We all knew it, right? After over 800 died in Bangladesh while sewing our cheap shirts, we were all struck with guilt… but seriously. We must have known. Inside. There was no way a pair of 20$ pants could be so affordable and have the workers paid a living wage. But you know what? Your 60$ pants are made in sweatshops too. Your 120$ pairs are as well. This isn’t a cheap fashion problem; this is a fashion problem, because even fancy designers outsource their production overseas. Yep, even tried and true all American brands like LL Bean & Ralph Lauren are getting their stuff made by environments that they have little control over. Don’t feel guilty. Feel angry.
As a huge fan of dresses myself, I have despised the Nike swoosh since I was 7 years old when my mother first told me about sweatshops. Did she terrify me? Yes. But she shaped me, and I’m grateful for it. Although I’ve tried to avoid what I called the “worst offenders” my whole life, this past year had me deciding to do a complete, ahem, makeover with how I look at stuff in general, especially clothing, which resulted in a New Years resolution to only buy from less cruel sources. Maybe you've seen the Story of Stuff, but you can always use a refresher. You see, our clothes (& other products!) are poorly made by underpaid people in horrific environments, AND it’s also really horrible for the planet. There is literally no bright side, except for the fact that there are ways to avoid this sick paradigm completely.
Buy second hand clothing.
I haven’t just got wind of this cool new fad called vintage, guys. I know I’m not the first girl with bangs to profess her love of all things second hand. Everyone from hipsters to Chatelaine is telling you the best way to save money is to get a little something-something second hand. So unique, they croon, putting some 80s polyester blouse on a waif in sweatshop made skinny jeans.
I am going to propose something that you may not have heard before: Buying second hand to save the planet, not to save money.
Don’t get me wrong; you can without question find lots of things on a very limited budget, but I think sometimes people get it in their mind that they can’t find the right second hand dress for 5$ so they go spend 50$ on a mall dress and confirmation bias their way into ignoring the resources that exist.
Then there’s the emotional insistence that second hand clothing is for the poors which I find so laughable that I will share this secret with you: the people who are small minded enough to judge others for shopping at second hand places are the very same who will use their billions of dollars to take a spaceship to Mars after the Earth climate changes itself to death or be to dumb to realize they’re drowning until their nose is under water. Pay them no mind.
Do not always look to second hand to find what is cheap; look and see what is good. It will guaranteed be more affordable than the brand new equivalent, even if it’s not the pittance that you were hoping for. When building the basic frame of what I would need in a “entering the workforce” wardrobe (pssst: mostly pencil skirts & wrap dresses), I looked through thrift stores and found a few suitable things for wonderful prices, but the bulk of it came through consignment shopping. Would I call them cheap? Never. Did I pay less money for my Diane von Furstenburg (insert heart palpitations here) than I would have for a new mall dress? Yes! And the item didn’t get made of thirsty cotton, packaged with oily plastic, and shipped in Styrofoam to come to a store to have me be the end user.
I still haven’t got this all figured out; obviously tights and socks are a bit of a challenge, but it is easier to step into the “second hand only” mindset when you embrace the full spectrum of what it can be.
-"Recycling" Maybe it’s because I’m 4’9 (and ¾) or maybe I’m just foolishly excited about things, but there’s nothing better than getting a bag of complete changed clothes back from my seamstress. Although many of the projects are simple “lop 4 inches off the bottom”, I’ve had sleeves changed, necklines dropped, dresses turned into skirts, and even an old beautiful but moth ridden muumuu stretched out over canvas to salvage it for my wall. Tailoring can seem like a hassle, but having your clothes actually fit is an amazing luxury, and I spent many of my broke pre-internship student days fishing quasi-acceptable but super cheap blazers and dress shirts for a few bucks and had them transformed into something good looking. If you keep an eye on the fabric of what you’re buying (no matter how pretty, you will regret polyester shirts) and you are careful to purchase things that you will actually wear, there isn’t much a seamstress, or costume studies student (!), can’t do to it.
-Locally owned stores are more likely to stock local (really?) & Canadian made products which have the added ecological benefit of not having to travel as far to get on your body. Plus, and this is very anecdotal, I feel as though local garment makers have a much better understanding of how a body works than whoever does the designs at ForeverH&Crombie. Why you gotta nip in at the THIGHS, tunic?!
-I am a former Gap employee, and although the brand has been absolutely slammed for using sweatshops in the past, the pressure caused them to be much more careful about the factories that they used. Hmm. See? They’re not perfect, but this is the place I feel most comfortable getting tights, flats, etc because I know they have super stringent processes. Old Navy and Banana Republic both fall under this umbrella.
-A word about American Apparel: Screw American Apparel, but that’s just me.
-Here’s why you should be checking for things that were made in Cambodia! I had no idea about this until I made it my mission to listen to every This American Life episode ever. Here’s the segment explaining why Cambodia is a solid choice, and why we can’t let that change.
-Other cheap stores: This is probably the most controversial point, but I’m a realist. If you do nothing else on this list, just please don’t buy Joe Fresh until they ensure that this will never, ever happen again. Twice annual independent evaluation of their factories. Programs that help their employees advance. These are things that have been done and can be done. If we don’t pressure them to change right now, they never will. So while the spotlight is on, at least buy your flats likely put together by nine year olds for pennies somewhere else so that Joe Fresh can get the message and make a difference.
Finally, consume less stuff. This doesn’t seem like a fun suggestion but I swear that it is. When you make the decision to consume less, you end up buying nicer things. For the longest time, I considered a very affordable set of glass wine glasses because we only had two, and wine glasses just seemed like something I should own because I am a fancy wine drinking adult. But I didn’t, because at the end of the day I didn’t love them, even if they were only a few bucks. I borrowed from neighbours. I asked my friends to bring glasses if they brought wine. I drank red out of mugs (hey, we were students!) So last week, when I purchased a beautiful set of 1960s crystal glasses while antiquing, it felt wonderful. They fit so much better in my cupboards because I don’t have a whole cheap, not nearly as beautiful set already.
I really don’t think there is such thing as “ethical consumption”, which isn’t something we like to hear, but maybe we need to hear it. It is only less harmful. One of my favourite thrift stores is owned by a big corporation. Another, that I won’t go to anymore, supports a group that doesn’t support basic human rights for the gay community. When pickings are slim at my favourite consignment shops, I can lament this ridiculous process, but I know that I have almost everything I need. The decision to stuff my closet may not be as fun at the time, but it means my house is tidier and more chic, which matters more anyways. I don’t have the attitude that I can change the world with what I buy, but I do think that being more conscious of my small decisions everyday can make me a happier, more complete person which wears a lot better than any dress.