Leah Wise

How Becoming a Fair Trade Advocate Led Me Back to Faith

Leah Wise

If you’ve been around the ethical and sustainable fashion space for awhile, you’ve probably heard your share of origin stories, those personal narratives that describe the moment when someone began to question their consumer choices, asking questions like “Who made my clothes?” and researching the ethics of their favorite brands’ production standards.

In most cases, those origin stories are illuminating not because they are distinctive but because they are consistent.

clothes

Whether we learned about injustices in the fashion industry through a social enterprise’s marketing or after the collapse of Rana Plaza (a garment factory in Bangladesh) that killed over 1,100 in 2013, those of us who now consider ourselves conscious consumers and ethical advocates were often blindsided by the sudden realization that there were human hands behind the things we wore. One piece in the narrative always stands out to me: how little we Westerners have been taught to consider the makers behind the products we consume every day.

And that’s why we need a Fashion Revolution: because we cannot expect a transformed world until we can clearly and honestly examine the ways we contribute to human suffering.

Fashion Revolution

My origin story and subsequent journey as a conscious consumer are not unique—unless you dive beneath the surface. Before TOMS Shoes launched in 2006, I hadn’t considered that the marketplace could be anything but a morally neutral space. But that early cause marketing woke me up to the reality that millions of people were suffering, and that commerce could, in some ways, alleviate that suffering. As I started doing my own research, I realized that much of what I assumed to be true about production—for instance, that it was fully automated—was about as far from the truth as I could get. In reality, most of the world’s garments are made piece-by-piece on loud industrial sewing machines operated entirely by human hands.

My awakening occurred at a fragile time in my life. And I believe the reason I have become such a single-minded advocate for ethical and sustainable trade today is because learning about ethical fashion didn’t just change my life, it saved my faith.

ethical fashion

In 2008, I joined a church community in a tradition I was mostly unfamiliar with at the prompting of my new boyfriend (who’s now my husband), Daniel, and his roommate. Things were going well at first, but over the months and years that followed, I began to feel increasingly marginalized both as a budding religion scholar (I majored in Religious Studies) and as a woman in a tradition that hadn’t created much infrastructure for women who were seeking a deeper understanding of God. Though Daniel empathized with my increasing feelings of isolation and resentment, he couldn’t fully understand the depth of turmoil it was causing in my spirit. And then one day I snapped—literally fleeing the church in the middle of a Sunday service and running to the creek at the edge of the property where I sat and waited for the service to end. My mind was blank, the heaviness encapsulating me.

For a time, I left church.

The “othering” I had experienced at my previous community had weakened my ability to go out on a limb and form new relationships in a new church setting. Some days felt so heavy I would get home from work and go straight to bed. God felt silent. I felt alone.

Hands and Feet of Christ

But still, a flame of something resembling faith flickered within me. I decided that if I couldn’t hear God in the quiet places, I could pour my energy into being the hands of feet of God incarnate, of Christ, in the world. So, I started a blog to discuss fair trade fashion. At first, I felt like I was talking to myself—it was difficult to find a community of people interested in similar topics and ready to discuss it. But over time, I made a couple of virtual friends, then a dozen, then 100—and all of them were just as relentlessly passionate about this new thing called “conscious consumerism” as I was. They were women who challenged me, shared breaking news stories and research, and helped me create my own community.

I had been slowly working my way back into church during this time, first through a women’s prayer and meditation group, then through a low key evening church service. I knew I wanted a meaningful relationship with God and the church but I had lost the words to communicate this yearning—I had to learn to speak again. When I look back at the path I followed—one I thought was mostly cutting through underbrush in an untamed forest—I see sunlight and hear birdsong I was blind to at the time.

As it turns out, God was being quiet so that I could find my voice, so that I could understand what the silence of injustice feels like to those living on the margins of sweatshops and leather tanneries and cotton fields. My path toward conscious consumerism was a path that led me back to God and the faith I was so afraid of losing.

What You Can Do:

fashion activist

  • Participate in Fashion Revolution week by asking your favorite brands, #whomademyclothes, on social media. Get other ideas and prompts here.
  • Boycott fast fashion by buying less, mending what you have, buying secondhand clothes, and saving up for ethically sourced goods (I provide tons of resources on my blog).
  • Prayerfully consider what it means to be a member of the Body of Christ in the world, and how you should clothe that body.
  • Spread the word about fair trade with your friends, family, and church community.
  • Connect with local makers and fair trade shops.
  • Be patient with yourself and others.

 

Leah Wise is the author of the blog StyleWise. She lives with her Ph.D. student husband, Daniel, and their pet rats in Charlottesville, Virginia. She is a singer, writer, blogger, thrift shop manager and is a member of the Episcopalian church.