Maxine Bédat: 'Once a symbol of freedom and Americana, the true story of jeans reveals so much more about our society'

·4-min read
Maxine Bédat, director of the New Standard Institute and author of "Unraveled - The Life and Death of a Garment."

From Texas farms to Amazon warehouses, in "Unraveled - The Life and Death of a Garment," Maxine Bédat follows the journey of a pair of jeans, highlighting the opacity of the world's second-most polluting industry. ETX Studio caught up with the author and New Standard Institute director, who recalls her investigation and urges the fashion industry to reinvent itself now and to move away from "disposable fashion" as much as possible.

Why did you decide to specifically focus on jeans in your book?
Jeans are a universal item that we all have. I'm wearing them right now. Our jeans once stood as a symbol of freedom and Americana, but their true story reveals so much more about our society.

Beyond the highly polluting production process, which consumers are now beginning to be aware of, there is also the issue of the working conditions of artisans and textile workers. Can you tell us more?
I think one of the most eye-opening aspects for me was how the machine-like work of garment workers is very similar to the machine-like work of Amazon distribution workers, and both have become integral players in the fashion industry. No matter where that work takes place, it's dehumanizing. People are literally expected to operate like machines. We need to have a serious think about whether those are the kind of jobs we want to have in society. It's not just that the pay is horrible -- which it is -- it's that the work itself is undignified. And this type of mechanized labor -- of treating people like machines -- got its start in the plantations of the American South. Do we really want a labor system with roots in slavery? I would argue, of course not.

One of the issues you write about is the end of life of clothes, burnt in Africa. How does one explain the fact that the African continent bears the brunt of this pollution head-on?
It ties back to unfettered markets. When we give away our clothes, only a tiny fraction is resold domestically. Much of it is sorted -- women's summer tops, men's jeans -- and put in a bail and shipped to the Global South, where those markets are left to deal with it. This is also part of what has displaced local textile production. For us, it's out of sight out of mind, but then the developing world is burdened with our excesses.

What upset you the most about this investigation?
There wasn't one part. It was all of it together. Standing on top of the burning mountain of clothing trash, and thinking back to all my travels, visiting the farmers in Texas, the textile producers in China, the garment workers in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, the Amazon workers in the US, the shoppers in France and America who, once we dug into things, demonstrated a very challenging relationship with clothing, all of these resources for a thing that will end up being tossed out. And all just to make a few people -- a few white men, it should be noted -- very rich, while leaving everyone else wanting. But it was not all upsetting, in fact I came out of the book delighted to re-engage as a citizen, to know that my voice really matters, that there have been powerful voices trying to keep us distracted by stuff because they knew our power as citizens. So I know that we can address these things, we just have to learn this story.

The book focuses on the fashion industry's opacity, and you indicate that it's getting worse. But haven't there been significant developments in awareness and improvements made since the start of the pandemic?
There has been significant talk of change, but nothing that can be measurably addressed. In fact, during the pandemic, many brands cancelled orders that were already in development. So there is a lot of talk, as brands see that their customers care, but this has not yet led to measurable impact.

It was believed for years that low-cost products could be quality ones. How can the public be made aware that this is actually impossible?
I myself was a disposable fashion shopper for years, the journey into the book and into my current work is because I was the shopper with a closet overflowing with clothes, and yet I constantly had the feeling like I had nothing to wear. I think people know that the clothing is not [good] quality, and they can read the book to dive in [to the subject] more.

What does the fashion industry need to work on to reverse the trend and significantly reduce its impact on the planet?
We have to move away from business models built on disposability, companies like SHEIN and H&M that are based on trends that are short-lived. We will never be able to exist within the natural bounds of the planet and stop exploiting workers with these business models. They must end.

Christelle Pellissier

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