Parents with Purpose: Ethical Fashionista Jenny Muccioli

Jenny with her sons

In 2013, 1100 people died in the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh, causing many to think about who really pays for our dependence on cheap fashion. But while most forgot and went back to buying ten dollar tees, Jenny Muccioli couldn’t let it go. Leaving a brilliant career in fashion merchandising to join not-for-profit Fashion Takes Action Muccioli is now a classroom facilitator in the Toronto and Peel region, educating students on the impact fast fashion has on the environment and working conditions of the very people who make our clothes. We chatted with Muccioli about her work, and how she teaches her own boys (ages six and nine) about being an ethical consumer.

What happens in these workshops?

We spend a day educating students from grade four to grade 12 on everything from how a cotton T-shirt is made — right from cotton-picking and the issues surrounding crop farming, through to the workers who actually in the fields, and then right through to production and what happens when a 10-dollar t-shirt lands in your favourite store in North America. We discuss the effects are of that supply chain — both the environmental footprint and social justice issues for workers. It becomes a real eye-opener for students. When you talk to kids anywhere in that age group they have an understanding of things like how food gets to their table. You can ask what they had for breakfast that morning and they’re pretty knowledgeable about the food chain and how food comes to be on their plate every day, yet you ask them how the t-shirt they’re wearing on their back came to be in their closet and many of them have no idea.

What reaction do you get from those kids when they learn what it takes to make that t-shirt?

It’s really quite remarkable. You can see their heart start to open as you talk about it and their knowledge starts to grow in terms of how they are actually part of this process. They understand the choices they can make as a consumer, or as someone who influences the purchases of their parents or caregiver. It’s an eye-opener. It was actually the questions that my son was asking that caused me to take this step in my career.

How so?

I’ve been working in the apparel industry for 18 years now, and one day I took my son to work with me. It was one of those days that I didn’t have childcare and had no choice. I’d said, “You’re going to come with mom, and you’re going to observe and kind of stay quiet and let mama finish her work.” But I took him on a tour of our warehouse facility and he started asking me questions. I was able to give very educated and informed answers to his questions, but over time I started to reflect on the answers I was giving and started to not feel good about myself, and the industry that I had been a part of. It’s amazing the sort of questions that come from kids who are very naive.

He stood in the warehouse and he said, “Well mama, where do all these clothes come from?’ So of course you know I explained it to him and he asked, “Well, why is everything in a cardboard box, why is everything packed in a plastic bag, and how does it get here, and who are these people that make all these clothes.” And with every answer, I felt worse about everything I was saying. It didn’t make me feel very good about myself.

At that point, I sort of took a step back from my career. I took some time off and started my own marketing practice, and during that time I was introduced to Fashion Takes Action and the opportunity to teach. It’s been a total turnaround and a huge shift in my mindset, as well as the mindset I’m trying to teach my family.

What does it take to make that ten dollar t-shirt?

We do role-play in the class where we take that $10 t-shirt and break down what every person in the supply chain gets or makes (in terms of payments) for that shirt. And at the end of the day you’re looking at a factory worker in Bangladesh making $0.03 and when you compare it to the value of that shirt you know a cotton farmer is making $0.27. So when we put it into visuals on a chart, you’re able to really see the impact of your purchase on the environment, and people working in the industry.

Ugh. That doesn’t make me, a mom who buys plenty of cheap clothes for me and my kids, feel great.

It’s tough because in some ways you don’t want to you know. There are means that people have to work within for their family budget and what they can afford. But, in a sense, we’ve sort of created that evil because we keep supporting it and buying it.

Do you share this information with your own kids?

I showed my son the documentary Made in Bangladesh and 15 minutes into it he was just crying and couldn’t continue watching. And within a few days, I saw him in his room going through his wardrobe removing anything with a Joe Fresh tag on it. He didn’t want to be part of it, he just thought this is what I can do — I can get rid of it all. He’s proud he knows and understands this stuff though, it’s been a huge eye-opener for our family and its sparked really meaningful conversations about how the choices we make impact not just our own lives but lives around the world.

So what do we do?

Being conscious about our choices goes beyond just saying don’t shop here, or shop there. Maybe you can reuse the clothing you’re buying at Joe Fresh, maybe you can be passing it on to someone else. Maybe we can slow the supply chain down by reusing what we have. The other thing we try to enlighten them on is you don’t even need it to buy more clothes. How many sweatshirts and t-shirts do you need? We educate kids on caring for their clothes and making them last longer. 40 years ago a sewing machine was on every dining room table in the house. If your jeans ripped you patched them, but now if your jeans rip you just go buy new ones — which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.


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