This Sunday marks the three-year anniversary of the worst disaster in the history of the garment industry: Rana Plaza, where 1,134 people were killed when a garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed.
Fast fashion allows us to get a cheap new outfit every week, but it’s taking a toll on people and the planet. The clothing industry is the second biggest polluting industry in the world, second only to oil. Americans buy five-times as much clothing today as they did in 1980, and throw away about 70 lbs of clothing per person every year.
How are we as Christians supposed to respond? Does God even care about fashion, or pollution, or does He only care about the spiritual? Can something as seemingly frivolous as shopping be an act of worship and a way to care for the poor? These are all questions that I’ve been wrestling with over the past 10 years, since I saw a documentary in college called China Blue.
Since then, we’ve made a lot of progress. More documentaries have been created, like the True Cost, telling the story of real people a world away who are affected by the fashion industry. Also, more responsible brands have surfaced, that care about people and the planet – and that actually have stylish clothing options. It’s been really encouraging to see this change happening, and my hope is that as we as Christians will be at the forefront of this movement, passionately driving it forward.
But why us?
It starts in the beginning. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1) “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth.” (Genesis 1:26) Mankind was given a position of rule over the earth, and he could use it for good or for evil. Created in God’s image, we were meant to act in accordance with His likeness – and He cared deeply for His creation. “Are not sparrows sold for two pennies? And yet none of them is forgotten before God.” (Luke 12:6) We’re here as stewards of God’s creation.
And then there’s the people. As Christians we are commanded to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” We are taught that our “neighbor” is not just the person down the street, but anyone anywhere – and particularly the downcast (see Luke 10: 25-37). We are reminded throughout the bible that God cares for the vulnerable and weak and we are called to fight for the oppressed. “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8) “If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.” (Isaiah 58:10)
The fashion industry is comprised of some of lowest paid workers in the world, and roughly 85% of all garment workers are women. Because of their position, and since they don’t have many other options, they are often taken advantage of. While wages of garment workers have been steadily declining, profits of large fashion companies have been increasing. So the wealth of this 3 trillion-dollar industry is being built on the backs of the weakest and most vulnerable.
In response to all of this, I knew I had to make a change. Four years ago, I made a commitment to only buy clothing from companies that treated their garment workers fairly. I had been working in the fashion industry for years, and knew that there was a lot that needed to change. My first real fashion job was as an assistant in the buying department at Saks Fifth Avenue. I then went on to be a buyer for Rue La La, an online flash sale site. I know all too well the impulses that cause us to splurge on a trendy item that’s on sale. Changing my shopping habits hasn’t been easy, but it’s been so rewarding. And now I’m passionate about helping other women create a wardrobe that reflects their style and their values. I started a blog dedicated to that mission, and also recently launched a clothing line called VETTAwith my best friend Vanessa Van Zyl that’s made responsibly in the US from eco-friendly fabrics.
We all want to feel beautiful, and our clothing is a reflection of who we are. I think that’s something really special that we should embrace and celebrate. I also think clothing can be a beautiful reflection of our values – our care for people and for the earth. The scriptures talk about a woman of noble character, “She is clothed in fine linen and purple. She is clothed with strength and dignity. She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy.” (Proverbs 31: 20,22,25)
With all of the problems in the world, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and not even want to try. Here are five simple steps that you can take today:
1 – Watch The True Cost documentary. Trust me, you won’t regret it.
2 – Shop with intention. Make a list of the items that would complete your wardrobe, and that you would love to wear every day. Then commit to only buying those items, and refrain from impulse purchases.
3 – Hold a clothing swap. Get your friends together and have everyone bring the items in their closet that they don’t wear anymore. Everyone can leave with something new, and you’re giving old clothing a new life!
4 – Research ethical brands. Keep a list of your favorites on hand for the next time you need to buy something. Some of my favorites, in addition to VETTA ;), are Everlane, Reformation, Urban Renewal, and Zady.
5 – Ask questions. People like you are the ones who are going to change the fashion industry for the better. If we’re all more curious, and help keep brands accountable, we can make a big difference.
You can follow Cara on Instagram @bienfaire
Photography c/o Trever Hoehne