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Illustration for the 0716 front of the Arts & Pursuits section.

Illustration by Alanna Cavanagh

A few weeks before the pandemic began, my wife and I were walking through a department store when she called me over to a display of cashmere sweaters. They were $50 each. Alarm bells went off immediately.

Grade A cashmere – the long, thick fibres from the undercoat of the cashmere goat – is expensive because it is rare and because of the labour involved in harvesting and processing. Not to mention that a well-constructed sweater requires well-trained (and well-treated) garment workers and high-quality patterns. All of that, combined with the retailer’s overhead, make a good quality $50 cashmere sweater practically impossible.

But if you are not as obsessed with clothing as I am, how are you to know? Shoppers tend to rely on brand names and labels, all while being enticed by absurdly low prices. But “deals” have to come from somewhere, and it’s almost never a company’s profits. Instead, the fashion industry actively obscures supply chains so that all customers see is “cashmere” on a tag and an inexpensive amount on the sticker.

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It’s similar to how many of us buy our meat. The equivalent is a box of “free range” chicken strips on sale for $9.99. The label is meaningless: It simply means the birds have some access outside their cages – but there’s no way to know how much and how significant it is. People are starting to wonder and worry about what their meals are made of, however, and the food industry has begun flirting with transparency. At my butcher, they can often tell me what breed of pork I’m buying and what farm it was raised on. There’s no reason this same sort of tracing and accountability can’t be applied to fashion.

At Muddy George, a small men’s wear boutique in Toronto, owner Altaf Baksh has taken it upon himself to educate customers on where his high prices come from: the quality of materials, construction and labour conditions. On his website, he even sorts his wares by place of origin.

“I feel it allows our customers to make a more informed decision, particularly when we are selling relatively expensive items,” he says.

Baksh believes that the clothing industry is trending in a positive direction when it comes to transparency and accountability, especially with newer designers. But still, only about one-fifth of the brands he carries provide information about their manufacturing conditions. It’s not for his lack of effort. “Some even go as far as to list the factories they work with,” he says, “but given many brands might feel like that information is proprietary, it’s not something most brands divulge.”

I used to think it was up to us, as individuals, to ask more questions of clothing makers and demand higher standards. But when I think of my changing mindset toward food, I realize this is short-sighted. Until a few years ago, I believed there was simply “beef,” “pork” and “chicken.” Different breeds, providing different, better flavours? Who knew? Not me. And that’s because that information wasn’t readily available. So when shopping, it was impossible to know which questions to ask.

Most aspects of meat production are clouded in intentional obscurity. How are animals raised and slaughtered? How are workers treated? The food industry would rather not have us asking these difficult questions.

The same issues apply to clothing. So while I think it’s important that consumers strive to buy the most ethically made, quality garments we can, the problem requires solutions at the corporate and governmental level.

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The current Canadian Textile Labelling Act is woefully inadequate. It demands that the fibre content be declared on a label, but that’s about it. So in the case of that cashmere sweater, there is no regulation around identifying the quality of wool used, whether it be grade A, at around 14 microns thick per hair, or grade C, around 30 microns thick and the least durable. That’s an easy improvement to implement.

But with clothing being made and shipped around the world, ultimately the issue is global. One path toward a solution could be an international rating system that tracks design, materials, production, even packaging and distribution.

“Brands who join would have to ensure that certain thresholds are met and their rating could be imprinted on each tag,” Baksh says.

It is possible: Patagonia, through its Fair Trade Certified garments, has been doing something similar for years.

If there was a more transparent approach to the clothing industry, stories such as the following wouldn’t be so rare. A few years ago, I was browsing briefcases and leather bags at B Hemmings & Co. in Toronto. As I appreciated the rustic texture of a rather expensive bag from the Bridge, Florence’s premium leather goods company, co-owner Michael Warwick came over. He brought out a full hide from the back of the shop to help explain, in detail, the tanning and dying process. The Bridge prefers thick-skinned hides that develop a longer haired coat, he told me, not simply the cheapest, flimsiest, easily available leather. He was even able to pinpoint where – and how – the cows are raised: grass fed and truly free range. The experience has set my gold standard for both transparency and customer education. A standard that is, currently, extremely rare.

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