about confronting the fast fashion world and the system that we’ve created today, I very much see it in three approaches. The first one is consumer education. So, consumer education is not only about inquiring where your clothes come from, but also shifting the cosmology and culture on consumption at large. As we mentioned, we do have a culture right now that’s influenced by sexism, capitalism, maybe even influencer culture, where we feel like we constantly need to be buying something new. And it’s very much ingrained in our understandings of self and self-worth. So, I think we need a whole shift there of how we understand materialism and consumption in regards to our own selves and our place in society.
When it comes to the next one, which is workers’ power, I think this is one of the most important elements of this movement that isn’t talked about. So often, sustainability is seen as purely a consumer act, right? Like you need to buy better. But the heart of sustainability and the sustainable fashion movement are the workers. And so, I think we really need to have more grassroots efforts to build more workers’ power. At the end of the day, if workers aren’t part of this conversation, we’re doing something very wrong. So, a lot of my own efforts in the last two years has been actually organizing in Los Angeles, which is one of the last biggest manufacturing centers in the U.S. We have over 45,000 garment workers in L.A. It’s our second biggest industry after aerospace, and folks are still being paid 3 cents per piece they make, making barely $5 an hour. So, how do we empower those communities?
And that leads me to the third and final step, which is corporate accountability. So, that’s a shift in corporate structures and shifting the cosmology to not only think about profit, but the people that are a part of this industry too. But in order to promote more corporate accountability, that goes back to building workers’ power because they are the ultimate whistleblowers in calling out what has been going wrong. I mean, it’s hard for consumers to really know, right? There’s a lot. It’s not a very transparent industry. So, yeah, it goes back to consumer education, workers’ power, and corporate accountability.
CAT: I think the movement so often focuses on what we can do as consumers. But there’s also a lot of companies as companies, their interests are gonna be money, and being sustainable is not necessarily the most profitable way to run a business. And that means that they’re going to pursue what makes the most profit, not what makes the best, what’s the best for the environment and for people. So, I think that having more accountability for companies, like more government regulations on the kind of ways they can create and eliminating the pollution that they create is really important. And I think as consumers, if we focus too much on how can I be sustainable as an individual, which is important, and I think that’s really important to kind of practice it in your daily life, and it can be very empowering, but it’s also something that if we want change to happen quickly enough and at a wider level that can really make an impact, especially as we don’t have unlimited time. So, if we wanna do that, then there has to be more accountability for companies, not just from individual consumers, but from regulations that put pressure on them and hold them accountable to be sustainable.
CARMEN: That kind of multi-pronged movement is exactly what A. Tianna and Sarah are envisioning, and building, in their own work.
A. TIANNA: I think there’s two things. There’s the national attention that is being focused on climate change is so exciting, and the big, sweeping, bold policy agendas like the Green New Deal have really galvanized a tremendous amount of support, not just from youth, but from voters all across the country realizing that we need to take action. And so, I think that in a sweeping climate policy that further defines the need to care for our planet, that in there will be implications for the fashion industry, both in the pricing as well as in how they produce the products to be in line with any regulations that were to come out. So, there’s no specifics there, but I certainly think that fashion will and should be a part of any agenda as broad as a Green New Deal. And that said, there are companies that are already paving the way and going above and beyond because of the values that they hold and because of the opportunity they see to make a difference and that their consumers are interested in it.
So, two companies that come to mind for me are Patagonia, the outdoor retailer, and then also Eileen Fisher, both of whom have a take-back policy for used or worn clothing that might need repair or that the consumer, the customer themselves has no longer a need for. And then they’re able to repurpose or resell it to people who are interested in those products. And then additionally, they’re being really mindful about some of the flame retardants or other toxic chemicals that have historically been in some of the, say, rain repellent clothing products or other articles and have really sought to be on the frontier of how to have less-toxic chemicals in our clothes as well. And hopefully, we’ll see more companies take the lead on that. And again, I think that’s largely consumer-driven, that the consumers themselves are saying that we don’t want these products in our clothing and that companies are paying attention.
CARMEN: Of course, we’re not gonna get a better fashion industry unless we transform the fashion industry and break down the capitalist forces that it relies on. So, let’s start at the top. Greed drives marginalization. It’s also the root cause of environmental destruction. If money comes before people and planet, we’ll never see the day when feminist fashion is truly mainstream.
A. TIANNA: I think it’s a few things. I think its natural dyes and less chemicals in the production of clothing. I think its also figuring out water efficiency. Some t-shirts require up to 700 gallons of water to be produced, and we have to think more sustainably about our water consumption when these products are in production. And also having fair and equitable workplaces for the people who are producing them. I don’t think we can consider purely environmental solutions without ensuring that the individuals who are on the front lines in the factories who’ve really not received the quality of worker support that they deserve for that to continue. So, we need both.
ADITI: I believe that you can’t be sustainable without being ethical and vice versa. We have to understand that the liberation of our planet and our people are very much deeply entrenched together. In terms of brands that are doing things right, there’s a few different things. It very much starts at the material level. So, what fabrics you are using that are less resource intensive. So, organic fibers, things like linen, cotton, bamboo are the way to go. Things that are synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon acrylics, I often think about it this way: whatever we produce in this world either goes back to the earth as poison or as food. So, we really need to think about natural fibers. So, that’s step one. Step two is the working conditions that it’s made in, you know. Do we hear from the workers that are producing it? Is there transparency in the supply chain, or is it just like this general statement of being ethical? Which a lot of brands are touting these days because there is no industry standard of what sustainable or ethical means. And then the next thing is the end of life. Is this garment made to last you in the long run? A lot of these $5 t-shirts in fast fashion brands are meant to not last you a while, so you kind of feed into the cycle of buying constantly.
CARMEN: In the Amazon, Sarah witnessed the devastating impacts of an economy in which the demand for gold far outpaces the supply, and the money to be made from finding it consistently outweighs the cost to human and plant life that is incurred in producing it.
SARAH: So, you have the illicit activities that are the cartel and the mafia. It’s in Peru alone, it’s a $3 billion a year activity, illegal activity. Then you also have these vulnerable populations that come, as I was saying, from the Andes or other areas where they have no other economic alternatives to mine for gold, and they work in incredibly dangerous situations. People die when the banks fall in on top of them. there. And they become actually exploited by the mafia. So, there’s as many as 20 percent of the world produced today is from small-scale mining with 80 to 90 percent of the workforce in this sector.
There are two types of communities that are working in the small-scaling sector. There is the elicit communities, the cartel, the mafia, that are exploiting vulnerable populations. There’s child slavery, there’s mercury poisoning, there’s destruction of the forest, extinction of species, money laundering, then an assortment of really dangerous elicit activities and crime. And it’s considered to be an actual national threat to the U.S., the United States because of these activities. These activities are actually funding terrorist organizations around the world. There are around 80 countries that have this type of mining that’s unregulated and illegal. It’s unformalized. And because of that, the sector is, in most cases, dumping tons and tons of mercury into the system.
CARMEN: That’s also something Aditi has seen up-close as an organizer in Los Angeles fighting alongside garment workers for labor protections and fair conditions in fashion’s supply chain.
ADITI: Within Los Angeles’s landscapes, most of the garment workers are undocumented immigrants, so they’re already navigating an environment where there’s a lot of hostility. There’s a lot of intimidation from their employers that if you try and speak up against me, I will have you deported. And we’re also seeing the influx of a lot of Indigenous folks from Central America coming into Los Angeles that are fleeing violence and things. So, there’s a lot of instability at large, which is tied to political conflict, environmental issues that are leading marginalized communities to flee. And they’re often at the backend of the fashion industry. It goes back to understanding that fashion is one of the largest industries in our world today, and it’s rooted in a system of extraction of natural resources. And so, that is not sustainable, right? That’s another reason why we need to consider alternative economies that are rooted in secondhand and seeing design as a waste, or sorry, not design as a waste, seeing waste as essential resource.
ADITI: The industry as it exists now is predicated on disposability, right? And I talk about disposability, not only on throwing clothes away, but seeing workers as disposable. And the thing is that when you think about these huge corporations like the H&M, the Zaras of the world, they have the bottom line. They have the profit to be paying everyone in their supply chain a living wage. It’s just not a priority.
CAT: Everlane’s a good example of this company that based all of their marketing on radical transparency, being better for their workers, being better for the environment. And then it came out very recently in the, I think it was a Vice article or something where apparently, they have a lot of part-time customer service workers, and they’re really overworked. They were pressured to not take time off. They don’t have sick leave and stuff like that. And then they were trying to unionize so that they could have more collective power and basically bargain for more rights. And then it turned out that Everlane was sending, the management was sending them emails and basically telling them, “Oh, forming a union’s not in your best interest,” and then kind of misleading them and stuff. So, that to me, was really disappointing because it was this company that I think most people, when they think of sustainable or ethical fashion, they’re like, oh, Everlane’s a good brand. They’re affordable. I think for a lot of people, it’s a brand that’s kind of like an entryway into buying more intentionally. And then to see that happen, it was just really disappointing for me.
CARMEN: In a feminist fashion economy, workers would, of course, be working standard hours with full rights and dignity and with basic rights intact in their workplaces. They would also be working with different materials, and they’d be working for corporations producing with functionality in mind and the reduction of waste as a priority.
A 2019 report by Stand.earth—the Filthy Fashion Climate Scorecard—ranked the “climate commitments of 45 top fashion companies” and found that every single one needs to do a whole lot better. “Nearly all of the companies,” a press release noted, “failed to reach the level of emissions reduction needed to align with the UN Paris Agreement’s pathway to 1.5° C warming and avert the worst consequences of climate change.” That’s scary! It’s disappointing, since eco-feminists like A. Tianna already know the answers to some of the sector’s biggest environmental problems.
A. TIANNA: We would see less pesticides used on the cotton that are currently being used, which would make the homes and lives of the people living near those fields safer and healthier. We would see a reduction in the amount and the quantity that’s going to landfills every day, which also means a lowered cost of shipping things from here to there in order both to receive the products and to get rid of them. And that ultimately, that CO2 emission would drastically improve and would further benefit the environment at a really macro scale.
CARMEN: Ideally, major players in the fashion industry should also be doing everything they could to ethically source material before it even reaches the factory floor. Unfortunately, when it comes to goldmining, that kind of infrastructure doesn’t even exist yet.
SARAH: The luxury brands like the big [unclear] companies like Cartier and Piaget and Tiffany’s, they’re all really aware of the situation. But because there’s not enough supply for the demand, I, in my very humble opinion, I feel like they’re not really ready to tackle it because it is problematic. And from a marketing and a media standpoint, they’re not in a position to actually say that, where a lot of them don’t have, can’t say where their gold comes from right now. And there’s lots of speculation that a lot of the gold goes to the refineries in Switzerland, and there’s lots of speculation that a lot of this is getting washed through Dubai and other places like that. Because the molecular structure of a gold, it’s really hard to see where gold comes from molecularly. And they melt it, put it on one melting pot, so it all melts together. And so, what could be in your ring? Any ring that has gold or earrings could have gold from the Amazon. It could have illegally mined gold in other areas in Africa that’s under a terrorist organization. It could have gold from a mine that has totally used responsible sourcing. So, that’s the hard part. Jewelry companies are not ready, at this point, to take the big steps they need to do to make it accountable and into the everyday vernacular about where their gold comes from.
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CARMEN: Of course, the fashion industry at large isn’t the only partly to blame for this glamourous and devastating climate crisis. We’re all at fault. Studies show that people are buying over twice as much clothing than we did just 20 years ago, and we’re keeping every single piece for half as long as we used to. Americans, to top it off, buy one-fifth of all of the clothing in the world. That’s a huge waste of resources upfront. It takes 2,700 liters of water to make a cotton shirt, for example, an amount of water that would normally hydrate the typical human being for two and a half years. If you wanna add a pair of jeans, that’s gonna bring the total to 5,000 of water. But fashion production is also making a lot of waste. One garbage truck full of clothes is burned or sent to a landfill every single second. And each year, $400 billion worth of apparel is prematurely trashed. The garments that are adorning literal piles of trash are gonna take up to 200 years to decompose. Everything we own, everything we want, and everything we buy uses natural resources. It’s overwhelming to think about, but it’s important to remember because being conscious consumers is the only way forward if we wanna have a future on this planet.
SARAH: I just think that everyone needs to realize that where they buy their clothes, what they eat, what they wear, what jewelry they wear, the technology in their cell phone, people need to realize that this comes from our environment, that we need these products, that the environment gives us these natural resources. And at the point, right now, we’re at the point where we’re not sustainable. So, people really need to think about how much do they need, what are they gonna use this item for, where did it come from? And if it comes from areas where it’s destroying our forest and our environment and the people that work in it, then we need to really, really take a hard look at that needs to come. We need to think about these things as consumers right away, right now, planet. So, we have a window of time now to turn it around.
CARMEN: Breaking out of the buy-and-goodbye cycle in our own lives as fashion lovers and even as casual consumers can make a huge difference, and it could help spur on that feminist fashion economy.
A. TIANNA: Certainly up until this point, those individual strategies for action, like being a vegetarian, like purchasing less clothes, purchasing from thrift stores, consignment stores, sharing them with friends has, up until now, been the best strategy. And increasingly, we see that there’s also new frontiers for how clothes are being advertised or used. So, programs like Rent the Runway, where you rent clothes for a short period of time for special events, have really paved the way for other larger companies to start thinking about how they are marketing and selling their clothes. So, H&M has launched a similar clothing rental program in China and is looking to bring that to other markets in the coming years as well. And so, we might even see, not from a policy standpoint, but from the corporations themselves, a push towards thinking differently about how we wear our clothes.
CAT: I’ve seen a few brands do a circular business model instead of a linear model where they make the product, it goes out to consumers, and then it ends up in a landfill. They basically will take back any clothing that is worn out and then recycle it to make new clothing. And basically, all of the waste that they create, they’re able to recycle. I think that would be really cool to see more of, but I also think as consumers, we have to shift our mindset from clothing as a consumerist object, and kind of hold in mind that clothing is something that takes labor, and that labor should be appreciated. It takes craftsmanship, and that should be appreciated. And it takes resources from our environment, which should be appreciated.
LEAH: There’s all sorts of things that you can do on a really small scale. Whether that’s doing like what I did, where you challenge yourself and you go, okay, I’m not gonna buy from fast-fashion stores. Instead, I’m only gonna go opp shopping and getting things secondhand. Or I’m gonna host a little party with all of my friends. We’re gonna do a clothing swap, which is a really, really good way to refresh your wardrobe and also get to see your clothes have a second life. Because it’s really rewarding when you can see something that maybe you’ve loved but you’re kind of sick of it, and then your friend gets it. And they absolutely love it, and you can see it kind of living on again in them. And also, supporting small makers. So, take time to research the brands that you are wanting to buy from, and find the ones that are being transparent about the things that they’re doing well and even the things that they can improve on.
CARMEN: Not sure where to start? I wasn’t either. So, I asked the experts. The first thing all of us can do is take a good look at our closets and take stock of what everything inside of them could be.
ADITI: So, I would say there’s one narrative within sustainability as we navigate capitalism, is that we’re really honing in on this idea that you have to buy sustainability, which I think is problematic. Because the most sustainable thing that both you and I own is what’s already in our closet. So, I’d say start there. Don’t even think about buying anything or have that pressure upon yourself because we really need to limit our consumption, for one. So, that lends itself to thinking about upcycling, right, creating something new out of your garment if you’re not wearing it anymore or doing clothing swaps with your friends or basically trying to prolong the life of a garment at large.
LEAH: Sewing is hard! And it has taken me a long time to learn how to do it, but it’s really worth it. Because once you start to learn how long it takes to, for example, sew a basic t-shirt, your appreciation for not only garment workers and people that actually can sew, but for the time and the effort and the resources and the brain power that it takes to make a piece of clothing, it really makes you appreciate that piece of clothing so much more. So, I encourage anyone to learn how to sew or even just like tiny little things like, even if it’s just fixing buttons, if you can learn how to fix buttons and bring some of your old clothes back to life, that’s a really beautiful way that you can connect with clothing and learn about it.
CARMEN: Relatedly, I have it on good word that becoming a minimalist might ease your climate anxiety.
A. TIANNA: On a personal note, I’ve recently tried out the 333 Project, 333, I think it’s called, where every three months, you wear 33 articles of clothing and that’s it. Which to be honest, we all wear far fewer clothes than we have in our closets. We have our favorites that we cycle through. And so, just being more mindful of the fact that it’s okay to have those favorites and to wear them out, and we don’t need as much just sheer quantity. And we see that all over with the Marie Kondo trends and the just scaling back that people are interested in exploring. And hopefully, that it comes both from an environmental perspective but also from a perspective of having a life that is prioritized by getting outside, spending time with friends and family, and less of kind of consumer goods being part of our social fabric.
LEAH: I was really inspired by Courtney Carver and her Project 333, which is 33 items of clothing, accessories, and shoes for three months at a time, so seasonally. That was something really interesting to learn about and to see how other people dress themselves and how they choose to re-wear and restyle very small amounts of clothing. That was really awesome.
CARMEN: And once you’ve upcycled and recycled, all of us need to begin to be more deliberate about the decisions we make when we’re filling our closets back up. We need to shop slow.
CAT: Before I started my blog, I would say I had a really unhealthy obsession with fashion where it was like, of course it was a creative outlet, but it was also kind of an unhealthy addiction in a way, where I would buy fast fashion because it made me feel better or because I felt like I needed certain clothing or to follow certain trends in order for me to feel good about myself. And I also didn’t really think about the cost behind each piece of clothing, like not just how much it costs me, but how much it costs the people who made it, how much it costs the environment. And now that I’ve been more intentional with how I buy things, I think I am a lot slower when it comes to buying things. I take more time. I really mull over the decision and try to figure out, will I wear this for a really long time, and is it worth it? And I also focus more on buying things that I think are higher quality and that I will wear for multiple years because I don’t want to buy something to wear it once. So, I’ve also been trying to buy more secondhand. And that was something that I rarely did before, thrifting, but now it’s something that I really focus on as a way for me to buy clothing without contributing to further environmental costs of clothing.
CARMEN: We need to shop secondhand and shop small.
ADITI: There are so many things in this world already that need to be loved. And I’ve always loved thrifting. Growing up in a low-income family, thrifting wasn’t the cool thing it is today. It was very much a necessity. And so, that has lent itself to me really understanding my personal sense of style of rather than being motivated by trends. So, when I am going to thrift shops, it’s not like I’m in a mall and I’m looking at mannequins that tell me what is in right now. It’s a very inherent treasure hunt where you’re looking at what you love and what you wanna wear. If you do have the capital for ethical and sustainable brands, really try to shop small. Local brands are great. Really inquire about their supply chains. And then from there, if you don’t have the capital to invest in sustainable fashion, because there is a definite price point there. Even if you are gonna shop at fast-fashion brands, make sure you’re gonna use it for as long as you can.
You know, I also wanna be very cognizant of the conversation around class and access when it comes to sustainability. Because if you’re being honest, there is definitely a higher price point. Obviously, that means we have to shift our understanding of consumption to be one of quality over quantity and really thinking about investing in pieces in the long run. But at the same time, it’s a privilege not everyone has.
CAT: A lot of small companies who practice more slow fashion where the focus isn’t so much on new styles or trends or pushing out huge quantities of product, but it’s more about creating timeless styles that people kind of save up and then they buy it and they wear it forever. I think that kind of model is a lot better for the environment. And also, just personally for me, it basically brings back the value of clothing and makes us appreciate it as something that a person or multiple people spent a lot of time on to create. And it makes it more of this…more of this object of art and appreciation that I think fast fashion has taken away from clothing.
ADITI: Smaller, sustainable labels are usually more inherently sustainable because they’re producing at a small batch production, right? Even if you are making everything organic cotton, but you’re producing at a scale that is so large, it’s very hard to be inherently sustainable. And that’s when you have greenwashing, right? The idea that brands are trying to position themselves as sustainable and ethical to kind of ride this wave of sustainability being sexy nowadays. A major player of that is companies like H&M that have things like their conscious collection, which basically tout that, oh, we are so sustainable because this is all made from organic cotton. But there’s no mention of the working conditions that these things are produced in, and that really provides insight into this discord within sustainability movements.
SARAH: There’s a sector of the independent jewelers that I am finding that have been much more willing to work on this and talk about it and make significant changes because they use smaller amounts of gold. It’s easier for them to get access to these small amounts of gold that we now have on the market that jewelers can purchase. So, it’s been mixed. And the first time I actually screened it in front of the jewelry sector, I was extremely nervous because I had no idea how they were gonna react. And a lot of them were ethical metalsmiths and independent jewelers. And it was a very lovely conversation amongst their community. They really care. And the thing about jewelry is that these products are made to celebrate love and happiness and holidays. And in many cases, they’re made by artists. So, I realized that as I got farther along is that they’re artists, and they don’t like to be destroying the environment. But in many cases, these bigger companies, they just aren’t ready because the supply for the supply chain, the amount of gold that is cleanly-sourced is not enough right now.
CARMEN: And we need to shop smart and speak up.
LEAH: The Good On You app is a really good resource if you want to kind of get to know a little bit more behind the brands that you might find at your shopping center or the ones that are kind of like— They have different ratings for all different brands, but that’s a good resource if you’re like, okay, so, I love this brand, but how environmentally-friendly are they? Or what are their workers’ policies? You can just look it up on the app, and it’s really easy.
SARAH: I don’t eat any meat with a hoof. And I work 24/7, pretty much, on trying to figure out ways to educate not only myself but the consumer on what are the best ways to protect our planet, and being a consumer is one of them. I did a big deep dive into the jewelry industry and learned a lot about the players in the industry, and there’s really great communities. There’s a lot of independent jewelers out there that are really starting to become aware of the situation, and they ask the questions. Because part of the problem is there’s not enough supply for the demand of gold. And it’s a very complex situation with how the gold gets to market and its supply chain, etc. And it’s because of that complexity, it’s not really been dealt with systemically. And from the consumer end, even if you were to go today and talk to a gold jeweler, in most cases, they won’t know where the gold comes from. So, what we’ve done at Amazon Aid is we’ve dug deep into the supply chain, all the way from the consumers, the refineries, all the way down to the ground. We have a consumer guide of what people can ask when they go to buy gold.
I’ve been very aware of where all my sources come from, and asking questions is really important as a consumer. And then to try to walk the walk. It’s hard, in many cases, to get your products because in a lot of times, the supply chain has not been developed in a way that there is as many sustainably-sourced products as we need out there. But to start asking questions and demanding and purchasing those products. The power of the wallet is incredible.
CARMEN: Harnessing that power is hard work but totally worth it. After all, that climate anxiety isn’t for naught: We’re running out of time to save the planet. And that means there’s no better time than right now for all of us to start serving up feminism alongside our favorite sustainable looks.
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Okay, folks. That’s all for this installment of Popaganda by Bitch Media. This episode was edited by Emily Boghossian and produced and hosted by me—feminist media-maker and movement-builder Carmen Rios—as part of our GLAMOUR season. Our jingle is by Mucks & Owen Wuerker. Today’s guests were Cat Chiang, Sarah Dupont, Adititi Mayer, Leah Musch, and A. Tianna Scozzaro. The conversation doesn’t stop here. Use the hashtag #Popaganda on social media to share your thoughts and feelings on the show. Follow Bitch @BitchMedia on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to get more feminist stuff like it in your feed (algorithm willing), and find me @carmenriosss (with three s’s) for behind-the-scenes selfies and unsolicited excerpts from my secret Tumblr. You can also send me hate mail at carmenfuckingrios.com.
Popaganda is produced by nonprofit, independent, Bitch Media. Our feminist response to pop culture is funded entirely by our community. So, if you loved what you just heard, you can support the show directly by joining The Rage, Bitch’s monthly membership program for fed-up feminists like you, at BitchMedia.org/rage. Members get print and digital subscriptions to Bitch magazine, a members-only Filled With Rage mug, and other sweet feminist swag! And if you wanna make sure you never miss an episode of the show, you know the drill: subscribe to Popaganda on iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher for even more glamorous conversations about ethical and feminist fashion this season. Our next episode comes out January 30, featuring feminist makers doing their best to politicize some of our favorite kinds of fashion and beauty accessories. Until then, I’ll see you on the internet.


by Carmen Rios
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Carmen Rios is the host of Bitch’s Popaganda podcast. She’s also the Managing Digital Editor at Ms. magazine and co-host of Trigger Happy, a weekly webseries about women’s issues on Binge Network. She has been described as “petulant and idiotic,” “intimidating to some,” “vapid and uninteresting” and “brazenly misandrist.”