When I saw a tweet announcing the release of the book ‘Clothing Poverty’ by Andrew Brooks, I didn’t know how fast to run to an online bookstore to order it. The subtitle of the book being ‘the hidden world of fast fashion and second-hand clothes’, this book could not be left unreviewed on my blog. The focus of this book lies mainly on illustrating the social and economic non-sustainability of the fashion industry. A very interesting and also highly political and difficult subject, not a light read. Therefore, I thought I’d break down some of the highlights of the book for you!
A too romantic picture of an industry
What’s the first thought that pops into your head when thinking about second-hand clothes? Pretty vintage pieces? Containers filled with your ‘left-over’ clothes? The ginormous markethalls where people sell their hand-me-downs? I can tell you that were some of my first associations. I’m afraid we are mostly fooled by our human incapability of seeing the world the way it is: big and crowded with other people, living in other circumstances and continents. Wearing our second-hand clothes. The trade in second-hand clothing is hughe, and fuelled by our Western addiction to buying the latest fashion. A never-ending cycle of clothing consumption.
In his book, Andrew Books shows that the second-hand clothing industry is a complicated web of commercial transactions, breaking down the charitable image it often has. Clothes ‘we’ in the West donate to charity, rarely end up being distributed to the poor for free. There is a whole money-making business behind it. The clothes are packed up in big bales, shipped to, mainly, the African continent, sold to middlemen, and sold again on local markets to some of the poorest people in the world, by some of the poorest people in the world who in general don’t earn enough of this to make a living, but have to do something to keep their heads above the water.
Brooks explains, via interesting and vivid case stories, that this in general is bad, but it’s also damaging local economies. Clothing from Western parts of the world is usually of a higher quality than new clothes from China that are sold in for example Zambia. Plus, since it is used clothing, it is way cheaper than clothes made in Zambia. The demand for locally produced clothes thus dropped when more and more clothes came streaming in from the West, because consumers pay attention to quality and price. That lead to local factories, that paid their workers a decent wage, closing down because they could’nt face up to this unfair ‘competition’. Actually I find it very difficult to write about this problem in a short manner, because it is such an important illustration of the problem we here in the West are creating by consuming carelessly and addictively because we all want to wear ‘the latest fashion’, just to discard the clothing again when the season ‘ends’.
We are all made addicts in this consumerist society
However, according to Brooks, consumers should not be the ones to be expected to change, or to change the industry. He gives four arguments to this reasoning:
1. Consumers cannot be expected to critically audit every piece of clothing they want to buy to see if it is ethically produced. This process is too difficult
2. The social pressure to consume is all around us, shoppers can simply not be trusted to change their behavior and stand up to these strong pulling forces.
3. In the current market it is really different to do ‘the right thing’, be it by consumers, businesses or states.
4. The majority of the worlds’ consumers are very poor (mainly in the South) and simply cannot be expected to stop and think about where their clothing comes from, because they are mainly busy surviving and concerning themselves with matters of life and death. The way the world is organized today, the current structures of trade and doing business, actually profit from this because these people don’t even have any space in their heads left to think about anything other than survival.
Well this just made me a little sick to my stomach, because as Andrew Brooks also clearly illustrates in this book, there is no one clear solution to the problem we are facing. But the problems are real and the problems are urgent. The gap between the poorest of the poor and the richest of the rich is ever-increasing. The clothing industry is one of the biggest industries in the world, and as thus a place where fundamental change could make a difference for this inequality. But how to change the industry?
Donating for charity, and ‘doing good’ in the fashion industry
At this moment there is something fundamentally wrong in the fashion world. Also in something I stated in the previous paragraph: we are donating our clothes to the poor. Because we don’t want them anymore, and there is a very big group of people that can’t even afford a set of clothing to their own liking but are dependant on gifts or very worn hand-me-downs. We feel we are doing something ‘good’ by donating to the poor. But is this really something to be proud of? After reading this book, I seriously doubt it.
The last part of the book was my favorite, since there Brooks examines current initiatives undertaken in the fashion world to make a change. I like to think we are capable of making a change in this industry. Andrew Brooks evaluates if these initiatives are really doing good, or also sustaining the problem. A true eye-opener, for example when he talks about TOMS and the way they do business. It isn’t all as rose-colored as you might like to think.
I agree with Brooks that awareness amongst consumers in the West about the consequences of their buying behavior, and a collective call to action to big brands, marketeers and businesses to advocate for change, could make a difference. The power of the masses should not be underestimated.
All arguments made by the author are sufficiently founded on reliable sources. However, this is not a book that you ‘read for fun’ whilst having your sunday afternoon relaxation hours. It’s more of a book meant for students, scholars and people highly interested maybe for professional reasons, in this hidden world of fast fashion and second-hand clothing.
It would be great if Andrew Brooks also wrote a shorter version of the book (or excerpt), with the relatively well-off consumers of this world in mind, who want, and need, to be educated on the hidden world of fashion, but also have tons of other things to do (and are not sitting at home because of maternity leave like me). When I think about it, this will for sure be a daunting task, since how can you encompass such an important and almost all-encompassing message in a guide that is readable, entertaining (?), educational, and offers practical advice at the same time? I do believe that consumers want to have their voices heard once they know about the problems in the fashion industry, if only they knew how…
All in all, I can recommend this book to people who can make some time to fully concentrate on this important subject. Would you read this interesting book (252 pages)? Or is there a specific topic I mentioned in this review, of which you would like to read more on this blog? Please do share!