Continuing in my “(more) Thoughtful Living” series, a huge thing I’ve been passionate about in last 18 months is conscious clothing.
It’s easy to purchase clothing without thinking of where it’s made, who it’s made by, what it’s made from, and who it’s really costing.
Keep reading as I tell you about how I think about clothing has changed, and how purchasing clothing thoughtfully doesn’t have to be hard.
The Queen of Forever 21
Throughout high school if you asked me where I got my clothes were from, it was Forever 21. My friends stopped asking because they knew the answer would always be Forever 21. After graduating, an H&M location opened up and my purchasing shifted away from Forever 21. A slight upgrade, but not by much. So, I get it. Cheap, and trendy clothing is all too easy to purchase without thinking. It’s right there, waiting for you in the mall. I’ve been there.
People charge what for a shirt? People pay what for a good pair of jeans? People pay what for a pair of shoes? No way. $20 per item sounded good enough.
Then I became a small business owner and my world slowly began to shift. Once you start making your own products you understand why small clothing brands are charging what they do… and you start to wonder how the big brands are charging so little.
So let’s look at some stats about the fashion industry.
- Unsafe working conditions. In 2012, a garment factory caught fire in Bangladesh. Without the existence of fire safety laws, the company wasn’t required to provide smoke alarms or fire exits or have its employees perform fire drills. When the factory caught fire, the 11 members of the management were able to escape, while 112 women employed as seamstresses were engulfed in flames. Shortly after that, over 1,100 workers died in the Rana Plaza garment factory when the building collapsed. Again, there were no standards of what condition a building must be in to be considered safe for employees.
- Child labor. In Cambodia, the legal working age is 15 years old, but without diligent enforcement of this law, many clothing factories employ girls as young as 12. These children drop out of school to get a job because their families live in poverty. Abandoning their education, the girls become part of a system that forces them into a cycle that is impossible to escape. Regardless of the worker’s age, the average pay equates to roughly 50 cents per day. Fun fact: Sequins and beads are a sign of child labour.
- Human trafficking. In 2015, Patagonia, a clothing company known for their outdoor jackets and hiking equipment, decided to look deeply into the lives of the people who were making their clothing overseas. What they discovered was shocking. Despite the fact that garment workers in Taiwan make very little money, labor brokers will promise migrant workers that they can help them find a job—so long as they are indebted $7,000 in exchange for their employment. It takes two years of work for someone to make enough money to pay back the broker, but their term of employment only lasts for three years. So, if these people want a job again, they have to go through the process of paying the broker yet again, meaning that they only get to keep the salary of one out of every three years of work.
- Overworking and lack of pay. According to Human Rights Watch, some factories will simply refuse to pay them. These quotas can also be extremely high: 2,000 shirts stitched in a 10-hour day. But when workers can’t stitch fast enough, they’re often told to go home so they can be replaced.
And we haven’t even got into harmful materials, environmental consequences (like a pair of jeans needing the same amount of water to wash it as a human drinks in 5-6 years), or the tactics of fashion brands to make things to fall apart or to make you feel out of style.
Things need to change.
This is not okay. We need to change our purchasing habits to tell the fashion industry that we aren’t okay with their practices. If people matter to us and the earth matters to us, the way we shop needs to shift. But how?
Let's set higher standards.
Changing everything is challenging, and we can’t expect ourselves to do this perfectly. The idea of shopping “ethical” is pretty subjective because everyone’s standard of ethical are different. Every company’s standards for calling themselves ethical are different, so we can’t just believe everything we see and hear.
But, we can start to raise our standards. We can start to be a little more aware. We can start to put our money where our mouth is and live the beliefs that we say we have.
Where to start
1. Buy less, and wear what you have.
If you would change one thing about your purchasing habits, let it be this. Buy less. Many of us have overflowing closets and “nothing to wear.” And a lot of those clothes end up in landfills after 10 wears.
Here’s the question to ask before purchasing: “Do I need it?”
Now, “need” is subjective and it’s completely up to you to set your own standard. Need might mean you don’t have anything like it and would wear it regularly. Need might mean you feel really great and get a confidence boost when you wear it. It’s completely up to you so set your own standards! The goal here is to purchase less.
About 4 years ago, I switched to a “capsule” wardrobe (see: Project 333), which is the practice of having a small selection of clothing every season. The clothing count varies, but it’s often 30-40 items total (excluding socks and underwear). It was so helpful for me to get started that way and really narrow down my closet and keep only the clothes I really loved and felt good in. I haven’t maintained the practice for quite a while, but I’ve kept the principles in my life:
- Maintain a small-ish wardrobe of items I love.
- Buy less but buy better quality to make sure it lasts.
This year, we’ve taken it to the next level and put in a “no purchasing clothes and non-necessities” rule. Yep, we might be crazy. We haven’t bought clothes in 9 months - with one tiny exception… At the beginning of summer, I just didn’t feel good in any of my summer clothes, which were now a year old, and didn’t feel like it was necessary to hate myself for 4 months so I went out a purchased 2 shorts and 4 tank tops (second hand). It’s okay to break your own rules sometimes.
Pros to buying less:
- It’s easier to get dressed in the morning because you don’t have unlimited options.
- You can save money. If you’re replacing your many cheap items with a few high quality items, however, you might not be saving money.
- You step into stores and malls less when decide to buy less - which means less temptation to buy things you don’t need!
If you want to get rid of any clothes because they aren’t serving you, done fit, or don’t make you feel good - be sure to donate them!
2. Shop secondhand and vintage.
When you purchase, try to start purchasing secondhand and vintage! No, this doesn’t mean going to thrift stores to buy worn down Wal-Mart clothing - you can buy great clothes! Most cities and larger towns have great quality second-hand shops. Sometimes you have to dig through a lot of “okay” stuff to find the gems, but when you do it’s so worth it! You can easily find name brand items in good condition, or even with the tags still on.
You might be wondering, “Okay, but I’m still buying unethically made clothes then, right? What does that help?” It helps because your hard-earned money isn’t going to those brands, it’s going to your local business selling those second-hand items. They aren’t profiting from your purchase, but your local economy is, and you’re giving clothes a second life!
I’d recommend a place like Plato’s Closet, or Shop Take Care in Winnipeg, over a place like Value Village or MCC.
3. When you have to, purchase essentials or things you can’t find in the above channels from the places you know and love.
You don’t have to go cold turkey. Take small steps. When you can’t find the things you “need” through the channels above, don’t be scared to purchase those items from a store you know and love. Like I mentioned before, evaluate what you really need. If you are crunched for time or can’t find it second-hand, go buy it at a normal store! We don’t have to be completely legalistic about this and it’s okay to make exceptions.
When you’re ready to up your “sustainability” game, try to introduce the next two ideas as well! But don’t forget, keep buyings less and buy secondhand whenever you can! Note: This will likely be more expensive than your shopping habits used to be. This is where the whole “buy less” practice is super helpful. You might just want to do this for items you really love or for essentials that you can’t seem to find secondhand.
1. Shop from local makers
It’s always good to support your local economy by purchasing from local makers. You know exactly where your money is going and who gets to live because of your purchase.
To find local makers, search Etsy or visit maker markets in your area!
2. Shop from larger “ethical/sustainable” brands.
There are a lot of things that aren’t easy to find from local makers, but that’s okay because there are larger companies in the world trying to do good things too. Elise Epp has a slow fashion directory here with recommendations that has been helpful for me!
A few we’ve purchased from and recommend:
- Everlane. Most of my shirts and jeans are from here. They have great basics for affordable prices, but also a lot of high quality pieces that I haven’t dug into yet. They have transparent pricing so you see exactly what you’re paying for, which I love.
- Allbirds. These are our fave shoes and they’re made from Merino wool from New Zealand. Mitch and I both have a pair of sneakers, and I have a pair of loungers as well! If wool’s not your thing, they have shoes made of trees and sandals made of sugar!
- Matt + Nat. They’ve got great vegan leather shoes and bags, designed in Canada and consciously-made!
- Meundies. Our favourite place to purchase underwear and bralettes (and they have socks too). They are so comfortable. They don’t have bras with padding/underwire so if you need/want that you’ll have to look elsewhere. If you can get away without those - skip ‘em!
It doesn’t have to be hard or cost you tons of money to shop consciously.
Hopefully I’ve been able to emphasize this already, but let me say it again.
- A lot of the clothing industry has pretty negative effects on other people and the planet. We need to shift our purchasing to support brands that are conscious of the way they product their clothes and the materials they use.
- Changing our purchasing doesn’t have to be perfect and can start with small steps. It doesn’t have to cost us extra money either!
Have you tried a capsule wardrobe, switched up your purchasing habits, or made an effort to shop sustainably? I’d love to hear your journey with it! Let’s chat on IG at @jen.bianca.