Untangled by Maxine Bédat – cut the fabric

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Clothing has never been cheaper, nor its volumes so immense. A casual summer sale run at fast-fashion Swedish supplier H&M unearths a sleeveless white cotton dress for £ 3 and a pair of ‘Conscious’ drawstring pants cut from a viscose-polyamide blend for £ 9. At Manchester-based Boohoo, which has a 70% off sale, bandeau tops and a white cotton ‘Mindful’ t-shirt will cost you just £ 2 each.

For less than a cup of coffee, you might be tempted to buy this t-shirt and, even if you don’t really like it, toss it in a donation bin after a wear or two. At £ 2, what’s the harm?

But there are vast Рand for those of us in the West, often invisible Рto pay for these crazy little purchases, as Maxine B̩dat describes in her smart new book. Unraveled: The Life and Death of a Garment. Although fashion abuse had been well documented for decades (see sweatshop controversies of the 1990s), the problem quickly exploded.

In the first 15 years of this century, global clothing production is estimated to have doubled to 150 billion items per year – a staggering figure considering the size of the world’s population (7.9 billion) and the number of clothes already stuffed. our closets.

The toll for our cheap fashion sensations is paid by the women (and these are mostly women) who work 12-14 hours a day on a grueling assembly line and earn less than the legal minimum wage in Dhaka, Bangladesh. – an experience that a woman compares to a “cage”. It gets paid in the inky, sinus-clogging rivers where Chinese factories would dump their chemical waste and which dangerously feed local crops.

It’s paid for in the early cancers of farmers applying pesticides in Texas, who unload their cotton in opaque exchanges before it’s shipped halfway around the world to be spun, woven, and saturated with industrial chemicals (including a third of a pound is involved in the manufacture of an average T-shirt, reports Bédat). And that pays off in our accelerating climate emergency, of which fashion, with its relentless demand for raw materials and energy to power its factories, is a major contributor.

For those who have seen the Andrew Morgan documentary The real cost (2015), or read Elizabeth Cline overdressed (2012) or that of Dana Thomas Fashionopolis (2019), who all investigate the growing human and environmental abuses of the globalized clothing trade, none of this can sound particularly new.

© Bloomberg

Bédat is a former lawyer and fashion entrepreneur who founded the New Standard Institute in 2019, a non-profit organization that fights against greenwashing in the fashion industry. What she brings to this growing body of literature is a meticulously researched, impartial and remarkably human account of how fashion, in its pursuit of ever lower prices and higher profits, has become so reckless, dirty and inhuman.

The author’s journey begins in Texas, where she learns what half a century of spraying fertilizers and chemicals have done to the soil and to the health of farmers, and yet why so few are ready to move on. organic. (It is simply too expensive for them to do without other government-sponsored financial incentives, and even though only 0.7 percent of the world’s cotton is organic, there is not enough demand, which means cotton sometimes trades at a lower multiple than conventional cotton than other types of organic crops.)

She then travels to China to see why making jeans costs only one-fifth of the price it costs in El Paso, Texas, once the denim capital of the world – low wages and poor protection of the environment and workers have a lot to do with it. Later, in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, she meets hardworking seamstresses in factories, some of whom are also forced into prostitution when there is not enough clothing to sew.

Back in America, Bedat observes the robotic way warehouse workers have to operate at Amazon, now the largest clothing retailer in the United States. And finally, she looks at where our clothes, once thrown or “given”, end up ending up: often, in piles of garbage burned in Africa.

Throughout – and this is where the book excels – she connects the dots between what she sees firsthand and the many forces that have transformed fashion into the dangerous and disconnected industry it is today. . Among them are neoliberalism, labor unions, Western trade policies designed to protect domestic manufacturing that actually have the opposite effect, and the shift of fashion brands from making their own clothes to simply keeping and selling them.

By profiling individuals and telling their stories, Bédat gives a human dimension to a book that might otherwise have been bogged down in statistics, as so many writings on fashion and sustainability (mine included) often are. .

But is that enough to get readers to change their buying habits and become, as she suggests in her last chapter, not only consumers but citizens campaigning for change? Perhaps because of Bédat’s approach – so measured in his language, so careful not to be sensational – I didn’t feel the same excitement to change my habits as after digesting certain articles and documentaries on fashion and climate. And the suggestions to buy less but better, and to put the pressure of social media on fashion executives, have appeared several times before.

Yet her stories of the people she described so empathetically while writing this book – the cotton farmer who said he “would rather spray” than go organic, the women seamstresses living in slums across the country. Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, who profess no hope for themselves and only for their children – will stay with me for a long time.

Disentangled: The life and death of a garment by Maxine Bédat, Portfolio £ 22.99 / $ 27, 272 pages

Lauren Indvik is the fashion editor of the FT

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