Maxine Bédat had her epiphanous moment while standing next to a landfill in Ghana, watching the incineration of a mountain of clothing. Seeing that pile—the final, unceremonious depository for our obsession with fast fashion—sparked a focus that she hopes will help re-direct the fashion industry to operate at a more thoughtfully deliberate pace. “We can’t achieve what needs to be achieved to live on this planet with this disposable relationship with clothing,” she warns. Knowledge is power and by presenting a cracked-open view into the minutiae of clothing production and use, Bédat wants our undivided attention.

Kpone, landfill (Ghana)

Maxine Bédat’s longtime interest in clothing has consistently straddled the intersection between her aesthetic appreciation for fashion and wanting to understand the story behind it. Her new book, Unraveled: The Life and Death of a Garment, follows the journey of a pair of jeans from cotton farms in Texas, through manufacturing and assembly factories in China and Bangladesh, into distribution centers in the US and, finally, to landfills in Ghana. Her book chronicles the profound and indelible imprint that fast fashion has on our world.

More than sweeping generalizations about our junk-laden consumerism, Bédat takes her reader into the factories where raw cotton is spun with polyester, literally stretching its worth, describing the flow of chemical waste directly into the rivers that are the primary water source for surrounding farms. She gives voice to the distribution center employees in the US who, working for the low salaries that are an industry-wide convention, are tasked with relentlessly repetitive work that often leads to injuries and persistent pain.  Fashion, despite having been marketing individualism from its inception, ends up dehumanizing both its workers and, ultimately, its consumers.

Bédat’s own journey began while standing next to such a landfill watching a mountain of clothing burn. Much more than the actual fabric, she could see all that led up to that moment—the commercial and humanitarian cost, the effects of consumption on our planet, the sheer waste. All of it going up in smoke.

Bales of secondhand clothes on thier way to Kantamanto market (Ghana)

This moment of clarity led her, in 2013, to launch Zady, an online platform dedicated to showcasing the work of sustainable designers. The company was eventually expanded to include Bédat’s own line of organic, sustainably made wardrobe basics. Zady’s approach was to include detailed descriptions of the overall production processes beneath each item on the site. As she and her team shared these—from farming to dyeing, designing to distributing—established industry brands began to reach out, asking for more research. It quickly became clear that this was precisely what the industry needed: independent research performed by scientists and makers not affiliated with brands who could provide clear information about the state of the industry. Thus, New Standard Institute was born. The platform positions itself as a resource for designers and brands hoping to make legitimate, impactful changes to fashion manufacturing by 2030.

How did fashion come to be so detached from its production chain? Globalization played a big part. Ninety-six percent of what Americans wore in the 1960s was American made, today it’s less than 2 percent. [source: New Standard Institute] The data for Europe is similar since the globalization process is basically linear. Moreover, factories can be dismantled as easily as they are built and sometimes clothes aren’t even made in factories but instead by freelancers with sewing machines, making it harder to track production. And then there is the problem of answerability. The media, traditionally tasked with holding industries to account, has only recently turned its eye towards fashion’s discrepancies. Fashion journalism, caught up in the seasonal whirl, didn’t allocate for an investigative arm and all manner of truths remained unreported because there simply weren’t professionals devoted to discovering them. When asked about the consequences of the fashion industry remaining unengaged, Bédat’s reply is jarringly simple: a fast-moving car heading straight into a brick wall.

A truckful of garments making its way from the market to the landfill in Tema

Though capsuling a sustainable collection is currently de rigueur for many brands, these shouldn’t be seen as full-scale commitments to better practices. Corporations exist to maximize profits, and though sustainable practices may be effectuated by the best intentions, isolated forays onto the eco-bandwagon just end up being green washing. “I do think that what we need is a new vision about what business is in business to do,” Bédat explains.  “And for me, the most interesting part of my research was looking back at the reason why we have businesses. It is so inside us that business is there to make money, but that isn’t why business was started. Corporations actually started as a tool to be able to pull resources, to do big, public projects … but we completely lost sight of that idea.” We cannot achieve the goals of reducing fashion’s footprint “if one party is trying to maximize profit and the other part is trying to survive in a planet with limited resources.”

Despite the fashion’s egregious lifecycle, Bédat describes her own journey of uncovering its dirty secrets as a generally positive one. “It was very hard and there were lonely days, understanding what’s happening with climate change and speaking to garment workers was often brutal. But I actually came out of the research for the book more empowered than I have ever been before, because I saw how we’ve been trained to see ourselves as consumers instead of active citizens that can dictate our own policies.”  She continued, “We’ve just been pushed all these messages about how our role in life is to consume, but it isn’t, and if we just reclaim that other part of ourselves, the citizen part of our identities, we really can change how society functions.”

Reclaiming our identity as citizens and not just as mere consumers is central to Bédat’s plan for preventing the imminent catastrophe: “The main thrust of the book is to push individuals into seeing themselves as people that can be actively engaged, asking questions and demanding information, whether it’s with brands (with emails or tweets) or with their actual legislators. In a fair world, it should be the responsibility of businesses to clean up their own mess, but if we just make it about fairness, we’re still going to be headed into that brick wall.”

A child in a currency-day garment factory

Maxine Bédat’s book, Unraveled: The Life and Death of a Garment, was published in June by Portfolio.

A child in a currency-day garment factory