Have you ever wondered if there are more parts of the discussion surrounding the ethics of fast fashion? What about the fibers themselves, specifically the genetically modified ones? With fibers used in clothing being genetically modified more and more, we must begin to consider the ethical implications of the modification itself and of consuming garments containing these modified fibers. This paper continues the conversation by discussing these issues and explores the technologies used to genetically engineer fibers, the environmental implications, the ethical implications of genetically modifying life and the impacts on the different stakeholders using values and principles of ethics.
Every April 24th, Fashion Revolution holds Fashion Revolution Day in memory of the 1,133 workers who were killed in the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh in 2013, occurring a few years ago on the very date. Fashion Revolution is a global movement which unites people and organizations to change the way clothes are sourced, produced and consumed. On April 24, 2015, activists took to the busy Alexanderplatz located in Berlin, Germany to set up a social experiment. A vibrant turquoise vending machine was set up in the busy public square attracting bargain hungry consumers. As consumers, often in groups of two or more, inserted their coins and selected their sizes, they expected a plain black or white tee shirt to come out of the machine and go along about their day. Before the 2€ ($2.13 USD) shirt was dispensed, an image flashed across the screen. The text read: “Meet Manisha: one of millions, making our cheap clothing, for as little as 13 cents an hour, each day for 16 hours.” With a stunned face, the consumers in the video were then asked the question, “do you still want to buy this 2€ t-shirt?” They were then given the choice to buy the shirt or donate the 2€.
The ever-present narrative surrounding the ethical implications of production, consumerism and waste in the fashion industry, has attracted much attention. This social experiment highlights two of the most prevalent ethical issues in the fashion industry: fast fashion and environmental impacts. Through campaigns, articles, social media posts and more, Fashion Revolution and similar organizations such as the Clean Clothes Campaign, Greenpeace and BRAC educate interested consumers in the impacts of the garment industry in our society. In 2015, a documentary entitled The True Cost was released with the hopes of spreading awareness on this important issue. Consumers were still left with questions such as: how do we prevent furthering this problem? How can our decisions as consumers promote change in the industry’s practices? What are other factors we are not accounting for? The final question is what is at the heart of this paper. As social media continues to play a vital role in combating these issues, as well as awareness and activism, another piece of technology has the potential to complicate matters—genetic modification.
Since 1972, scientists have built upon the work of Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen, the first scientists to splice DNA of one organism to another, by finding ways to genetically modify fibers used in the production of clothing.
Often, the garment factory workers have been at the forefront of discussions on the ethical implications present in the garment industry. If consumers were also made aware of the farmers of the genetically modified cotton who were involved in the production of garments, herders of cashmere goats and people who spin silk fibers into threads, would they not also be concerned about them? Currently genetic modification is occurring in fibers used in the production of clothing. The various implications, ethical, societal and economic are often overshadowed by the concerns of ethical consumption of clothing.
We are moving into a time where our clothing has a unique genome of its own. With the many implications of genetic modification, it is essential that consumers, scientists and policy-makers alike become aware of the ethical implications brought on by yet another use of this technology. This lack of discussion surrounding bioethics in the garment industry, namely, the genetic modification of natural fibers used for clothing, has the potential to lead us down the wrong path. For that reason, this paper will look at the intersection of conversations on ethical consumption of clothing, genetic modification and the clothing industry’s impacts on the environment, culminating in a discussion told through the lens of the interdisciplinary field of bioethics. This paper will look at three genetically modified fibers, each coming from a different organism: Bt cotton, silk from transgenic silkworms and genetically engineered cashmere to answer essential question: is it ethically permissible to genetically modify natural fibers for clothing?
This paper will compare and contrast dilemmas raised by genetic modification of the fibers of three difference sources—plants, insects and animals. Before diving into these ethical questions as well as the others listed previously, a background on the technology and methods used to alter each fiber will be given. Following this section will be individual sections detailing the modifications of each organism.
BACKGROUND OF METHODS OF MODIFICATION AND FIBERS
Two technological innovations allowed for the creation of the genetically modified fibers: The introduction of gene insertion laid the groundwork for genetically modified Bt cotton and transgenic silkworms. A technology called CRISPR-Cas9 was used to alter the genome of cashmere goats producing the genetically engineered cashmere. CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is means of genetic engineering that allows edits on parts of organisms’ genomes by adding, removing or altering DNA in the sequence.
CRISPR has revolutionized genetic engineering by allowing for living cells and organisms to be genetically engineered. Francisco Mojica discovered CRISPRs first in archaea and later in bacteria. They are made up of repeating sequences of genetic code that contain “spacer sequences” which are remnant of the genetic codes of their past invaders. It is a genetic memory that helps a cell detect and destroy invaders known as bacteriophage once they return. In 2013, Feng Zhang published the first method to edit mouse and human cells by engineering CRISPR.
Toward the end of the 20th century to today, the garment and textile industries have begun to use more cotton. Cotton production occurs between 36° South latitude and 46° North latitude. Flax, wool and cotton have been used by mankind for the past 5,000+ years. Until the 18th century, 78% of the fibers used for clothing were wool, 18% flax (used in linen) and 4% cotton. Today, cotton makes up 48% of textile production uses cotton, 45% synthetic fabrics and the remaining is other fibers including silk and cashmere.
In 1996, Monsanto introduced Bollgard cotton was introduced into the United States. The plant revolutionized agriculture as one of the first genetically modified crops, others-corn, soybeans and tomatoes had been genetically modified in years prior. Though it has a very similar physical appearance to conventional cotton, its genome is very different. Bollgard cotton, often referred to as Bt cotton is a Monsanto crop containing the Bacillus thuringiensis soil bacterium which acts as an insecticide. In 1911, Japanese biologist Shigetane Ishiwatari isolated the bacterium. Four years later in 1915, farmers began using Bt as a pesticide. It was then registered as a pesticide by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA). The bacterium protects pests against pests such as the pink bollworm and tobacco budworm which were responsible for killing the plant.
In 2003, Bollgard II cotton was introduced. This variety is referred to as Ht cotton. The plant contains a trait making it tolerant to certain commonly used herbicides. Though the two varieties have increased yields worldwide over the past twenty years, in the future, , these varieties will no longer be effective means of preventing yield decreases, as insects and weeds develop to resist the Bt toxin and/or herbicides. Currently, nearly ninety percent of the cotton from grown worldwide is Bt cotton.
As the demand for silk has increased, methods of mass production of silk have turned producers to dyes containing harsh chemicals. Dying of silk has led to great use of water and chemicals which has negatively impacted the environment and communities. In this decade, we see methods used to dye the fibers. This luxurious fiber has been used to make clothing since around 3000 BCE. Naturally sourced dyes such as indigo have been used to make garments of silk beautifully colored. Silk is produced by harvesting the cocoons of silkworms which still contain the larvae. They are then softened in order for the threads they contain to be reeled. About 6,000 cocoons are needed to produce one kilogram of silk. Singapore’s Institute of Materials Search and Engineering (IMRE) developed way to replace standard methods of dying for colored silk, in 2011. By feeding silkworms a diet of mulberries treated with fluorescent dye in last four days of the larva stage, they turn the color of dye they are fed. This has become a more environmentally friendly and cost effective process for adding color to the silk.
In 2013, scientists Tetsuya Iizuka and Toshiki Tamura of National Institute of Agrobiological Sciences, located in Ibaraki, Japan, genetically modified the silkworms to produce fluorescent, glowing threads. By inserting the genes jellyfish and coral into the gene responsible for the production of silk protein fibron, Iizuka and Tamura initially produced 20,000 transgenic. Silkworms in green were produced using the genes of a jellyfish, red, using the genes of Discoma coral, and orange, using the genes of Fungia concinna coral. The silk changes color within hours. The color is transmitted to silk of cocoons (particularly the fibroin or core filament). Once spun, the silk remains vibrant under fluorescent light for over two years while color is less noticeable under other types of light.
Because the production of this silk fabric is a complex process, Tamura argues that it could be slightly more expensive than other silk fabrics. This is due to the inability to use normal method of heating the cocoons to 100 degrees C to produce these fibers because the heat destroys the fluorescent proteins. Additionally, the genetically engineered silk is weaker than normal silk. Instead of heating, the cocoons can be softened and reeled using a weak alkaline solution and heating to a lower temperature in a vacuum. In 2013, there was only a slim chance of never genetically modified fabrics, specifically GM silk, being available for consumers
GENETICALLY ENGINEERED CASHMERE
Cashmere is fine wool sourced from second undercoat of the Cashmere goat. Only growing in harsh winter conditions called dzud, it is fine and short as opposed to the coarse and thick outer hair. The fine wool of four goats produces enough fibers to produce one sweater. Due to the specific environmental conditions present in Mongolia and China, the fiber is primarily sourced in these regions. For this reason, these regions, specifically China, are the world’s top producer of cashmere. It is estimated by National Conservatory that over 100 million cashmere goats are herded in China.
The luxurious fiber is responsible for $4,279,400,000 of $64,191,000,000 (4€ billion of 60€ billion) global market. Recently, as companies such as Uniqlo and H&M have begun offering pure cashmere knitwear starting at $79.90 and $100 respectively, the once highly expensive fiber has become available to many. Luxury brands are selective in where they source cashmere and usually source fibers for their products from Mongolia and Inner Mongolia where they look for finer, longer and whiter cashmere fibers.
Over the past few years, modernization and climate change have been responsible for a shortage of cashmere. The herding lifestyle has become less favorable because it is easier to raise goats for meat than for cashmere because diet shift toward meat. The impacts of climate change are affecting global cashmere supplies and are likely to get worse. Because of the limited geographies and natural grasslands needed for cashmere production, it is left vulnerable by environmental change. China, which was interested in higher-yield Cashmere goat to improve dominance in cashmere market, decided to make changes to the goat.
Chinese scientists genetically modified cashmere goats to produce more of the fiber. As a result, the Shanbei Cashmere Goat Farm of Yulin University in China genetically engineered the goat to produce more fibers. Using CRISPR-Cas9, the team disabled the FGF5 gene, which is responsible for limits on hair growth. This modification has allowed the goats to produce one third more cashmere than the half a pound per goat produced without the modification. In Fall 2016, scientists have studied six of these goats in detail as they’ve aged. They found that disabling the gene has increased the length of coarse outer hair and finer inner hair. The undercoats were longer and more numerous but not necessarily thicker.
In the garment industry, cues are taken from the fashion industry similarly to how the food industry often takes cues from the health industry. Consumers have certain values, styles and lifestyles, causing them to purchase certain items over others; together, different types of consumers create what can be thought of as the portrait of the consumer. Because these modifications were largely driven by demand for the three fibers being studied, it is best to consider certain consumer values that feed into an overall ethical thread.
This section will cover the ethical implications in four areas, each pertaining to a different part of the ethical discussion. Each fiber will be highlighted in one area of the discussion and all three culminate in the fourth and final part of the discussion. The first part will discuss the implications of editing nature, a question particularly relevant to transgenic silkworms; the second, a discussion of Bt cotton considers the impacts on the stakeholders—consumers, growers and producers; the third, a consideration of the environmental impacts, focuses on all three fibers, with a strong emphasis on genetically engineered cashmere; the final part discusses labeling of clothing containing genetically modified fibers. There will be little reference to the ethicality harming of animals.
EDITING NATURE-TRANSGENIC SILK WORMS
Since genetically engineered crops became available for human and animal consumption, there has been a debate regarding whether or not these crops are natural. Consumers are concerned about the potential health risks posed by eating crops containing the genes of other organisms. Because genetically modified foods have only existed for a little more than twenty years, scientists have been unable to study the long term risks or benefits of consuming and producing the crops. However, with the exception of cotton, which people regularly consume in the form of cotton seed oil, there are no concerns raised about the use of genetically engineered fibers. Instead, there are concerns about allergies caused by fibers engineered with the DNA of other organisms. Some are allergic to Bt cotton’s bacterium while others allergic to certain seafood may have adverse reactions to genetically modified silk containing jellyfish genes.
Similar to the silkworm, in 2000, Alba the rabbit was genetically modified to glow in the dark for display at an art exhibit. Scientists inserted green fluorescent protein (GFP) into the zygote of an albino rabbit producing an organism that glowed under blue light. The creation of Alba sparked many discussions regarding the ethicality of using genetic engineering for the purpose of art rather than for medical or agricultural purposes. There are some consumers who are not opposed to genetic modification for the “right reasons”—treating life threatening diseases and producing enough food to feed the growing population. In this particular case, some see this genetic modification as an act of playing God.
In ethics, the notion of playing God refers to humans taking on God’s role to create or prevent something that is naturally occurring. Because God did not create silkworms to produce colorful threads naturally, the act of modifying silkworms to produce fluorescent thread can be seen as playing God. For a consumer who enjoys unique garments such as the glowing wedding dresses, this may seem appealing. Others think humans do not have the right to tamper with God’s creation. Instead, some believe that instead of genetic engineering, species that thrive should be determined by natural selection.
As for the slippery slope this may create, we must look at where we are now and where we can go from here. If we allow modifications such as those that made Alba the rabbit and silkworm thread glow, we could open the door for future modifications to life. We may see in the future cashmere goats that produce more cashmere that is dyed pink before it is spun. Farmers could possibly grow cotton plants that contain the scent of left by dryer sheets and/or laundry detergents before the thread is even spun. By determining that it is ethical to edit the natural world in such ways, we open up the potential for these modifications to occur. It can also be said that there are ways to achieve these changes without altering the genome of an organism. Silk like cotton thread can be dyed to be glow-in-the-dark once it is spun from the white thread a silkworm naturally produces. As for Alba, an image of an albino rabbit could have been photo-shopped to make it appear to be glowing in the dark.
ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS- GENETICALLY ENGINEERED CASHMERE GOATS
In response to climate change, cashmere goats have been genetically modified to produce more cashmere per goat. Theoretically, having goats that produce more fiber means we would require fewer goats to sustain the current demand for cashmere. However, the fast fashion market has already started exploiting the potential of genetically modified cashmere to produce affordable cashmere clothing. Not only does this raise questions over the ethics of fast fashion and factories which will be discussed later on in the discussion on stakeholders but it also contributes to the existing environmental impacts the garment industry has on the environment. When determining the ethicality of producing genetically modified cashmere, the ethical theory of consequentialism can be applied. Consequentialism states that the morality of an action is to be judged solely by its consequences.
With the introduction of genetically modified fibers, the potential for the garment industry to pollute the environment is high. Yet there also is the potential to lessen the impact of the garment industry on our environment. In an ideal world, producing cashmere from genetically modified goats would be positive for the environment. Take, for instance, a herder who produces twenty pounds of wool with his forty non-genetically modified cashmere goats. If he were to switch to herding the Shanbei breed, he would only need to herd thirty goats to produce a little over twenty pounds of wool. On a larger scale, the one hundred million goats estimated to be herded in Mongolia and Inner Mongolia producing approximately fifty million pounds, could be reduced to 74,626,866 goats—twenty-five million fewer goats. However, the idea of having fewer goats that produce more wool is unrealistic. Because the market is dependent on securing dominance over competitors, if a herder were able to afford to, he would herd more goats. This leads us back to the same issue we started with—cashmere goats damaging root systems and contributing to the desertification. Additionally, the increase in yields leads to an increase in production of clothing that contains these fibers; in turn, more clothing waste.
The textile and garment industry is the second largest polluter of clean water in the world after the agricultural industry and the second most polluting industry after the oil industry. Environmentalists, conscious shoppers and the garment industry itself have seen the grave impacts the industry has on the environment. The production of clothing and fibers use many of our freshwater resources and contaminate water with bleaches, solvents, acids, alkalis, dyes, inks, resins, softeners and fluorocarbons. Most of these emissions are caused by the production of synthetic fibers but production of natural fibers also contributes to pollution. Fast fashion has created a system where consumers purchase items every season and often dispose of them. Though consumers feel as if they have been conscious by donating clothes, only about ten percent of donated clothes end up being repurposed; the other ninety percent end up in landfills. These landfills often sit in the same third world countries where clothing is produced, leading to impacts on the health of people who live there.
IMPACTS ON STAKEHOLDERS- Bt COTTON
In 2013, the Plant Money team at National Public Radio (NPR) had a special series report heard on Morning Edition titled “Planet Money Explores the Economics of T-Shirts”. In this series of video reports, the Plant Money team made gray t-shirts for their team with the graphic of a squirrel, while following the process and speaking to the people involved in it. The series featured five chapters titled “Cotton”, “Machines”, “People”, “Boxes” and “You”. These chapters highlighted the farmers who grow the cotton used in our clothing, the machines that produce the fabric, the people who manufacture our garments, the boxes that are used to ship the finished garments to the United States and the consumer’s role in this process.
This section of the paper will not cover all of the steps NPR’s Planet Money discussed in their videos but only the ones that are relevant to this particular discussion of stakeholders—the producers of cotton, the people who produce the garments and the consumer.
Farmers and Garment Factory Workers
With regard to the cotton farmers and the factory workers who produce our garments, the value of safety must be addressed. As mentioned earlier, consumers are extremely concerned about their safety when consuming genetically modified foods because there is little to no information on the long term impacts their consumption has on the human body. Similarly, consumers have become aware of the impact the to purchase fast fashion has on the safety of the factory workers who produce these garments. The safety of farmers who produce the cotton and the communities they live in also needs to be taken into account.
Consider purchasing a tee shirt. Every time you make a transaction for a fifteen dollar tee shirt, it decreases one garment from the store’s supply. As the supply begins to go down as others purchase the same tee shirt, an order is placed for more tee shirts. This means that farmers and farm workers must go into fields where they are breathing in chemicals to pick the fiber manually or using a machine. Once the fabric is made using heavy machinery, garment factory workers, often teenage girls and young women, work long hours for little pay in factories that are often over-crowded and in buildings that are old and in need of repair. We must ask ourselves whether a fifteen dollar tee shirt is worth the impacts on the safety of farmers and garment industry workers.
Dr. Vandana Shiva, a scholar, environmental activist and anti-globalization author from India, has remarked upon the negative impacts caused by the creation and selling of Bt cotton. In The True Cost and in the various works she has published, she explains that the monopolization of Monsanto’s cotton seeds and the prices that are 17,000% more than organic cotton seeds has led to great problems in India. The safety of Indian garment workers has been compromised due to the debt accumulated by purchasing Bt cotton seeds. The debt, in turn, has led many farmers to commit suicide. Over the past 16 years, according to Shiva, there have been 250,000 recorded farmer suicides in India. Poor farmers, mainly in the Punjab region where most Indian cotton is grown, have been deceived into believing that by planting these seeds, their yields will increase. Yet pests have become resistant to the Bt cotton seeds, so their yields have not increase but rather stayed the same. To prevent decreases, farmers must spray more pesticides, which add to their accumulation of debt.
In the United States, there is little evidence that cotton farmers have committed suicide like their Indian counterparts. However, what unites the experience of these farmers who seem worlds away is the impact growing genetically modified cotton has on the environment. The use of pesticides and water has been linked cancer, birth defects, mental illness and other health problems. Additionally, the water run-off from farms contains pesticides with harsh chemicals that contaminate local water sources. As farmers produce more fiber to meet the demands of garment manufacturers, farmers are forced to compete in the market and have their safety compromised.
Globalization has meant that farmers overseas are paying the environmental cost of consumers’ desire for fast fashion. Beginning in the 1970s, clothing retailers in the United States began to stray away from domestic manufacturing and started outsourcing production to other countries. Today, approximately ninety-seven percent of our clothing is manufactured in countries with low-cost economies, meaning wages are low and do not tend to increase over time. India, China, Bangladesh and Colombia have become the top producers of clothing. The garment manufacturing, the world’s most labor-intensive industry, employs one-sixth of the global population.
As for the safety of garment factory workers, three of the four deadliest tragedies in the garment industry occurred in the same year in Bangladesh: the fires at Ali Enterprises and Tazreen Fashion and the collapse of Rana Plaza. One would think sales would go down in the industry as consumers became aware of these events. Instead, fast fashion sales reached an all-time high. In the case of Rana Plaza, survivors recount that workers pointed out the cracks and other structural problems in the building. The manager ignored these concerns and told them to continue working and later, the building collapsed. As we continue to produce more fibers, more clothing will be produces thus a greater disregard for safety of workers. As a society and as consumers, we must as whether or not we will stand to allow more tragedies to occur. Some would easily state that the alternative to these unsafe conditions is for consumers to stop supporting the fast fashion industry and for factory sweatshops to be closed. However, there is another perspective on this matter.
Often in ethics, we must choose between two equally “wrong” or “bad” options. In the case of farming GM cotton and producing garments in sweatshops versus farming organic cotton and ethically producing clothing, we are stuck choosing between two equally bad options. Just like we are choosing between two options that put the safety of cotton farmers and workers in jeopardy, so are farmers and garment factory workers. The United States garment industry’s shift to producing overseas has produced millions of jobs in countries with low GDPs and high poverty rates. Outsourcing has helped the economies of many countries. Take India for example, India’s economy has grown greatly since it has been free from imperial rule. Their economy is the seventh largest in the world after the economies of the United States and China. Much of this growth is credited to their vast exports of clothing and shoes. In Bangladesh which still has a poverty rate of just fewer than twenty percent has seen a decrease by about twenty percent since 1991. Though they are not working in the safest conditions, the seemingly unsafe factories are safer than working in other jobs that are available. It can also be argued that factories have presented great opportunities for women to be in the workforce seeing that the workers are predominantly women. This has caused several to believe that the impacts of sweatshops, low wages and unsafe conditions are justified because of they are better than the alternatives.
But can exploitation ever be justified? If one looks at the utilitarian approach in ethics, because a greater number of lives are impacted positively by the industry’s current practices, it can be justified. If the industry were to no longer exist and we reverted back to growing only organic cotton, farmers’ yields would suffer and at this time, the poverty rate in Bangladesh and countries with similar economies could have increased. Additionally, though clothing is primarily used for clothing, the price to produce many food items containing cottonseed or vegetable oil as well as medical supplies (bandages) and even paper money in the United States would increase.
The factors that motivate consumers to indulge in fast fashion are often at odds with ethical considerations For consumers who have the means to and are willing to pay, for example, the infamous Diane von Furstenberg (DVF) wrap dress is worth every dime. For consumers who have the means but are not willing or who simply cannot afford it, there are cheaper alternatives available—the Zara and Hennes & Mauritz AB (H&M) wrap dress. Interpretation or copying of design concepts of fashion houses such as DVF and Chanel is quite common, and makes once out-of-reach styles accessible to the masses. Moreover, instead of the typical four seasons, consumers are able to purchase items from collections coming out almost every week. Popular Youtubers, style bloggers, and fashion columnists share clothing hauls from these stores. After a given season, consumers of fast fashion dispose of their clothing, donating or filling landfills with unwanted items.
One reason it is difficult to persuade consumers to change their habits, even when they are aware of the social and environmental consequences of fast fashion, is the emotional payoff of shopping. Psychologists believe that the tendency to purchase vast quantities of cheap clothing makes consumers feel happy. Brands promoting materialistic values draw consumers who often feel depressed and/or anxious due to their financial status. Though they are putting themselves deeper into debt by purchasing more and more, having the ability to buy inexpensive clothing makes these consumers feel better for a short time. What they do not take into account is the impact of their actions. Consumers’ decision to favor this market has led to materialistic values, over-consumption and exploitation of those producing clothing. Each cheap garment purchased was produced by a farmer who is often in debt to Monsanto and a garment factory worker who makes only a few cents an hour. As new fibers such as genetically engineered cashmere and silk enter the market, consumers will have access to even more clothing; this clothing will continue to come at a cost to those who produce it and those who produce the fibers. Consumers inevitably drive the industry.
There are a few examples of consumers taking responsibility for the impact of their consumption on other stakeholders. As consumers have become more aware of the industry’s use of cheap labor and pollution from production, consumers have forced companies to retool their practices. In response to consumer pressure, H&M has developed a sustainability plan in which the company promotes recycling of synthetic fabrics and use of organic natural fibers. By the year 2020, H&M hopes to only produce cotton garments using organic cotton. Though H&M has committed to using genetically modified cotton, the company is simultaneously beginning to offer inexpensive silk and cashmere garments; eventually these garments will be made of genetically modified fibers. While this is a step in the right direction, the company continues to produce garments in factories that do not adequately pay workers.
While consumers influenced H&M, it is more often the case that they remain apathetic about the source of their clothing. In the past few years, events such as the collapse of Rana Plaza have made consumers aware and concerned about the impacts of their consumption. However, they fail to take responsibility. Often they blame the industry itself or the governments of the countries in which their garments are produced. The workers in garment factories are not employed by fast fashion brands nor do they work in factories owned by them. Therefore, consumers do not hold major retailers responsible, and brands do not take responsibility for these human rights violations. As for the governments, they are forced to keep wages down to prevent brands from relocating production to other countries with low-cost economies; all of this is done to satisfy the consumer. Therefore, consumers must take responsibility for the impacts brought on to the other stakeholders by their consumption.
There also are limits to the extent that consumers can take responsibility for their consumerism. As mentioned before, consumers who purchase fast fashion items are often not well of financially. It is unrealistic to expect consumers to become ethical consumers. In an ideal world, consumers would be conscious when consuming and consider how their decisions impact others; this is to say all consumers would ideally be ethical shoppers. Realistically, this will never be attainable in the society in which we live. It is a given that some will have more than others and that wealth will never be fully distributed equally. Until ethically sourced and produced clothing becomes more affordable, the fast fashion market will continue to exist.
LABELING OF CLOTHING
Currently, many items in the produce section of grocery stores as well as processed snacks contain genetically modified ingredients. Extending past the shelves of the supermarket, the racks of clothing in stores also contain genetically engineered fibers as well as synthetic fibers. If you look inside the label of your clothing (assuming there is a label), often the percentage of materials can be found as well as were the item was produced. On produce, assuming the consumer does not discard the sticker, information about where the product was grown can be found. The stark difference between fibers and produce is the fact that you are told where the produce is produced but not where the fiber is produced, rather the garment.
Especially in the twenty-first century, we have seen as shift to consumers who have very particular expectations. While the vast majority of consumers purchase items that fit their needs and are affordable, those who have the means to do so have driven markets to supply products that fit certain criteria. It is inherent that we are drawn to labels seeing Labels whether used to categorize people places or things are seen as ways to differentiate. When a consumer sees that a product is “natural”, “organic” or “GMO free”, often times, the consumer is not aware what these terms mean but believes that the product is “better” than one not containing those labels.
In 2016, following discussions taking place in high school biology classes to executive board meetings at Monsanto, Congress passed a bill regarding labelling of GM foods. Consumers who value their health and what is “natural” asked their representatives to support HR 1599 of the 114th Congress, while lobbyist attempted to keep the legislation off of the floor. In the next few years, consumers will know whether the food they buy in grocery stores contains genetically engineered ingredients. The information will either be presented on the package itself or through a QR code.
When thinking about clothing, no such legislation has been introduced. Because about ninety percent of the world’s cotton in Bt cotton, it is assumed that the cotton garments being purchased contain the genetically modified fiber. However, for cashmere and silk, would it not be nice to know as a consumer whether it is genetically modified fiber you are purchasing?
The logical extent of making everyone responsible for knowing where their fibers and clothing are produced is something that can be measured. Consumers who are interested or concerned will attempt to find out whether or not their garments were made by workers being paid significantly less than minimum wage. Others will not. Instead of placing the burden of responsibility on the consumer, it should be placed upon the seller. The production of clothing makes it so that the producer cannot necessarily track where the seller is obtaining the materials. Instead, they work on an agreement to produce the clothing. With regard to the value of responsibility, it is the responsibility of the producer to make the consumer aware of what they are purchasing.
Based upon the precedent set by requiring all foods containing genetically modified ingredients or genetically modified themselves to be labelled as so, labeling should be present on clothing containing genetically modified fibers as well.
In the case of genetically modified fibers, as in ethics generally, there are inherent contradictions and no absolute rights. Taking into account our values, our beliefs and our ability to see all of the factors involved in this complex situation is the only way to truly come to a decision. I began by discussing the collapse on Rana Plaza and Fashion Revolution, an organization that looks to raise social awareness about the devastating effects of the fast fashion industry on the people who make our clothing. Awareness of the treatment of workers in the fast fashion industry cannot be separated from environmental concerns, the health of farmers, the health of consumers, and farmers’ ability to make a decent living.
The first question that I sought to answer in this paper was, is it ethically permissible to use genetically engineered fibers in the production of clothing? Currently, genetically engineered silk and cashmere are not readily used. Genetically engineered cotton, in contrast, is widely used in the production of clothing. I believe that the modifications themselves can be justified because of their intent. All three modifications are beneficial to the environment. Bt cotton was made with the hope that it would be an insecticide, and transgenic silkworms, already containing colorful thread, allow us to limit the strain we put on water as a resource. Water is not wasted in the dying of the fabric. Genetically engineered cashmere goats allow farmers to produce more fiber using fewer goats and, in turn, minimizes the destruction of root systems.
The problem lies in the impact. Genetically modified fibers are just one variable in a much bigger problem. Manufacturers’ use of these three fibers perpetuates the production of fast fashion, exacerbating the pollution of our environment and exploitation of workers. The science itself has benefits, but its use, when combined with company’s profit motive, negatively affects farmers and producers. Monsanto profits greatly by requiring farmers to purchase new seeds every season and by selling the pesticides they spray on them. In the future, the genetically engineered cashmere goats and transgenic silkworms will economically benefit the scientists involved in the creation of the fibers and the producers who sell the raw material. Having the ability to produce more fiber in the case of both cotton and cashmere is enabling us to continue practices that are detrimental to the environment and the producers.
It is my hope that soon we will see changes in this industry. Nike and Apple are examples of two companies that came under fire for using child labor to produce their products. Consumer concern, along with pressure from shareholders and others, led both companies to end production practices that violate human rights. Though organizations such as Fashion Revolution are working to raise awareness of violations in garment manufacturing, the issue persists. Consumers still purchase fast fashion items, which contributes to the various impacts on the consumers themselves, the farmers, and the garment factory workers.
I still cannot fathom that one sixth of the global population works in the garment industry and that I have a stake in the treatment of those more than a billion people. What I suggest to consumers who are concerned about these issues is to demand transparency. Personally, I do not have the means to afford for all of my clothing to be ethically sourced. However, I do not need to consume vast quantities of cheap clothing. Additionally, demand labelling! Both food and clothing companies should be required to inform consumers if the products they are buying contain genetically engineered materials. It is important that we as consumers use our voices to demand change, and act in ways that do not favor the continuation of questionable practices. As for changing the problems in the industry, it will not happen overnight. But it will begin with us asking not only where our clothing is made, but also asking who made it, under what conditions they grew the fiber and made the garments, and whether the garments contain genetically modified fibers.