Maxine Bédat’s New Book Traces the Lifespan of a Pair of Jeans to Illustrate the Ills of Fast Fashion
In this age of instant gratification, fast fashion innocently presents itself as a way to meet consumer demand. But behind the scenes, the industry’s supply chains are fraught with serious planet- and people-threatening problems. It’s a topic that Maxine Bédat, founder and director of the New Standard Institute—a think tank and resource for clothing designers and fashion brands hoping to make legitimate, impactful changes by 2030—tackles in her forthcoming book, Unraveled: The Life and Death of a Garment (Portfolio), out next week.
In the book, Bédat, a former lawyer (and the guest on Ep. 11 of our At a Distance podcast), traces the lifespan of a pair of jeans to demonstrate the ills that accompany the processes that produce our clothes. Along the way, she encounters a number of tragic situations, including a cotton farm in Texas struggling to operate without using poisonous fertilizers, dyeing factories in China where harmful chemicals spill onto floors and drain into waterways used for irrigation, and warehouses in South Asia that require workers to perform with machine-like endurance. We recently spoke with Bédat about her eye-opening research, and the importance of building more meaningful relationships with our clothes.
What exactly is the driving force behind fast fashion?
The dynamic often presented to us is that companies are fulfilling consumer demand. What I learned is just how much that demand has been manipulated by the companies trying to sell us things. I did quite a deep dive into the origins of marketing, and even the origins of fashion seasons, which date back to King Louis XIV, when he built Versailles. He and his finance minister established protectionist measures, required anything that could be made in France be made there, and mandated that [new textiles appear seasonally, prompting people to buy more of them on an anticipated schedule]. Fashion was the way in which France managed to become the regional economic superpower it is—and a way to enrich rich people.
You visited a number of garment factories around the world. Did you find any shared, overarching issues experienced by employees?
I did. I went to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and also to Amazon distribution facilities in the United States, and spent time with workers there. What I saw with all of those people is how degrading it is to have a job in which you’re expected to be a machine—only to be eventually replaced by one.
I asked a Bangladeshi garment worker what she thought about throughout the day at her sewing machine. I’d imagined that she was internally railing against the system. [But] she said it’s just a constant drone of “speed up, you’re getting behind.” The distribution workers at Amazon said the same thing. One man told me how exhausting his mind-numbing, automated work is. When I told him that sounded a lot like a conversation I had with a woman in Bangladesh, he said, “Oh, no. I’m sure it’s a lot worse there.” The pay and living conditions are worse, but the actual job is very similar.
What can people do to quell the urge to buy more clothes?
What really matters most is whether or not you love the garments you’re buying. If you love your garments, you’re going to wear them more, and wearing them is actually the largest driver of how sustainable they are. You can be sustainable at any price point.
But it seems like the issues you explore in your book are now so deeply embedded into the ethos of fashion supply chains. Do you think companies and consumers can actually evolve at this point?
It’s not rocket science. We have to extend the labor and environmental protections that we developed domestically internationally, which is something that [the Biden administration] is looking into. What feels super hopeful to me, and the point of the book, is that we can change these systems. As a lawyer, that’s something that excites me. It was U.S. policy at the end of World War II that got Americans to see themselves as “consumers” before they saw themselves as citizens. That’s the thing that we need to recognize, and shift away from.