By Christian Birky
The Power of Getting Dressed
In 2016, Christian was asked to give a TEDx talk. The night before [shh it was a particularly chaotic period with the startup!], we were scrambling to map out our thoughts on “Why Fashion Matters: The Power of Getting Dressed.’ We identified four myths that are getting in the way of industry change, and we think they hold true several years later. Below is the transcription of that talk.
Who in this room is wearing clothing? Raise your hand. If you didn’t, I’m going to assume you’re sleeping - not naked!
I’ve spent most of my life focused on social and environmental justice issues, so naturally when I graduated I started a clothing company. This jump from politics to fashion came as a surprise to some people close to me, but I really believe that what we wear matters.
See, the fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world. One in six jobs globally are tied back to the fashion industry, yet <3% of the clothing worn in the USA is made in the USA; that’s down from 98% in the 1960s. We’ve outsourced manufacturing jobs in the pursuit of cheap, unregulated labor and lower prices on consumer goods.
Now, fashion doesn’t have a monopoly on labor abuses or toxins, it just happens to have an abundance of them. And it’s also very personal; we all wear clothes, and we think about ourselves and how others perceive us. This emotional connection combined with the vast scale of the industry can make fashion an important part of changing the world as we know it. I want to start with four myths that are getting in the way of that change.
The first myth is that somehow we can separate ourselves from the clothing we wear. In 2013, a factory collapse in Bangladesh killed over a thousand workers. It was one of the worst tragedies in garment industry history, and actually 3 of the worst 4 have happened in the last 4 years. At the time, I was working on social justice but had a closet full of clothing made in slavelike and toxic conditions. There was a disconnect between how I was trying to live and the way I was getting dressed.
I felt guilty and that guilt was healthy because it changed the way that I behaved, but I don’t think that guilt is the key to changing this broken system. I think we need to find things that we’re excited about and move towards them. Just like I feel bad putting on something made in a sweatshop, I feel great putting on something that represents and lives out the values that I stand by.
The second myth is that sustainability is somehow extra. I believe strongly that environmental stewardship and fair working conditions are not bonuses; they’re the way things should be. I don’t think we should designate businesses that do things right as sustainable or as responsible. Rather, business that exploit workers, that pollute water and that create products designed to be tomorrow’s waste - that’s not business as usual, that’s criminal.
I don’t think we have a right to a lot of stuff, but I do think we have a right to products that are not made at the expense of fellow human beings.
The third myth is that somehow we can buy happiness. Clothing can add meaning to an already balanced life, but clothing alone will not give life meaning. Study after study shows that with more stuff we’re not any happier, we just have more clutter.
This presents us with the opportunity to have less but to really love the items that we do have; to pay more and buy quality products that represent what we stand for. That’s important because our current expectations around price are set in a system that relies on exploitation to keep prices low. And it’s not just 5 to 10% more expensive to do things right, it’s often 5 to 10 times more expensive.
I want to make it clear that I don’t think having less stuff but paying more for sustainability is a sacrifice; no, it’s a shortcut to focusing on the things that matter in life. We often use fashion as a tool to search for some level of external validation, chasing status through logos and trends, but fashion is at its most powerful when it represents who we are inside and what we stand for and hold dear.
The final myth is that this is the way it has to be. I strongly believe that we can break this addiction to consumption, that we can produce in ways that are regenerative and not destructive.
I look to the organic food movement; I remember as a kid growing up in a small town in Michigan and my mother asking the grocery store manager if there were any organic options, and him looking at her with this blank look, but now a decade and a half later, that store is filled with organic options. Just look at what’s happened here with locally grown food in the last decade. We as a culture have created problems around exploitation and pollution. That means they’re entirely human constructs; there’s no law that says this is how we have to act. We’ve created these businesses and these values, and we can change them.
I want you to raise your hand if you could not buy any clothes for the next month without a problem. Do you think you could go a full year without adding anything to your closet and still walk around with a shirt on your back? Good; I know that I could. That puts us in a special position. It means that we don’t have immediate needs; it means that we have the power of choice, and that’s a privilege and also a responsibility.
It’s not up to those at the bottom of the system to change it, it’s up to us. What does this personal change look like? It’s different for each of us, but this is what I found helpful. I remember finding out about that factory collapse in Bangladesh and wanting to throw out my entire wardrobe. I quickly realized that  I couldn’t afford it, and  the most sustainable clothing is what’s already in my closet. So I set out, knowing I didn’t have any immediate needs, to purposefully invest in things that I loved. I don’t have room in my life, and neither do you, for things that don’t excite you. And I know that for me, I can’t get excited about something that doesn’t match how I want to live my life.
I would encourage you to take this responsibility and not think of it as a burden, but to recognize this as an opportunity to make meaningful choices, meaningful contributions, and focus on what matters in life.
-Christian Birky, TEDx