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All is not fair in fashion

I prefer to be labeled a shopping opportunist rather than a shopaholic. In my opinion, a shopaholic has a problem, but a shopping opportunist? They have a vision.   

From the days when my mom would drop me off at American Eagle for hours at a time to my recent obsession with Amazon Prime, I can drop some serious dollars on that vision.   

Over a year ago I took Professor Bruno Teles’ 7:50 a.m. International Marketing class. Besides increasing my caffeine consumption and reminding me that I’m maybe a little bit too competitive, my understanding of sustainability sky-rocketed, particularly in my fashion choices.

In the class, we read several books on how to create businesses in underdeveloped countries that will lead to cycles of economic growth and stability rather than locking entire nations into chains of poverty. We worked with businesses who paid their workers fair wages in areas of the world that struggled to make enough to cover one or two meals at the most. I realized that the fashion industry is not an innocent bystander in the fight to bring equality and opportunity to all nations. In fact, they are, in many cases, the jailer.

Surprisingly, most of the clothing we wear has been made in sweatshops where workers are paid extremely low wages and subjected to working conditions considered despicable at best. Many of the products we buy, from floor cleaner to bedazzled prom dresses, are hurting humans all over the globe. Here we are, in the midst of our existential search for meaning, asking, “How can I change the world?” You can change the world. It’s called the inchworm effect.

Tiny act by tiny act, we can make a positive impact. Each time we zip our credit cards, we choose to create either negative or positive ripples in the world. You want to change the world? Change your habits. There will be big moments, when the spotlight shines and you whip out your cape, but before that comes everyday choices when change inches into the world.

Ready to be a real superhero? Look for fair trade labels when you shop. Fair trade companies are held to different and higher standards. They must provide a decent wage and better working environments for their workers.

“The fashion industry has been known for not treating workers with dignity, poor working conditions, and not paying a fair-living wage,” said Tiffany Riley, local owner of the boutique LivyLu. “Once I started learning about the issue, I just couldn’t ignore it.”

We buy the cheap shirt. The demand for product goes up. The brand orders more shirts, mass produced at a sweatshop overseas. A single mother in Bangladesh who works in appalling conditions gets paid almost nothing for her overtime on that order, but she has no choice. This is the only job she can find. She has to take care of her babies, but who’s taking care of her? What’s the true cost of that shirt?

This issue is gaining international awareness. The 52 nations represented in the Commonwealth of Nations will be showcasing a collaboration of sustainable clothing from designers such as Burberry and Stella McCartney at Buckingham Palace during London Fashion Week. Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton will be in attendance, supporting the push for ethical fashion. There was a documentary made in 2015 titled “The True Cost” that exposes the ugly truth of our closets on both the environment and on people.

I’m not suggesting that every piece of clothing you wear be sustainably made. That’s the dream, but I recognize that it’s extremely difficult to achieve when even a coffee seems beyond the budget.

However, making strides toward the dream is doable, and a capsule wardrobe just might be the ticket to eco-friendly and fair trade fashion.

“A principle that I think counteracts the price of the fair-trade clothing is minimalism—only purchasing what is necessary and what you really love,” said Ashley Riggs, senior communication major. “Something that comes along with cheap, mass consumption is the idea that clothes are expendable and cheap. Minimalism keeps that trend in check. When you think strategically about your wardrobe, you can afford to pay a little more for a better quality item.”

A few of Riggs’ favorite fair trade brands are Everlane and People Free I always browse through the sales on FashionABLE’s website, which carries sustainably made clothes, jewelry and leather products.

Thrifting can also be a creative way to incorporate sustainability into your on-a-budget lifestyle. All of the things you find may not be sustainable, but they are not directly feeding the fashion beast.

“Sustainability is essentially finding the balance between people, planet and profit,” said Anna Mueller, sophomore Global Environmental Sustainability major. “One suggestion that I have for shopping sustainably on a budget is to go to thrift stores and search for your favorite fair-trade brands. It is kind of a gamble, but you never know what you may find at stores like Plato’s closet and Buffalo Exchange.”

And of course, don’t forget Amazon Prime. Even they carry a few fair-trade items. Do your research. Decide if your layering pieces are worth someone’s life.