Ethics, Clothing, and the Cash Strapped
In the wake of a series of tragedies in Bangladesh garment factories, a wave of articles expressed dismay at the lack of brand and consumer follow through after the initial outcry. Commenters especially branded a great mass of people apathetic and heartless, pointing to the exponentially growing number of ethical fashion companies while simultaneously stating that consumer habits showed no sign of change. Aspects of these responses are problematic. Accusing the average shopper of greed, entitlement, and willful ignorance isn't fair, and worse, it's a shallowly considered and completely unproductive response to a real and immediate problem.
Before Rana Plaza collapsed, every first-world adult grasped, at least in broad outline, the social, economic, and environmental realities behind their clothing purchases. And the vast majority of adult human beings do have an ethical compass and capacity for empathy. People don't continue to shop at The Gap, H&M or Zara out of ignorance or callousness, and insinuating such is lazy and unhelpful.
Any time I look at a price tag, I see the number of home cooked meals it represents. In Helsinki, a three pack of H&M undies equals three, no-frills, one-person dinners, a meal per pair. The cheapest fair trade, organic underwear I've found costs eight meals per pair. It's obvious that the production of a seven euro pack of underwear took advantage of a series of human beings and poisoned the environment, but my budget doesn't forgive. And it only covers myself - imagine being a parent compelled to do that kind of math. When you fall under a certain income bracket, participation in corrupt systems is a necessity.
People who earn less are frequently strapped not only for money, but for time. The oft proposed alternatives to chain shops rely on an abundance of one or the other. If you don't get lucky, finding a specific item of clothing that fits well and is in decent shape from a thrift store can take hours of browsing and visits to several shops. Making your own clothes or altering items from the thrift store for correct fit requires time to develop skill, time to pour into a project, and money for supplies. As for ethical fashion companies, recently designer Anniina Nurmi broke down the price of a jacket. This is wonderfully transparent, but does not change certain hard facts. 229 euros is one month of food, it's almost five months of transport to and from school, it's most of my yearly, migri mandated health insurance.
What to do? Well, behaving ethically isn't all or nothing. Plenty of people shop at thrift stores but get underwear, socks, and sudden need purchases at chain shops. Others save up for one purchase from an ethical fashion boutique while getting most of their clothes elsewhere. Some people buy cheap clothes and mend them rather than throw them away. Some people sew their entire wardrobe of casual clothes, but a structured work wardrobe is beyond their skill level.
All or nothing attitudes that guilt financially and time strapped people lead to nothing but despair and resentment. It sets up a bullshit moral hierarchy directly correlated to income. It's a sad aspect of modern life that behaving in a completely ethical manner, respecting human rights, animal rights, and the environment may be the providence of the rich only. But doesn't every little bit help? There's no shame in optimizing within your means or doing your best to choose the lesser evil.
So, how do you bring your purchasing behavior and your ethics into rough alignment on a tight budget?
When it comes to figuring out which bad choice is least bad, nothing replaces a little research. This can be daunting. The web is full of sites with conflicting or partial information, and chain stores are constantly changing their supply chain to maximize profits. The Ethical Fashion Forum, Clean Clothes Campaign, and Ethical Consumer's guide to high street shops provide lists that are quick to search and give basic information. I'm sorry to say that hours of research does not yield much more depth.
Should you find yourself in a fast fashion outlet, subject the clothes to some quality tests. Often similar styles, and even individual pieces in the same style, have noticeable differences in quality. Check the seams, are they straight? Does the stitching hold up to a little tugging? What's the fabric? Will it take on an ineradicable stench after the 20th wear (viscose and other cheap acrylics do that for me)? Will it pill if your bag rubs against it (cheap jersey and sweater material, but you can wear a jacket or vest and protect it)? Is it so thin that it will have pinholes after a couple of washes (summer weight jersey)? Do any embellishments like sequins, beads, or studs seem like they'll fall off? And lastly, be honest with yourself, do you anticipate wanting to wear it in a couple months, in a couple years? Basic mending skills can put years of life into cheap clothes. It's easy to re-stitch a seam or replace a button by hand.
If your wardrobe has gaps, clothes you know you'll need at some point, make quick, frequent visits to thrift shops. Ask about their delivery schedule and pop in for ten minutes on delivery days. This reduces the chance that you'll be caught without a button down shirt when you have an office job interview the next day - the sort of situation that sends a person straight to a big chain shop.
For basics, socks, and underwear, which can be difficult (or just gross) to find at thrift stores, there are a couple of almost affordable online options. Paige Wolf has put together a list of affordable eco-friendly apparel brands, unfortunately US-centric, but some ship internationally. Style With Heart provides a similar list for Europe and the UK, as does The Guardian, though the price range skews somewhat higher. American Apparel, great for cheapish basics made sweatshop free and including an organic line, also ships to the EU, though purportedly, and I believe it, their ad campaign regularly exploits underage models.
Animal treatment is a concern close to my heart, but choosing vegan shoes or a belt isn't unambiguous. Synthetic leather is made of petroleum in a process just as filthy as leather tanning. There's a good argument for purchasing a second hand fur coat rather than a synthetic one. When treated well, a fur coat can last for more than 100 years, perhaps 10 times the life of a synthetic coat made from environment-taxing materials. A well made pair of leather shoes in a style that can be resoled will last decades if you take care of the material. Will the vegan option fall apart in a year? Do you need to have a leather look (in some work contexts the answer is yes), or are there other, less environmentally harmful, more durable vegan options? I'm not saying these are black and white issues, and I respect that gut reaction and emotion enter into these decisions for many people. Personally, I see the sense in a second hand fur coat, but I can't bring myself to wear someone else's skin! But do think about your boundaries in light of the production realities and durability of different materials.
When your clothes give out, how do you dispose of them? If you can't wear it anymore but a piece of clothing still has life, donating to a thrift shop is the first thing that crosses many people's minds. However, it's good to check your thrift store's policies first. Many dump clothes they can't sell in developing countries, and this constitutes most of what they receive in donations. This damages the country's own textile and clothing businesses. Finland's energy waste program is pretty awesome, and it accepts most fabrics baring leather and PVC imitation. Incidentally, Finland also boasts the first no-waste denim fabric company. Price wise, their collaborations with designers have been only for the wealthy, but keep an eye on Pure Waste denim as prices may lower if the company is successful.
Finally, if you've a deficit of cash and surfeit of time, you can get involved with organizations making a difference. Labor Behind the Label fights for labor rights for textile workers in developing countries. Clean Clothes Campaign pressures chains to take accountability. The Ethical Trading Initiative does similar work. Or just write to a chain where you'd shop if only they'd clean up their act and tell them what they need to do to get your business.
Obviously, this is not a complete treatment of the subject. What steps have you taken to bring your clothing purchases more closely in line with your ethics? Have you found ethically responsible, affordable shops? Have a favorite, durable vegan material? Do you know of an organization doing good work? Please share in the comments!