They’re saving the planet by saving the fashion industry: the founder of New Standard Institute, Maxine Bedat, gets real about the cost of fast-fashion on our planet, our health, and our wallets, with environmental toxicologist Linda Greer.
Sixty percent of our clothing ends up in the trash within a year of it being made. Our landfills are filling up, and the countries we rely on to house our trash are refusing it. In this frank conversation, Harper’s BAZAAR’s Digital Features Director, Olivia Fleming, and the founder of New Standard Institute, Maxine Bedat, call in to Los Angeles to speak with Linda Greer, creator of the NRDC’s Clean By Design Program, to discuss the ugly truths behind our beautiful clothing. Why are there so many chemicals used to make our clothes? Are products made from recycled plastic bottles really good for the environment? How can we get the brands we love to do better?
Please join the call to action at https://www.newstandardinstitute.org/sign-up
Dare I Say is a podcast from HarpersBAZAAR.com that sits in on unfiltered conversations between the most influential women of our time—those daring to make the difference we deserve.
Olivia This is Dare I Say, the podcast from Harper’s Bazaar where we sit in on unfiltered conversations between the most influential women of our time: those daring to make the difference we deserve. [music]
I’m Olivia. Not that Olivia, a different Olivia. I’m the features director at Harpers Bazaar and the producer behind this podcast series. Dare I Say came to life after I recorded a conversation between Rosario Dawson and Laverne Cox that was so powerful I knew other people needed to hear it. Since we launched, the feedback has been overwhelming. Not only from listeners who are begging us for more episodes, but in the many stories of other women who are working together, challenging the status quo and tackling today’s most pressing issues. Today we wanted to share one of those stories and shine a light on a topic that’s of increasing importance to us. [music]
O Every year each American throws away eighty-one pounds of clothing. That’s over 26 billion pounds of clothing in our landfills every year. How can designers and consumers work together to make sustainability the industry standard? Maxine Bedat, the founder of New Standard Institute, and Linda Greer, the founder of the Clean by Design program, are both working to reveal the ugly truths of the fashion industry’s environmental impact. In this bonus episode, recorded for Earth Day, Maxine and I called up Linda in L.A. for an honest and frank conversation about how the fashion industry can do better. What does sustainability actually mean when it comes to the clothes that we wear? Are products made from recycled plastic bottles really good for the environment? And how important is it for people to stop buying fast fashion? Maxine and Linda are fearless, forthright and hopeful. They are women who dare.
Maxine Bedat Right now there is an increased interest in sustainability, but within the world of fashion, what that means has been very varied. So, you know, I think from an emerging designer’s perspective, they’ll want to be sustainable, and they’ll say, “Oh, we’re using all-natural materials, therefore we’re sustainable.” And another company might say, “We use all recycled materials, therefore we’re sustainable.” And they don’t have the expertise to know which, if either of those, are the right approach.
Linda Greer Yeah, I think that part of me just thinks it’s a huge gap that needs to be filled to help those companies that truly do want to do this, but they are understandably confused by the lack of information and contradictory information that’s out there.
MB We need to get it figured out and we have twelve years to do it, and that is not a lot of time. Right now recycled plastic bottle fabric seems to be the be all and end all for everything. To create from a plastic bottle, to melt it down, create new fibers, weave it all up again, has a higher carbon footprint than natural fibers. So it’s not as if you have recycled plastic bottles and therefore it’s magically green and sustainable. It’s only if you’re comparing it with something that was polyester. Then, in that case, recycled polyester would be better.
O Because polyester is—
MB Polyester is plastic.
LG It’s threads of plastic instead of bottles.
LG It’s threads of plastic.
MB Yeah. And then the other part of it is that’s not well enough understood in this space is that recycled polyester and polyester shed plastic microfibers, and that is a whole new area that people are just beginning to understand. And the plastic microfibers that are shed are equivalent to fifty billion plastic bottles, coming from our clothing. And we’re only beginning to see where it’s showing up, which seems to just be everywhere. From the tops of mountains, to Antarctica, to the bottom of our oceans, to rivers, to within our plastic water bottles, to within our fish, and then we eat the fish, and within us. And we have no idea the impact that that has on all of us. So, recycled plastic bottle fabric is not going to save the world.
O I think the chemical use is something that I don’t think enough people know about. I don’t think people know that their fast fashion clothing is dipped—soaked in chemicals. LG There’s an immense amount of chemicals used in what’s called “pre-treatment” of fabric before it gets dyed and finished. So it comes in sort of dirty, and it’s got waxes on it, and it’s just not really in a great shape to get dyed, so it has to get scoured and laundered and it has to have a wetting agent, and all sorts of chelating agents—all sorts of chemicals in this sort of washer brew—to beat all of the impurities out of the fabric. And bleach it bright white so that it can receive a color and come out right. Then you have all the dyes that are used to make the color. And then, following that are all the finishes. You know, it’s stain resistant, shrink resistant, soft. So when you add it all up, this is an incredibly heavy industry in terms of chemical use, water use, and energy use. And you’d never believe it to see the beautiful items that come out at the end.
MB I just wish I could take everybody with me to see that supply chain. Because once you see how much it takes to grow cotton, how much it takes to spin fiber, dye fiber, weave that fiber, cut so it—once you see that you cannot shop the same way. You cannot look at a garment in the same way. When I went to visit the factories and as I, you know, go to a lot of the factories in China, in Sri Lanka, in Bangladesh, there is this assumption that it’s the factories that are evil in some way, and if only the factory owners weren’t so evil it would be fine, but it was interesting because in all of the factories that I went to, the owner said, “We care about these things, we see send our executives to all of these sustainability meetings. We live here, you know, these are our people,” and what is happening is, on the brand side, they’re pointing the fingers at the factories, but what the factories are turning around and saying is, “Hey, you are telling us to do all of these things, whether it’s pay our workers more, or improve our factories to make them more energy efficient, but you’re also asking for lower margins and lower prices. We can’t do both of those things.” And so in this call to action that we’ve developed for our launch it’s… The brand has to have an open conversation with the factories about what the costs are gonna be to make these upgrades. I think it’s important to also recognize: those costs aren’t insurmountable. It’s about pennies. Fractions of pennies per garment. It’s just a matter of the brands having the will to say, “Okay, this is something that is our responsibility. We have to have it also reflected in our sourcing strategy. And if we tell a company to make an upgrade and they do it, well, we have to give them more business than we do a factory that refuses to make the upgrades, and hasn’t put the money to do it.”
LG You know, what we didn’t have twenty years ago was the kind of radical transparency that’s possible now on the internet. It is now quite common for people to take pictures of bad industrial practices. They can ricochet around the world. They can literally be tweeted hundreds of thousands of times. And suddenly that comfortable opacity that things that you’re doing are half the word away and no one is going to ever know about it. Those times are rapidly coming to a close. Or even are behind us. That transparency will drive accountability for some of these most egregious practices.
MB There was a survey that was done of fashion CEOs, and the conclusion from this survey, which was an anonymous survey, an anonymous survey—the fashion CEOs pointed to consumers as the ones that are going to drive change in the industry. CEOs aren’t going to one day wake up and say, Oh, we need to entirely change our supply chain and way of doing things. It only comes from consumers asking for it.
O One thing in terms of fashion that was most poignant for me was realizing that most of the clothing I was wearing was literally made from plastic. And what that was doing to my health. I don’t think people realize the toxins that are used in fast fashion a lot of the time. And wearing that every day and inhaling those emissions is actually doing to you. If it’s up to the people to care enough to actually make regulation happen, is that one way in? Is what it’s doing to their own health while wearing the finished project a way in?
MB You know, if we look at other industries like the food industry, change has happened there because the conversation has come from different starting points. You know, “What is the impact of all this fast food having on me?” And now the agricultural conversation is moving to, “What is the impact on climate change?” So, while it might have started with, “I’m not gonna eat a hamburger anymore, I know the health impacts for me,” well now it’s, “I’m doing Meatless Monday because I know environmental impacts of the meat industry.”
LG We have eighty-thousand chemicals in commerce in this country and in the world, and of those eighty-thousand, the government has approved for safety less than a couple of dozen. I’m not exaggerating. And the best analogy that I can give people—who I’m sure find this completely mind boggling, that our government could be so behind the eight-ball on chemical safety determination—is to just look at how long it took for our government to finally decide that tobacco was a problem that caused lung cancer and other cancers.
LG You think that the products being presented to you are safe, and that they’ve been tested in some way, and it becomes just like the wild west with chemical use, which is just kind of terrifying.
MB Yeah. It’s really, really frustrating. There’s sort of an innocent until proven guilty attitude about chemicals. Which is really not the way it should be.
O Is there any way to know whether your clothing has toxic chemicals? Is there any—you know, we have labels of how to clean you clothes, and we have the label that says where it’s made, but is there any label that says…
MB No. And that, in the food space—there was a time, not too long ago, where there were many different competing labels, there was lots of confusion on what was the right food. And it was a dedicated group of citizens that got together to clear up what the standard should be. And petition their government to create an organic standard. So we have to demand these things. We have to ask for these things. And that’s how they get created.
O There are a lot of people—because obviously making sustainable clothing is expensive, it’s not cheap—there are a lot of people in the world that can’t afford to pay that much money for clothing. And so they go to fast fashion outlets because they only have ten dollars and they need a new sweater. How do we fix that problem?
MB I think it’s important to recognize with regard to fast fashion that it’s been spun to us that this is something that’s a great deal and a great value, and I think that there’s a reckoning now of what value is in clothing. We’re seeing that value is not just the price tag of the garment. It’s how that garment is gonna last, it’s what is the re-sell value of that garment. Ultimately, if we think about our purchases in terms of cost-per-wear, versus just the ticket price, we may really evaluate differently our clothing choices. Right now the re-sell market is growing at a faster pace than the fast fashion industry. So this change is happening. I think even a couple of years ago to buy used clothing was kind of poo-poo’d. And now, certainly in the conversations, you know, it’s, like, totally celebrated.
LG But if I went through my closet myself—and I’m not a huge consumer—I think it would be shocking some of the things that I’d bought for a so-called “good deal” that at the end of the day turned out cost-per-wear was really high, versus other things that were built to last, so to speak, and that withstood the test of time, that I’ve worn over and over and over again. And I just think doing something like that with a group of the willing might turn out to be fun for people and really very educational in terms of how they think about their clothing budget, and whether the things that they’re buying in fast fashion stores at a very low cost per item are in fact a waste of money.
OI think the challenge is Instagram. How do we convince people that you don’t need new outfits all the time? That people are going to have already seen in a picture you posted yesterday…
MB I just flew back from LA late last night, and it was funny, because we had that very same conversation, because obviously celebrity culture drives much of this. And there is kind of an interest there to change that narrative. And maybe, you know, be seen at a press tour or an award show in the same outfit. I think Kate Middleton has always been very good with that. I think we’ve seen her, like, two pairs of shoes many times. And I think that’s such a great message to have. That we don’t need to be wearing new things all the time, and that’s just not a very… and I think even if you look at pop culture now, if you look at the success of Marie Kondo and her whole Netflix series, people are overwhelmed by the stuff that they have. I think we as a culture are transfixed by how we are drowning in our own things.
O And I don’t think enough people realize what happens to their clothing after they throw it away.
MB I think there is an assumption or a belief that if you donate your clothes it’s somehow given to the local homeless population. But the donation organizations—they don’t give it away. They can’t even resell it locally. Which is the first step. They are packaged up and sent to areas in the global south, a lot of the summer clothes going to sub-saharan Africa. Meanwhile, those countries are trying to block the dumping of our used clothes into their countries because it’s inhibiting local development. They can’t develop their own textile industry, they can’t progress past being just cotton farmers, because this cheap stuff is being dumped, inhibiting growth there. It actually has become, with the Trump administration, a diplomatic standoff, really. Because those countries have banded together trying to ban the secondhand goods from The U.S. and The U.S. is turning around and saying, “Okay, if you ban our secondhand clothes, we’re going to take away the beneficial trade positions that you have.” So we’re at a point where the rest of the world is saying, “We will no longer take your trash.” And it’s costly from an environmental standpoint, and it’s costly just from a financial standpoint. If you take a look at New York, we have to ship all of our trash along the East Coast. Because we don’t have landfill here anymore. Full.
LG You know, when you put something into a landfill, you just squish it down into a giant pile that is not going to be able to ever biodegrade. I mean, less than one percent of it will biodegrade per year. And so landfill really is disposal. It’s really not a degradation process at all. That’s why our landfills keep filling up and then we have to go on to a new landfill. You know, the only thing that tempers my distaste for recycled plastic garments, is just that there’s no way we can grow enough cotton to replace all the polyester that we use. I mean, right now there’s more polyester clothing than there is cotton clothing. If you think about doubling or even tripling the amount of cotton that we’re growing in the world it’s not a pretty picture either. It really goes to the heart of the need to be buying less clothes, because trying to transfer over to natural fibers has its own huge problems.
O And so at that point does the fashion industry want to become sustainable? Because it is a business, they care about the bottom line, they want people to buy more stuff. So how do we get them on board?
MB The ones perpetuating this complete disposability of clothing are only a few fast fashion companies. So it’s not as if we’re going from only wear your clothing six times, which is what the surveys are finding that women are doing now, to never buy anything again. We still all wear clothes. There’s a growing population. There’s going to be plenty of fashion to go around. It’s just supporting those companies that aren’t doing it at such a pace that you’re only wearing the piece six times. It’s also that clothing is mostly made by women. It’s a lot of women who are some of the least paid workers in the world. And because they are coming from exploited populations, there’s also a lot of modern day slavery, there’s a lot of child labor, and there’s an intersection with sex trafficking as well because it’s a marginalized group of people. And I think if we knew that, we would think about how if we’re buying cheap clothing. Who is getting paid or not getting paid in that system? And I think as we think and grow as a society in the Me Too movement here, if we can think about the women around the world, who are—women drive this business. We drive it because we are the ones buying it, and we drive it because we are the ones making it. And I think that there is a really powerful solidarity that can happen in women helping women bring themselves up. Change can happen really suddenly. A strong group of people can make huge amounts of difference. [Music]
O You’ve been listening to a bonus episode of Dare I Say, a podcast from Harpers Bazaar.
This episode was produced by Steph from EDIT AUDIO.
Please join the call to action at NewStandardInstitute.org. And if there are stories you want to hear from women who inspire you, we want to hear from you. Reach out to us on Twitter at @HaarpersBazarUS and stay tuned for season two.