Rescuing fashion from consumerism through a gospel perspective
Judy lee | August 5, 2019 | 5 MIN READ
On April 24, 2013, Rana Plaza, a building that housed garment factories in Dhaka District, Bangladesh, collapsed. 1,134 people were killed, most of them workers who produced clothes for the fast fashion industry.
Following this disaster, a group of advocates banded together to fight the devastating consequences of the fast fashion industry. They formed Fashion Revolution, which encourages both consumers and designers to support ethical and sustainable clothing manufacturing processes.
Although the movement is not a Christian organization, it echoes a call for believers to steward of God’s creation and see the effects of consumerism on our environment and fellow humans. Learning about this group challenged me to ask: What is our role as Christians in fashion, and to what extent should we care? Do we really need to research every label we buy and fork over $50 for an ethically-made T-shirt?
There are certainly active Christian members in the ethical fashion movement who have tackled the issue from a faith-based perspective. College students Michy Moran and Rachel Surgalski gave me insight into what role ethical fashion has played in their lives.
1. Why did you get involved in ethical fashion?
Rachel: Through documentaries, fellow advocates, and scholarly articles, I've learned of the true impact passive consumerism has had on the planet and on humanity. I now know that fast-fashion contributes to the degradation of our planet's water, air, and also contributes to deforestation. I've learned that fast-fashion brands depend on the exploitation and enslavement of (majority) women and children of color. Often, this exploitation or enslavement has resulted in the abuse, beatings, and deaths of thousands of defenseless people.
At my core, I'm someone who claims to love the one triune God. As such, I believe that humans have been given the responsibility to be good stewards of the earth and of the wildlife in it (Gen 1:26; Gen 2:15; Ps 24:1; Num 35:33) . I also believe we have also been given the imperative to love one another (Mark 12:31; Matt 22:36-40). Therein, I believe that caring for the earth, wildlife, and one another is good and pleasing to God. Irrefutably, passive consumerism of a fashion industry that thrives and exists off of the abuse, exploitation, and destruction of human, animal, and plant life (as well as our air and water ways), is completely incongruent with a Christian lifestyle.
2. What do you think is the most important thing for Christians to be aware about in regards to ethical fashion? Do you think this is an important issue for Christian?
Michy: I absolutely think this is an important issue for Christians. We are called to love the least and correct injustice. The fast fashion industry relentlessly oppresses vulnerable people and takes far more than it should from our planet, affecting everyone. As people called to serve and love the least, we cannot abide by this. I think the most important thing for Christians to know is that they can make an impact. Shopping at ethical brands, wearing clothes until they fall apart, and buying second-hand clothing are all ways that Christians can use their money in a responsible way to make a difference.
My faith informs my care for others and the planet. Stewarding what I have been given is a vital part of my faith. In a world where my clothing choice can affect someone on the other side of the world, what I’ve been given to steward is much larger than just money. I have the opportunity to care for others with something as simple as clothing. I believe that to use our money any other way is to steward what we have been given poorly.
3. What is your role/involvement with Fashion Revolution? Can you tell me a little about what that experience was like?
Rachel: I am all about the Fashion Revolution. I live my day-to-day life as an advocate and representative for it in how I interact with the fashion industry, how I vote with my dollar, and how I share what I learn with those around me. As a Resident Advisor [at Biola University], I hosted a screening of The True Cost, one of the most informative documentaries I've been able to find on the subject. Of course, my advocacy has come with its ups and downs. It has been exponentially easier for me to apply lifestyle changes to myself, as an individual.
However, in communicating the detrimental social, political, economic, and environmental impacts of the fast-fashion industry to those within my community, I have been disappointed to see the lack of empathy my peers have had for these issues. It has saddened me deeply to witness some of my friends continue on in willful ignorance, turning a blind eye to (what I consider) gross injustices.
After watching The True Cost myself, I finally came to the conclusion of why I had struggled with falling headlong into the concept of ethical fashion. Being ethical wasn’t the problem. On the contrary, I still very much believed that humane and environmental practices of manufacturing clothing was the best way to exemplify Christ in this industry.
The problem, however, with terms like “ethical fashion” and “fast fashion” is that neither sound like they have anything to do with fashion at all. Instead, the issues they pose have to do with the process of manufacture of clothing, not its aesthetic value — what I always thought to be the definition of fashion.
Through research and these interviews, I learned the core issue at the heart of fast fashion: it has tethered the true art of fashion to the consumer industry. Consumerism has ruined the inherent artistic value of fashion by turning a necessity into a commodity. Fashion is no longer simply a unique self-expression or creative outlet, but a product to be sold to the masses. That’s why trends and advertisements are so vital to the industry; people need to feel like they’ll be fulfilled and happy if only they buy these products. The more beautiful, happy people they see with the latest shoes or accessories, the more we think we need them, too.
What was missing from the secular version of these ethical campaigns found in The True Cost was the Gospel — at least directly. It was present in another sense, in that stewarding our resources well and advocating for justice and humanity is a model for Christ-like living. But ethics isn’t the only question here; for believers, it comes to the quintessential question of where our heart lies: with the things that we consume (our clothes) or with our Gospel-rooted identities. It’s not just a matter of lives being harmed on this Earth, but a matter of the soul. The consumer heart shows exactly where the human heart would be without Christ: empty and constantly needing that new something to fill its void. That’s why industries like fashion is so powerful and dangerous: it gives the perfect excuse for finding that satisfaction in something we all “need.”
Practicing ethical fashion is a sure step in the right direction; but even The True Cost points to a bigger root problem with the consumer industry. The reason underpaid workers in developing countries are suffering is the greed and materialism of our first-world solution for filling that void in our hearts. The reason companies want to cut corners and compromise safety and environmental hazards is because wealth has become an idol. But they aren’t the only ones responsible: We buyers play just as big a part in helping the commercial wheel turn. As Gospel advocates, our job is then even bigger: redefining fashion so it may return to its true beauty of creative self-expression and artistic diversity, letting God’s gift shine the way it should without the looming chain and ball of a price tag to define its value, and freeing fashion to be fashion, not a factory. Maybe when we take a step back from this consumer shadow we’ll see ourselves in true light. We’ll see the value we have in Christ who owns us, rather than in what we own.
Judy Lee is a English Writing major at Biola University. She serves for the Youth Ministry at New Life Presbyterian Church of Orange County, and is a lover of all things Shane & Shane, iced coffee, Asian food, and the color peach. She is currently working on her first novel. Her fashion blogs and writing can be found on her Instagram and website, The Urban Royal.