Can Congress break our addiction to fast fashion?

FILE - Garment employees work at Arrival Fashion Limited in Gazipur, Bangladesh, Saturday, March 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Mahmud Hossain Opu, File)

It may sound histrionic, but Americans’ relationship to fast fashion is nothing short of an addiction.

A House report on fast fashion released last year estimated that 30 percent of packages shipped to the United States under the de minimis provision - meaning they are worth less than $800 and therefore not subject to import tariffs - probably come from Shein and Temu, two megastores whose bread-and-butter are cheap, disposable clothes meant to be ordered up in enormous batches.

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Amid the shrinking middle of shopping, where everything seems to be $10 or $1,000, clothes from these online retailers and mall stalwarts such as Forever 21, Brandy Melville and Zara have become reliable cheap thrills. But just as with any other addiction, the bevy of information about the environmental, health and human rights hazards of these clothes seems to do little to thwart consumers.

In the European Union, especially France, leaders have introduced legislation to encourage fashion brands to adopt more sustainable practices and consumers to do the same. But such regulatory measures have seemed like distant fantasies in the United States. The closest we have come is a bipartisan effort to exempt China from de minimis trade, which would make Shein much more expensive - part of a larger push to scrutinize Chinese-owned businesses that operate in America, such as TikTok, and which some critics decry as Sinophobic.

Now, it seems, Congress is hoping to inspire action. Enter the Slow Fashion Caucus, from Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), announced in partnership with Patagonia and ThredUp, which is dedicated to spreading awareness and crafting legislation that would move us toward a more sustainable, thoughtful mode of shopping and dressing.

“Let’s face it: Climate change has been an abstract concept for people and often confusing, and there’s a lot of misinformation and disinformation out there,” Pingree said in a phone interview this week, “so people are often confused about what to believe. I think we’ve separated fashion from [it].”

She discussed the purpose of the caucus, why this issue deserves government support and what she makes of her colleagues’ efforts to curb Shein’s hold on America’s closets.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

- - -

Q: What does slow fashion mean to you? Your site has information about fast fashion and how destructive that can be to the environment. Is slow fashion just practices that are the opposite of that, or is it something broader?

A: I think it’s the whole level of awareness of all that. And that means things like using more sustainable fibers that can last longer or be recycled. Sometimes that gets into sustainable agriculture, growing more fibers - whether it’s wool or cotton or hemp fibers - things that are diminishing in their availability in this country.

It’s also supporting the whole network of reusing and thrifting. There’s a growing number of businesses, whether they’re online or thrift shops or even [reselling] more high-end clothing or work clothing - [these are] ways of recycling in that way or reusing. Repairing, that’s a big part of it: treating garments like they’re meant to last a lifetime or a long time. You know, we used to get our shoes fixed. We used to get our clothing mended. And there’s an increasing interest in that, and sort of the fashionability of having mended clothes or in the small businesses that do that.

The whole recycling system is so broken in this country. But fabric is one of the more complicated things to [recycle] because the next fibers are difficult to do. The fact is, a lot of the fast fashion out there, it’s literally a fossil-fuel-based product. So you might be a young person who is very engaged in climate change, and you use reusable straws or you believe in solar power, but the clothing that you’re wearing and throwing away might end up as plastic in the ocean or methane gas in a landfill.

Q: Why do you think so many people have that disconnect?

A: Let’s face it: Climate change has been an abstract concept for people and often confusing, and there’s a lot of misinformation and disinformation out there, so people are often confused about what to believe. I think we’ve separated fashion from [it]. Everybody knows it’s a better idea to have a water bottle than to reuse plastic bottles. There are many people who have never looked at the label on their clothing, to realize that they’re wearing plastic clothing, or never thought about the fact that maybe they took it to a thrift shop box, but in fact it was something that ended up not being [sold]. A lot of places will get overwhelmed with the clothing that gets donated, and it just ends up in a landfill or sent to a foreign country where it’s in their landfill or their toxic waste. I think most people don’t think about, “Oh, I bought a piece of clothing that’s polyester, and it may end up, when I throw it away, as a plastic piece in the ocean.”

Q: Adjusting your behavior around food or how you dispose of trash from your household is easier than saying, “I have to be a bit more conscientious about my T-shirts and miniskirt.”

A: It probably has gotten so tied with our self-image and our personal appearance. I think there are all these external factors that have gone into it. And the truth is, with the increase in thrifting, if you like shopping and you want to find the perfect outfit, you might still find it in a thrift shop or an online source that sells reused and repurposed clothing. So it’s still possible to do. It’s not to say people shouldn’t enjoy looking fashionable.

We got caught up in the [pull of], “Oh, I can get a bargain. Gosh, I found this shirt for $6 or, you know, oh, look at this, you know, super cheap outfit I just found,” instead of saying like, “Oh, look at this amazing, durable blazer that I’m going to be able to own and wear to work for 10 years.”

Q: I wonder what you make of the efforts in Congress to stop the import of clothes from Shein?

A: I’m a ranking member on the interior subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee, so I know a lot about recycling in this country. I’m also on the agriculture subcommittee, so I’m interested in the sustainable fabric side. But we’re trying to partner up over time with those of our colleagues on Ways and Means. We’re looking at the de minimis loophole that Shein uses. There are some people who are really interested in the importing of clothing that is made by child labor or exploitative labor. And I think these are all components of this. It’s not just one simple solution.

If we hadn’t modified the de minimis loophole, would Shein have this opportunity to be shipping to our country in a way that really undercuts both American made goods but also just the fabric industry and fashion industry in general?

Q: What do you think it will take for people to break this addiction to fast fashion?

A: I find a lot of things like this, the first that you do is try to raise awareness. Plastic straws is one of those examples. I never thought that getting rid of plastic straws was going to reduce the real impact of climate change. But it was interesting how quickly, when that became a topic in conversation, places moved to paper straws or reusable straws.

Fashion is a little bit that way - putting pressure on those companies. Making them talk about, where do the fibers come from? Who’s making these garments? How do they get disposed of? We’ve been looking a lot at the European laws, and the work that’s being done in the E.U. or U.K. France is one of those countries that’s obviously in the middle of the fashion world. They have more of this circular-economy thinking, and many of the policies about, if you’re going to make this stuff, you’re responsible for what happens with these garments when they’re not being used anymore. France has a really innovative law that literally gives people a credit if they take their clothes to be repaired and mended.

Q: If there were one piece of legislation that you could push through first that would have a significant impact on fast fashion, what would that be?

A: I have no doubt that if we had increased producer responsibility, like a circular-economy kind of bill, that would have the biggest impact of anything we can do. Those are very hard to do because there’s always such a pushback from industry on things. But ultimately, the way you resolve the problem is you say this isn’t a consumer’s problem. This is a company who doesn’t feel responsible for how their products are disposed of.

I also think that, while it’s not my legislation, the de minimis loophole has just created opportunities, particularly with the internet shopping and the way people access goods these days, that has really created a huge pathway for inexpensive, synthetically-based-fabric fashion coming into this country at a scale we can’t even fathom.

Q: My last question: What are you wearing today?

A: Good question. I just took some pictures in a wool blazer, even though, as you know, it’s just too hot [to wear outside]. But I wanted to show off that I have a beautiful wool blazer where I mended the elbow after it wore through. It now looks almost as good as new, and nobody would know. I have a cotton shirt on underneath it which was thrifted through ThredUp.

If I could’ve gotten away with my patched jeans I would have, but I’m just wearing black pants.

Q: Did you patch them yourself?

A: I love mending. I often ask my daughter’s friends if I can mend their clothes. I like to do visible mending, where you can kind of see what you’ve done. I used to be a knitter and a crocheter. I don’t have time for that as much anymore, but I can always find time for fixing things.

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