Author Maxine Bédat on her new book unveiled
Style Points is a weekly column on how fashion intersects with the rest of the world.
Maxine Bédat swears she started with a fairly modest goal: to tell the story of the life of jeans, from a humble cotton plant nestled in the ground to torches hanging in your closet – and even stretch out in their backyard. -that potential as landfill waste. . “It’s not that I set out to connect the dots,” she says of reports across the continent that have taken her everywhere, from a farm in Texas to a factory in Bangladesh and a landfill in Ghana. Nonetheless, these disparate dots come together to tell a story of consumption and waste in his new book Unraveled: The life and death of a garment. “As you tell the story,” she said, “you start to see how these things relate.”
Each exploration took Bedat on a different path, from researching how female garment workers in 19th-century New York City helped develop modern labor protections in the aftermath of the Triangle fire. Shirtwaist, or how the history of cotton production was intertwined with the history of slavery in America. “The history of our clothes helps explain the history of our world,” she says. “I didn’t quite understand this when I left, but I certainly became more aware of it as I wrote.”
Bédat is the founder and director of the New Standard Institute, a non-profit organization that describes itself as a “think and do tank” to raise awareness in the fashion industry. She previously co-founded the ethical e-commerce site Zady, and her experience on this side of the industry has informed her activism and her writings. An issue like workplace safety in factories, for example, “is shrouded in so much secrecy because the companies themselves don’t know and are afraid to know” how their business actually works, she said. She recalls going to a fashion conference where attendees could fill out an anonymous survey about their concerns: “What was keeping these brand managers from sleeping at night?” It was that there was going to be a disaster in a factory they hadn’t even done. know they were stocking up.
Another little-discussed aspect of fashion that she discovered was the afterlife of the clothes we donate, which often go to landfills and even cremated. “There is a complete lack of knowledge, on the part of the companies themselves and even the donation centers, about what happens to clothes once they have been donated or thrown away,” she says. “We have this assumption that it goes somewhere that people will like it, but we have to go beyond that assumption.” While many brands have recently started their own recycling programs to tackle this problem, she says that only “a very, very small percentage can actually be recycled into other garments. Most of it is sorted and then baled and shipped. It’s just a complete fabrication for now, this idea of circularity. I think that’s one of the most dangerous and insidious concepts. “
Before her stints at NSI and Zady, Bédat was a lawyer, which could explain her ability to systematically dismantle some of the most popular greenwashing languages in fashion. She takes issue with the term “sustainability” itself, arguing at one point that there is no such thing as sustainable fashion, just low impact fashion. “It’s not that I want to poop legitimate efforts,” she said. “We need them and we must encourage [them.] But when we call things “sustainable fashion,” we ignore the most important relationship, which is not how the garment is made. It’s our relationship with her; how many times we wear it. This is what motivates the reduction in resources. Bedat is more optimistic about upcycling, which has been used with great success by everyone from Balenciaga to inventive young designers like Conner Ives and Patrick McDowell. “If we’re going to have an industry that exists in the resources of the planet,” she said, “it’s going to come from using existing materials.”
Another, less tangible problem that Bédat draws from is how the fashion industry has conditioned us to want ever newer things. At one point, she notes, we may have only seen desirable images of potential purchases once a month in magazines. Now, thanks to the internet and social media, we see them constantly (and people are already shopping during the post-pandemic rush.) When I mention in passing that people naturally want new things, Bedat points out how much this is. which is actually due to conditioning on nature. “It’s not like we want new things all the time. We just get a lot of messages to buy things all the time,” she says. Social media then becomes a self-reinforcing feedback loop, prompting us to prioritize “cost per like” over cost per wear. She has particularly scathing words for celebrities and influencers who urge their followers to constantly buy, buy, buy: “Getting a brand deal is their way of having home next to the billionaire, but what? does this actually do for the world? “
That said, our personal consumption is far from the only factor at play – there’s also the question of what we can accomplish with our own basic tactics. The final chapter of the book focuses on the political action people can take, refreshingly moving beyond the “carbon footprint” model of placing all responsibility on individuals. Businesses, she notes, want us “to see ourselves as consumers beyond our role as citizens.” Bedat does not want despair to be the conclusion of his book; she also wants to give us solutions. What she was trying to do “was to explain where things are now in an unvarnished way, but in doing so also explain that we have the power to change these things.
“The book,” she insists, “isn’t meant to be depressing.”
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