June 27, 2008

How green is sustainable fashion?

At the school bookstore the other day, I discovered a little gem of a book that's become my Omnivore's Dilemma of apparel. Has Michael Pollan discovered fashion? No, alas... but the second best thing is Georgetown economist Petra Rivoli's The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, a delightful romp around the world in search of the origins of a hideous souvenir T-shirt she picked up in Florida. The book ends up being a defense of free trade and the globalized economy as a liberating force for third-world citizens, with Rivoli traveling to China to see where the T-shirt is made, Tanzania to see where it goes in its afterlife, and, most surprisingly, Texas to see where the cotton is grown, with historical background encompassing Industrial Revolution-era England and the plantation-era Old South, as well as the origins of the arcane US import quotas.

Certainly, the obvious solution to the sustainable fashion problem is this: Buy fewer clothes. Unfortunately, that message doesn't move a lot of product, so it's not a popular one from a marketing standpoint. Rivoli, a classically trained economist, would disagree: In her telling, which ignores production waste, pollution, and clothes sent to the landfill at the end of their lives, each T-shirt sent to the Salvation Army goes on to a new life either as a vintage "jewel" in Japan, or at a street stall in Africa, where it becomes part of a fascinating informal economy that she insists is not putting the African textile industry out of business, but is instead fostering a population of small-scale entrepreneurs.

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