This post is part of my series, “Kickin’ It Old Skool: Why and How We Are Old-Fashioned” or KIOS for short. If you’re new to the series, please read my disclaimer before continuing on. I’m keeping a table of contents to this series here so you can see what I’ve already written about and what more there is to come.
I decided that I’m never going to finish this series unless I just start writing*, even if my posting is not as consistent as I’d like it to be. So here goes!
Clothing is a topic I haven’t delved into quite as thoroughly as others in this “Grooming”/KIOS series. I have more thoughts of what I want to do than thoughts of what I’ve achieved but I suppose those are useful also, right?
Much of what I know about this topic, I learned from reading the book, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion** by Elizabeth Cline. After I read this book (back in March 2013), I reviewed it on Goodreads*** and wrote,
Great, now I can’t buy clothes at the mall anymore either, just like I can’t buy food at the grocery store. That’s the problem with knowledge – once you know, it’s hard to go back to spending without a conscience.
Fair warning – this might happen to you too if you keep reading!
I certainly have never been a “clothes horse”. I really don’t like to shop – it stresses me out more than gives me pleasure, especially when shopping for clothes. I’ve never been good at figuring out what’s fashionable and connecting that to what looks and feels good on me. So, generally speaking, I just avoid shopping for clothes unless I absolutely have to. After I moved to Baltimore, I went through a relatively serious clothing crisis, not being used to people dressing up for events and also not being used to needing warm weather clothing. At home in Alaska, it’s OK to wear jeans to everything, even weddings!
Me, circa 1995. I loved that flannel shirt! No wonder I often feel under-dressed in the East! Would any East Coast girl think of wearing flannel for her senior picture? :)
I feel like I have too many clothes but based on the people highlighted in Overdressed (including the author), I have very little. None the less, what clothing I do own I’ve generally purchased as cheaply as possible, from Target, super sales at LOFT or The Gap, etc. I do own a few items from JCrew, purchased with Christmas gift card presents. But other than that, especially now that I’ve been a SAHM for almost 4 years, my wardrobe is pretty basic and limited (i.e. boring). So I figured that should give me a free pass out of worrying about clothing, right?
WRONG. It turns out that buying cheap (or even relatively expensive) clothing, in any quantity, is a ethically, environmentally problematic action. Most (usually all) clothing sold in any chain or department store (i.e. Target, Walmart, any store at the mall, even most boutiques, etc., etc.) is manufactured in poor countries where the workers work in hazardous conditions, are paid next to nothing, the manufacturing process wreaks havoc on the environment, and big corporations get rich. There’s no getting around the fact that by buying the clothes that we do, we are contributing to both human and environmental damage in countries around the world. As Americans, the way we dress ourselves is incredibly unsustainable plus terrible for the environment and for all who are in the supply chain to get it to us.
Even knowing all of that, my children still wear clothes that were purchased new from Target and Kohls****. Last summer, right after reading Overdressed, I actually cried a few tears of guilt and shame as we were buying Ellie a few pairs of shorts that she needed, knowing that probably some kids in Bangladesh has sewn them for her and hadn’t gotten paid anything worth speaking of. (This was right after the Bangladesh factory tragedy.)
And yet, we still bought them. She needed shorts. It’s really hard to know what to do with this. To me, it’s a much harder issue to solve than food. With food, you can make little changes here or there that eventually add up to big changes. Although eating ethically and sustainably can cost significantly more, it doesn’t have to (i.e. just eat very simply if you can’t afford to buy the more expensive items). Clothing is more of an all or nothing issue.
So what do we do about clothing going forward? There are a few options that I know of:
- Buy organic, USA-made, fabric and make all our clothes myself. (It’s just not going to happen, unless I hire a nanny so I can sew full time – not a bad idea actually!).
- Buy organic clothing made in America and pay lots of money for it, rightfully and justifiably so. (better but still really expensive).
- Buy all used clothing (from thrifts stores, consignment shops, etc) – much better because no new resources are being expended or people being exploited by your purchase but way more difficult than just buying new. On the negative side, sometimes, it’s just not possible to find what you need when you need it. On the plus side, although this is time consuming, you’ll end up spending a lot less money in the end.
- Pay designers/producers for pieces of clothing that I will wear long-term, understand that this will require a significant investment, and be OK with wearing a just a few pieces of really well-made clothing for a long time. Find these people either locally or on the internet via Etsy and other sites. (This will require a significant amount of commitment on my end to figuring out what my “style” is and then finding the perfect pieces to invest in. Sounds a little stressful to me but also a good way forward.)
- For the kids, seek out hand-me-downs whenever possible. This works great for the little kids but gets harder once the kids get older (there are fewer hand me downs that survive the wear and tear of a kid).
- Do some combination of #1-5, along with accepting the fact that we’ll probably end up buying some problematic clothes from chains also.
Some final thoughts:
- I want to get better at sewing clothing so that I can at least supply a few items to our wardrobe, which will lessen our reliance on ready-made clothing.
- I need to force myself to go thrift-store shopping regularly. For me, this might be just once a month but that would at least help me to find a few used items for my kids and myself.
- My new mantra? Make more clothes, buy way fewer clothes, be willing to spend more on what I do buy.
*the most obviously obvious statement ever.
**I highly recommend reading it. (The Baltimore County Library has it.) You’ll learn much more than what I’ve summarized here.
***If you search for this book, on Goodreads or elsewhere, beware a similarly titled book that’s way inappropriate in nature. I accidentally clicked on it and was a bit shocked and dismayed. So be doubly sure you’re choosing this one (look for the subtitle).
****A bit more on my kids’ clothing: We are super blessed to have two older boy cousins who have been very generous in giving Mark all their clothes as they have outgrown them. So Mark is almost exclusively wearing hand-me-downs and we love it! As for Ellie, her Yiayia loves to buy her clothes and we also are super blessed by this. I do not mean to complain in any way about the places where Yiayia buys Ellie’s clothes, because we really are so grateful for her generosity. Sadly, however, the reality is that it’s problematic to buy new clothes, regardless of who is paying for them.
Art of Simple has a great Ethical Shopping Guide that has a fairly large clothing and shoes section along with sections for jewelry and accessories. I haven’t even touched the topic of jewelry (i.e. blood/conflict diamonds) and that has its own set of issues and considerations.
Free2Work has lots of information about industry and the modern day slave trade. Search for “Apparel” to see scorecards on lots of different companies. Walmart gets a D+ but Lacoste gets an F: proof that price doesn’t mean much when it comes to treating workers well. Happily, Fruit of the Loom gets an A- and that’s the kind of underwear we buy for Ellie at Target. So there are some bright spots!
A bit more about ethical clothing suppliers
This company has organic T-shirts, grown and made in North Carolina!
If you’d made it to the end of this very long post, I’d love to hear your thoughts! How about you? How do you/have you handled the issue of buying clothing responsibly?