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Molnar: Slow Fashion

The fire at the Chinese poultry plant that killed 120 people last month reminded me of the collapsed apparel factory in Bangladesh that killed 1,200 people two months earlier, which reminded me of another apparel factory fire in Pakistan that killed 262 people last year. The details of other factory accidents in developing countries, which have killed thousands of mostly women in garment factories, are too numerous to list. There are just too many, too often.

This unnecessary cost in human life is not reflected in the cost of the clothing we buy, nor is the enormous environmental cost of the rag trade.

I learned this late last winter on the way home from a rare afternoon of shopping in Manhattan.

I hadn’t planned to shop but I’d wandered through the invitingly open doors of a new store in midtown - and was immediately hooked. Puffy jackets, hundreds of them, grouped by vibrant colors and patterns filled the bright space. It was a warmish day and my wool coat felt heavy. I would just take a quick look… I did, and walked out with not one, but two jackets, and three other items I didn’t know I needed.

In my defense, everything was fashionable, pretty and amazingly inexpensive. I was quite pleased. But on the way home, a radio interview with Elizabeth Cline, author of “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion,” shattered my joy in my new clothes.

Ms. Cline explained that behind the low cost of the garments we buy are miserable wages, dangerous working conditions, and environmental degradation.

A living wage for workers producing this clothing isn’t even a fantasy, because raising wages would mean raising prices, which would put any factory that tried it out of business within months. The pressure to keep prices extremely low in turn pressures factory owners to be shockingly callous with their workers’ safety.

Then there are the environmental costs. When Ms. Cline visited Guangdong Province in China, a place crowded with textile factories, the air was so thick with smog that she couldn’t photograph anything more than a quarter mile away. Sometimes the rivers ran red, blue or green, depending on the dye used at the time.

I learned from other sources that even seemingly benign cotton comes with an outsize price. The material, production and transport of one t-shirt produced in India uses 700 gallons of water, a quarter pound of fertilizers, and more than a pound of fossil fuel.

What can one do? Dress like a Vermonter, I say. Dress in “slow” fashion. Buy little, recycle clothes, or wear them past the recycling stage. Make your own clothes. And dress in fleece, making a single non-fashion statement work through most of the year. Compared to the average American who buys 68 garments a year - double what we bought in 1991 - Vermonters are downright unfashionable. But I don’t think we care a whole lot - and I for one am glad that we don’t.

Martha L. Molnar is a public relations and freelance writer who moved to Vermont in 2008. She was formerly a New York Times reporter.
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