Most people wear some kind of clothing every day. You’re probably wearing some right now. But for a commodity as ubiquitous and necessary as food and water, Christians don’t think much about their clothes or treat it like an urgent social justice issue.
In secular culture, there is a rapidly growing education and advocacy movement around sustainable fashion, conscious fashion, or slow fashion. All these terms mean roughly the same thing: adopting an attitude of thoughtful and deliberate care towards one’s clothes.
While consciousness around sustainable fashion grows in the media and culture, people of faith are slow to catch on. And those already on the “environmental train” do not automatically include clothing habits as an environmental and ethical practice.
Yet, this is an urgent faith issue. Clothing is a deeply relational entity, tying the wearer to soil, water, and raw materials, as well as to the sets of hands producing the garment. Not only is clothing a fundamental human right, for Christians clothing is one of the primary metaphors for the call to live a righteous life.
Ultimately, Christians cannot be clothed in the righteousness of Christ if their actual clothing consumption and care are contributing to the degradation of the earth and the oppression of marginalized communities.
Clothing is our most abundant personal possession. The size of the apparel industry attests to this. Holding 3 percent of the global economy, it is a $2.5 trillion dollar industry employing hundreds of millions of people around the world, mostly young women.
Yet, the clothing industry houses a host of social and environmental issues that destroy creation rather than care for it.
Studies show that anywhere from 3.1 percent to 8 percent of global carbon emissions are caused by fashion, rivalling the footprint of international air travel and agriculture. A third of microplastic pollution ending up in our oceans comes from our clothes. Americans have consumed over 20 billion garments in almost every year since 2005, barring the Great Recession.
Thanks to popular shows like Netflix’s Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, discarded clothing is flooding an already over-taxed waste system. This means up to 80 percent of thrift store donations are sent straight to resellers and never see the charity shop floor. Almost 24 billion pounds of clothes and shoes are thrown out each year, more than double what was tossed two decades ago. And less than every two minutes, a garbage truck’s worth of unwanted clothes are dumped in the landfill.
Labor rights abuses are unfortunately no less common than environmental ones. Since the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster, which killed over 1,100 garment workers and injured 2,500 others, there have been slight improvements in working conditions thanks to the efforts of unions and other organizing bodies. Still, dangerous conditions leading to garment worker deaths continue to occur regularly and hardly anyone makes a living wage. In many nations, garment work is presented as an opportunity for liberation but traps young women and their families in an underpaid cycle of poverty.
Clothed in righteousness
Clothing is a powerful metaphor for righteous living in the Christian tradition. The Bible tells us believers are “clothed in Christ’s righteousness”’ through baptism (Galatians 3:27). Righteousness is closely tied to justice as “right relations with one another, the land, and God.”
The word for righteousness, zedekah, refers to right relationships between God and others. Right relationships involve care, stewardship of creation, and thoughtfulness for the whole person’s wellbeing. According to theologian Joseph Sittler, the central operative terms of Christianity are relational (restoration, redemption, salvation, faith, hope), pointing to the breaking of a relationship as sin, and the promise of blessedness as the reestablishment of a relationship.
Relationships involve knowledge. For clothing, this knowledge translates into tangible mending and care skills to maintain and prolong an item’s lifecycle. Skills like identifying a quality garment, how to personalize or repair a blouse, and how to find a good tailor or cobbler have been lost from previous generations. As theologian Sallie McFague points out, “we cannot love what we do not know.”
In the past, people invested in their clothes. In 1900, the average American family spent 14 percent of their annual income on clothing, compared to just 3.5 percent for the average American family today. In 1930, the average American woman owned around nine outfits, which when cared for properly lasted well into the next generation’s closets. Today, that figure is closer to 30 outfits.
Investing in our clothing through our time, knowledge, and resources honors the materials, time, expertise, and labor behind them. Taking care of material things is not “un-Christian.” In fact, time and again we are called to express our faith through actions, like in Matthew 25. The act of giving food, water, and shelter to those in need is to give those things to Christ.
Clothing care is not vain or prideful either – rather it is a way to symbolically and materially understand our connection to the rest of the world. Through clothing we are tied to cotton farmers in Uzbekistan, dump sites in Nairobi, Kenya, garment workers in Southeast Asia and Los Angeles, California. We wear their work.
Honoring the labor, expertise, and material resources used to make clothes is an essential way to honor God. It’s time Christians take up the call to care for God’s human and non-human creation through better stewardship of our clothing.