Slow Fashion Ethics: Utilitarianism

Utilitarian ethical theory is the most recognized ethical theory among English speakers (and perhaps the French too…). It was first theorized by philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the 1780’s and continued by many including the 18th century philosopher John Stuart Mill and contemporary scholar Peter Singer.

Utilitarians provide a calculation to determine the best action to take. They claim that the best action is the one which leads to the greatest good/pleasure/happiness for the greatest number. This is called the utilitarian calculus, which is often referred to simply as “the greatest good for the greatest number.”

The single thing that makes an action good or bad is our desire to pursue happiness. Utilitarians, based on a long tradition of Western philosophers, say that this desire is inherent to humanity – every human seeks actions that lead to happiness. The pursuit of happiness is central to modern life – especially for those who live in the United States where it’s included in our Declaration of Independence. This pursuit is very focused on the individual – whatever the individual determines will make them happy is a pursuit that is, in some sense, protected by the government. However, the pursuit of happiness has reached farther than the U.S. Declaration of Independence, mainly to global capitalist business enterprise.

In the case of utilitarianism, the greatest good, the pursuit of happiness, and the accumulation and protection of property are synonymous. And it is the pursuit of property (money) that drives industries like fast fashion. For the fashion industry, utilitarianism guides the typical fast fashion philosophy where the greatest good is usually the greatest profit. But there are a number of ways fast fashion companies use a utilitarian calculus to justify their business practices. Sometimes, it literally means that these businesses try to offer the most items to the greatest number of people. Other times it can operate in reverse, where the greatest good for the greatest number is the lowest production cost for the largest output of items.

Slow Fashion advocates also use a utilitarian calculus, however they use it very differently than the above mentioned businesses. Slow fashion questions how we currently define the greatest good. They seek to open the definition of greatest good for the greatest number to include the interests of both fashion labels, consumers, as well as garment workers and farmers. They critique fast fashion companies for their narrow interest in the bottom line. Using the same utilitarian calculus, slow fashion critiques fast fashion for miscalculating. According to genuine utilitarianism, the greatest number should mean the greatest number of humans. Thus, true utilitarian ethics requires that an action must consider the effects it has on all humans, not just consumers or corporate employees. According to slow fashion utilitarian reasoning, fast fashion companies are making the wrong calculation when they think only of the interests of the consumer or the bottom line.

Using utilitarian reasoning to advocate for slow fashion has some advantages – it follows the accepted logic of capitalist oriented businesses. By using utilitarian logic, slow fashion and fast fashion might be able to speak the same language. But only for a bit… because even though the two groups are using the same ethical calculus, their definition of the greatest good or greatest number wildly diverge. So while slow fashion advocates claim that the greatest number includes all humans, the earth, animals… all life – the fashion industry defines the greatest good in very narrow terms. And the greatest good is wildly divergent in these two groups as well, it could mean the greatest profit or the greatest output or the least harmful product. These divergent definitions can lead to confusing conversations where there can be little room to move to some sort of consensus about the greatest good in the industry.  However, the theory has such a stronghold over businesses and the English-speaking world that slow fashion advocates must understand it and use it to make their position heard in the modern world.

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Slow Fashion Ethics: Ecofeminist Ethics

The Earth needs our attention, but so do the people sewing our clothes. They come hand in hand. All of the recycled textiles in the world couldn’t save the industry if people making less than a living wage were sewing them.

Adrienne Antonson, Sustainability and STATE pt. 1

Some feminist ethics are a reaction to the failures of Kantian ethics. They disagree with Kant (and Kantian’s) about many things, but the most important disagreement is the ability to approach ethics from universal principles. Feminists claim that when Kant formulated categorical imperatives, he did not have women in mind – in fact he was only thinking about people like himself (free, land owning, white men). Kant’s rules were never meant to apply to women or people of color or children; he failed to take them into consideration when thinking about who counts as a “human.” When Kant imagined these universal principles, he failed to really think universally.

I say “some feminists” because the range of feminist ethics is wide reaching and extensive. There are various streams of feminisms, but they are all united in one goal: the liberation of women from oppression based on gender and flourishing of all humans.

One stream of feminism is heavily present in slow fashion: ecofeminism.

Ecofeminism is the connection of concern for the well being of human beings with that of the environment. Ecofeminists claim that human flourishing depends on the well being of the earth – we cannot be separated from our environment. For ecofeminists, serious moral issues are directly connected to the way we treat the environment around us. This connection exists because people are part of the natural environment. Therefore, if you treat the environment a particular way you will also see human life in a similar way. If the environment is a resource that you use and can treat without certain limits, then people will also be seen in this way. So, for example, Delores Williams identifies that sexual violence towards black women is intimately connected to the practice of strip mining – while black women are seen as sexual objects, mountains will be seen only for their ability to give us coal and vise versa.

I love the quote from Adrienne Antonson included at the beginning of this post – it’s a clear example of how a slow fashion advocate connects her practice to the care of her environment. In this quote, she determines that efforts to recycle clothing fail to accomplish the goal of ethical fashion if they don’t take garments workers into consideration – the two are inseparable. Thus, an ethical approach to the fashion industry must be concerned with garment workers and materials, dyes, garment factories, and pollution.

Ecofeminists in slow fashion are concerned about the flourishing of garment workers and the environment which produces our garments. They start from the very beginning with interest in raw materials – they are concerned with the production of the cloth, how factories operate, what energy sources are drawn upon, and how clothing is transported to buyers. They are focused on livable wages for garment workers and also the cotton farmer. They are interested in reducing pollution in the dyeing cycle and when raw materials are grown. They are concerned about the end of the clothing life-cycle – they want to know what happens to a garment when it is no longer worn by it’s target audience. Is it recycled, can it decompose, will it remain on the earth for hundreds of thousands of years?

The concerns of ecofeminsts are wide reaching, as they extend beyond human wellfare to the flourishing of the earth. But, as ecofeminists claim (and I agree), our environment is inseparable from the people in it – so if we are so concerned about garment workers we must be equally concerned about the land where those garment workers call home, the farmers who grow the materials that garment workers use to make our clothes, and the place where that garment will be thrown away when it is no longer useful. Clothing has a life cycle – and ecofeminists care about every stage.

My New Moodboard

The first #slowfashionoctober prompt was to make a moodboard. Moodboards aren’t my forte. I like them for storing information, but I rarely find them useful as a whole. However, I took this week to try something different, to work out a moodboard of what feels like my style; what feels like me.

I learned that I love the look of vintage, or vintage inspired, clothing a LOT! woah, that was a surprise. Before, I probably would have called myself a casual minimalist, but after this exercise, I found myself slowly removing the minimalist street style pictures and filling my board with more wild landscapes and skirts. Now my mood board is filled with romantic images inspired by edwardian fashion combined with 1940’s tomboy’s.

I still don’t have a name for this style. North woods vintage? Off-duty museum docent? Time-travelling Laura Ingalls Wilder? I’m sure the name will come.

I found this exercise especially helpful because I just started a new era of my academic career – teaching. My graduate student style was very similar to my at-home outfits – very casual. However, I knew for my teaching role I would need to do something different for one reason: I still look like an undergraduate. If I was going to understand myself as an authoritative voice who administers grades that potentially determine student’s futures, I had to make sure I could feel authoritative standing in front of a class of student’s who look the same age as I do. This really isn’t that hard, most of them wear t-shirts and running shorts to class, but there are a few who have a bit more style. I have a few “professional” clothes in my closet, which have served me well for conferences and presentations over my time in grad school, but teaching requires a few more tops than the two I currently own.

While I could have two wardrobes: a work wardrobe and a casual one, I would rather my closet blend more between my weekdays and weekends. In the long term, this will hopefully mean I have less clothing overall and each item receives more wears.

This mood board is pointing me in a different direction than I thought I had to go, and this new direction feels more authentic. I think many of the looks on this board could still be professional enough for the classroom setting (which is much less “professional” than any corporate environment). I see white blouses, wide legged pants, and pleated/gathered skirts with waistbands – those are all teaching appropriate! I’m excited to work towards a teaching wardrobe that is both professional and cabin-appropriate.

This little board above was distilled from a larger board I’ve been creating all week. I tried to gather looks for every season, and organized it by grouping the spring and summer looks on the bottom with fall and winter looks towards the top of the board. You can see my original board below.

Portage Cardigan: Take Two

I did it, I finally re-made the Portage Cardigan by Melissa Sachschwary after my first failed attempt (seen here).

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I am so happy with this cardigan. This pattern was one of the first I truly fell in love with, right when I started knitting. I tried to make it in the worst yarn possible (black, tweedy, and no memory) and the first version failed. I decided to try again in the interest of using patterns I have and love – this time in the right kind of yarn.

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I found the perfect yarn at the Kentucky Sheep and Fiber Festival back in May 2018. After strolling through the fairgrounds filled with yarn booths, I happened across Madeline from Ballyhoo Fiber Emporium. Madeline had a delightful selection of yarns – and I almost bought some of her fingering weight Shetland, until I saw this Hampshire DK.

This 100% Hampshire is an undyed (she called it Naked Ewe for Naked You) two ply. There were a couple of spots in every skein where the yarn was “thick and thin” but overall the yarn was quite consistent. I was a little nervous at first that 100% Hampshire would be too rough for my skin – I’ve yet to see a Hampshire yarn marketed to the knitting masses. I decided to take the chance to knit a full sweater in this yarn, hoping that my the wool would soften with a wash and my body could adjust. I was also very excited to try out some wool exploration after catching up on some KnitBritish podcasts.

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Equally as enticing is the story behind this yarn. Madeline told me that this yarn comes from an eccentric art collector who lives in the hills of Kentucky. After visiting the U.K. he, apparently, was so captivated by the sheep grazing on the British hillsides, that he had to have the exact breed for his own land. So that’s how a flock of Hampshire’s ended up in Kentucky.

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Knitting this cardigan was relatively easy. I added a few modifications in the way of cables. I was inspired by Fee Donovan’s Portage – she continued the side cables through the hem of the cardigan. I followed her lead, and decided to add an underarm cable as well. This sleeve cable is my favorite thing about this cardigan – it’s shy but sassy  – like me.

I also eliminated the pockets – which I feel quite sad about. I tried very hard to make the pockets work, but somehow with my gauge and in this yarn, the pockets refused to lay flat against the body of the sweater. I had a huge gaping problem. Maybe one day I’ll add afterthought pockets, but for now it’s just fine.

I am so inspired to make another shawl collar cardigan – I think this cardigan style will get a substantial amount of wear in my academic wardrobe. They’re easy to layer, and I love the way they look. But, for now, I’ll relish in my newly completed Portage cardigan.

Slow Fashion Ethics: Kantian Ethics

“We love fashion. But we don’t want our clothes to exploit people or destroy our planet.” – Fashion Revolution Manifesto

Kantian ethics is one of the first ethical theories I teach in my undergraduate courses. It’s simple, has two main rules, and most people are already familiar with it (even if they haven’t heard of Kant).

Immanual Kant (who penned the principles we now call Kantian) was a Prussian philosopher who was active in the late 18th century. He believed morality operated through these things called Categorical Imperatives – commands everyone (and he means every human being) must follow. These moral obligations are derived from human reason – which means that they are available to every person who can think.

While there are four formulations of the categorical imperatives, two are the most popular.

First – the Universalizability Principle.

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

— Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals

What does this even MEAN? It means if you can do it (morally speaking), then everyone can do it (also the inverse, if you can’t do it, no one else should be able to do it). In other words, you can’t be the exception to your rule. An example often given to describe this rule is truth telling. If you expect others to tell the truth at all times, you must also tell the truth at all times – no lying, no exceptions.

Let’s talk about the second principle

The Humanity Principle.

Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.

— Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals

According to this principle, you must never treat people as a means to an end, or objects to help you accomplish your goal. People are not just things that help you get what you want. Every person has their own goals and, therefore, we must take the goals of others into consideration when they help us achieve our goals.

This principle shows up frequently in conversations about slow fashion. Like the quote from Fashion Revolution above, exploiting people (using them as things to help you achieve your goal) is wrong.

There are a couple of things about the fashion industry that should be concerning according to Kant’s principle of humanity. First, human beings have lost their lives while working to achieve the fashion industry’s goal of inexpensive clothing available in high volumes. In this case, the very lives of these garment workers were considered less important than the goal- their lives were means to an end (cheap clothes). Are garment workers just bodies that put together our clothing? Are they cast aside like broken machinery when they can no longer accomplish the quota’s which producers demand? Is the humanity of garment workers recognized by the fashion industry? When people lose their lives working to achieve an industry goal – we should question if that industry respects their lives. When a large amount of garment workers lose their lives at work, it reveals that they are not valued as persons, but rather just valued for their ability to stitch together a garment – they are simply means to an end.

Now, let’s return to the first principle. Consider the garment workers who lost their lives in the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013. A major concern to arise out of this tragedy is the working conditions in the garment industry. Garment workers were reportedly forced to work in unsafe conditions. It seems unfair (and unethical) that Western nations should have workplace safety standards, but other nations who provide our basic goods should not. Slow fashion advocates universalize workplace safety – if we expect to have safe working conditions – everyone should have safe working conditions. If we accept imported goods, the conditions in which those goods are produced must comply to the same standards of workplace safety that we would expect from locally made goods. There can be no exceptions – exceptions are unethical.

Kantian ethics can be extended to refer not just to human beings, but to living things (this jump is made in Veganism), but this is not a commonly held belief among philosophers or Kant scholars.

Next week I’ll introduce an ethical theory that directly competes with Kant’s categorical imperatives – but is sometimes used to try to convince the fashion industry to change its habits.

Slow Fashion Ethics

Have you ever wondered what makes slow fashion ethical? Why are some of the ideas behind slow fashion “ethical” when compared to fast fashion? Why should we care about garment workers? Why is slow better than fast? Did slow fashion advocates just come up with these ideas all by themselves?

Slow Fashion, like every other ethical movement, has been influenced by classical ethical theories; some times overtly, other times unintentionally. Either way, philosophical ethical theories are at the core of our claims about slow fashion.

My PhD education has given me a multitude of resources when it comes to researching – but the most important resource I have gained is my general knowledge of classical ethical theories. So this #slowfashionoctober I thought I would share some of that knowledge with you.

Each Monday in October I will be sharing about one ethical theory that influences slow fashion. While there are a multitude of ethical theories I could choose from, the four I am sharing are considered “classical,” which generally means they have been popular ethical theories in philosophy, theology, and politics in the Western world. Some were more popular in the past, while others are more recent. These theories are by no means  the best ethical theories around (in fact, there is no consensus that any ethical theory is the best…), but they do pop up quite often in public conversations about ethics. Overall, these theories are useful tools to explain why some actions are considered moral and others immoral.

If you’re asking yourself, “Why should I read a series on classical ethical theories in slow fashion, isn’t that boring?” Let me try to convince you otherwise with two reasons.

First, knowing about ethical theories is empowering – with the knowledge of these theories, you can understand why something is right or wrong. The meaning behind slow fashion claims is revealed. This directly relates to the second reason.

Second, knowledge about ethical theories is essential in communicating about “right” and “wrong”. When your sitting at the thanksgiving table and a discussion starts about average household textile waste, there will usually be one member of the party who inevitably says “I don’t see the problem here.” Instead of staring blankly at that individual and thinking that they’re brainless for their ignorance (which just further alienates them from ever learning about slow fashion), with the knowledge of ethical theories you can explain why the surplus of textile waste is wrong and we should change our actions.

When I teach ethics to undergraduates,  I find that the skill they appreciate most is realizing which ethical theories have influenced them throughout their lives. It’s exciting to hear that a theory exists which describes (mostly) how you see the world – this means that others think that way too!

Hopefully, these four theories will reveal new meaning behind typical slow fashion claims and empower you when you talk to others about slow fashion!

Marettimo – an exercise in beauty

I am delighted that I have a beautiful knit top to add to my collection. The Marettimo Sweater is a perfect addition to my fall/winter/spring wardrobe. When Caitlin Hunter released this pattern during the summer, I fell in love with the bold lace stripes. I wasn’t necessarily planning to cast on another short sleeve top so soon after my Tegna, but after a wild summer I decided that a little deviation from my knitting plans would qualify as self-care rather than self-destruction.

I cast on Marretimo to celebrate my birthday in August and to eliminate any extra stressors, I used only yarn from my stash. The yarn – zen yarn garden in serenity silk + – was good enough for this project. While the fiber content was perfect, I did notice that the speckles in the yarn had greater contrast the the original design. The greater contrast in the main color meant that this sweater could easily become busier than I intended. So to mitigate that, I chose to work the lace and boarder in the same color (an idea first recommended by Kyle). This simplified the sweater and made the lace section truly pop, while also allowing the speckles their time in the spotlight.

Do I love speckled yarn? no, not really, and the more I knit with it the more I think, this looks so lovely in the skein and wound in a ball but when it’s knit up, it looks a lot like those printer ink test pages… maybe it’s just this particular yarn with the contrasting speckles. I’m not totally opposed to using speckled yarn again, but it seems less likely since lately I’ve been consumed by breed-specific yarns and local fibers.

Using stash yarn always comes with challenges – my contrast color is leftover from my Zweig sweater. I assumed I would have just enough to finish the sweater – and I cut it so close. Too close, really. My sleeve lace section is lacking in a coordinating bind-off. This is the only part of the sweater I’m questionable about – do I really like the contrasting hem? should it be longer? Should I try to find a similar blue singles yarn for the hem? For now, it’s okay – and since I rarely go back and fix my knitting, it will probably be okay for the rest of time.

I made quite a few modifications – first my gauge was tighter than the pattern. So I did some calculations and cast on for the medium size. After knitting the body, I realized that the neckline was far too open for my preference, and the sweater was much longer than I intended – so I ripped back and reknit from the armholes up – resulting in a more cropped sweater. From the separation for the arm holes – I knit the size small. I also raised the front neckline by binding off more stitches for my first bind off row and eliminating two short rows on both shoulders. This neckline is perfect for me! I felt so empowered to make an adjustment that was previously too complicated for me to complete. I think modifications might be my favorite thing about knitting at the moment.

I thought a lot about this project – why I wanted to knit it – and how it might affect me. I intended this project to be an exercise in beauty, where I would forgo my typical practical intentions and knit something I did not need. In the end, after thinking about beauty, realizing that maybe this yarn wasn’t my ideal of beauty, and reworking the shaping of the neckline, I’ve come to understand my own commitments to “the beautiful” in a new way. Somehow, I had come to associate “beautiful” with something I could not have. Maybe it was because I assumed beauty came with a heavy price tag, though I’m not ready to commit to this explanation. However, choosing to make a project that was primarily valuable for its appearance (secondarily for its function) placed the creation of beauty in my hands. No longer is beauty something outside me, now I know I can make something beautiful. And the way I can accomplish this is by thoughtfully planning out a project that is both visually enticing and environmentally considerate. The ethical deeply impacts the aesthetic – I can’t separate these two. Something cannot be beautiful unless it tells the story of concern for the environment and my neighbors well-being. When I look at my handmade wardrobe, pieced together from secondhand fabrics, unravelled yarns, and local or breed-specific fibers, I can see that these qualities contribute as much to beauty as the color, weight, or design.

My exercise in knitting a beautiful project was certainly thought-provoking (and it produced a new garment!). I might try this kind of experiment again, with a different virtue rather than beauty, maybe courage or honesty. But, for now, I’m still working out how beauty impacts my creativity and my craft. I have a lot to think about.