At first glance, you might think that fashion is as superficial a topic as there ever was, and let me tell you from the get-go that I agree with you, to a certain point. I think we can all concur that there are deeper, more urgent, more important issues in life than worrying about clothes, nobody disputes that. Where I’d like you to divert a bit from this view, however, is by realizing that while considering the very basic fact that we all need to wear clothes, we each individually make very specific decisions, on a daily basis, of not only what to wear, but what to purchase, and where, and this is where it gets interesting. For whatever reason, we all choose to adorn our bodies, or shroud them, in billions of different ways, oftentimes not giving it more than a passing thought. What I would like you to consider, however, is the thought process that you undergo not necessarily when you choose what to wear out of the many (or few) choices you have available in your closet, but where you shop to get it there, and why.
You might think you’re too busy to think about clothes; all that matters is that they fit on your body and within your budget, right? Sure, I respect that, it’s a very practical way of thinking about a daily decision that really should be among the simplest to make in your daily routine. But let me interrupt your thought-process right there: I’m not going to preach to you about how you should dress, or what is acceptable to wear, that’s a very personal decision for you alone to make. What I would like to do is offer you a few reasons why you might want to go beyond the practical aspects, and consider farther reaching implications, that actually aren’t as superficial as you might think.
Did you know that the fast fashion industry is the highest polluter after fossil fuel?
Consider this: What do you think about when you buy clothes? Do you shop where the price is right? When shops have clearance sales? When the new season approaches? When your clothes are getting old and tattered and need to be replaced? Although I appreciate sales like any other gal, allow me to offer you some insights about mark-ups that I learned in business school: merchandise comes out at peak price just before the new season begins, and has been designed and manufactured months before that, all costs and profits taken into account within the price on the tag. The widest profit goes to the label, not the makers of the actual piece of clothing, and the materials, fuel and shipping costs are all covered before the clothes even reach the store. Everything must be paid for before the garments are made. What my accounting Instructor explained to us, was that everything is covered, including initial profit, through the sale of the first 30% of stock, the rest is bonus, and who gets the bonus? You guessed it, the label. Not the workers anywhere along the chain of supply, the profits go directly to the top, and there they choose what to do with the surplus. Let me assure you that unfortunately, in most cases, that doesn’t translate into better pay for the people making your garments, nor for more jobs closer to home to cut on fuel and shipping. In fact, the price of clothes has been consistently decreasing in the last decades, despite the fact that materials are as expensive if not more expensive to produce. So who’s bearing the brunt of the cost-cutting? The people at the bottom of the chain: the seamstresses, and the quality of materials (by cutting fabric on bias – literally cutting the corners – rather than straight down the knit – ie: using scraps – making your shirts bend out of shape the first time you wash them, forcing sloppy sewing to cut time expenditures per garment, and by exporting manufacturing jobs to the most desperately poor nations, who despite not making a living wage, and suffering unfair and unhealthy working conditions, are willing to work for a few bucks a day, because they hold out hope for improvements, and have an often misplaced trust in the respectability of the label).
Fashion designers and labels have become mega giants in the industry, and workers barely make a living wage. What does this mean? It means that you going to your supermarket to purchase the cheapest available pair of jeans is encouraging big companies to continue to move their manufacturing to the most desperate areas of the world. You might initially think: “Great! They need the work, why not give it to them?” well, it’s not that simple. Because they are in dire straits, they may initially accept substandard working conditions, but you can’t tell me you actually believe that this should be a standard to be maintained, especially knowing that the label is making a profit from the first 30% of existing stock! Shouldn’t the people who make your clothes get a taste of the rewards? Wouldn’t it be more ethical to treat people, regardless of how poor they are, with dignity and respect? Is it fair for labels to continue to rake in the profits, while their workers barely make enough to feed their families?
Add to this the fact that the vast majority of clothes end up in landfills at the end of the day. Consumers, because they’ve gotten used to the cheapness and constant availability of new trends (literally every couple of weeks), have gotten into the habit of purchasing more than they need, not fixing what they own, not even bothering to care for it properly, because oftentimes it’s simply cheaper and easier to just replace it than to care for it. Think about what message this is sending to the person sitting in Cambodia, Bangladesh, India, China, or Sri Lanka, making your t-shirt for 3 dollars/day: is this an acceptable bargain from their perspective? These workers have very little wiggle room, because they need the job, they’re willing to persevere, though at a great cost to their health and living conditions, so you can buy a t-shirt for 3$ that you’ll sooner toss in the garbage than stain-blot or iron back into shape? If they protest, they might loose their job altogether, and the manufacturer might shut down completely to be replaced by an other, more desperate and destitute community willing to do the dirty work for less. The only way that the labels will change is through their bottom line: find out which companies are guilty of underpaying their workers and cutting corners in their materials and assembly, and refuse to purchase their products, even when they’re on sale. You can check out these sites (Ethical Fashion Forum, , this paper on accountability in the fashion industry, and this site, with all sorts of fascinating information) to learn more about best practices of many clothing lines, and decide for yourself who you want to support.
If you don’t want to turn your clothing purchases into a major research project, or you can’t afford to buy the more ethically made clothes on the market, then simply buy used. There are countless thrift stores all over the world, who sell clothes and other goods that are still in good shape. There’s no shame in avoiding the malls and attempting to reduce our landfills. But as much as I like this last idea, and subscribe to it myself, I would caution you about two important aspects in this regard: 1) the vast majority of clothes donated to thrift stores aren’t sold locally, but shipped to other continents, threatening the local and traditional clothing industry, sometimes to the point of no return (many African manufacturers of traditionally made and sourced clothes faced bankruptcy due to the enormous influx of cheap used clothing from Europe and elsewhere); and 2) many thrift stores operate for profit, so donating to them, although marginally helping the local community – through donations that the company makes to a number of charities, and through the creation of local retail jobs (who work for minimum wage) – benefits the heads of the company first and foremost, making this a slightly sideways shift, rather than an uplifting gesture for the global economy.
If you’re going to donate what you don’t wear, and want to simplify your wardrobe, go for good quality that endures the test of time and wear, and donate to actual charities (such as your local youth center, homeless shelter, battered women’s shelter, Salvation Army, place of worship, refugee support group), or give them to people you know, perhaps you could even exchange!
If you’d like to learn more about this, I highly recommend watching these two documentaries (Minimalism, , and The True Cost), both available on Netflix, and if you want to hear from fashion designers who are concerned about this, I recommend this series by Justine Leconte. You can also read more on this topic on Wikipedia. While you’re researching the subject further, consider looking at these two blogs as well, where they discuss the use of plastic and how you can reduce your consumption of this highly polluting material, and this one here,, where ways of getting your kids involved in the process of caring more conscientiously about our planet is explored, and celebrating Environmental Day.
I hope this has given you some food for thought before you go on your next shopping trip, and if so, please share your thoughts in the comments below!
PS: If you’re in a pinch, and looking for ethical festive clothes for this Eid, then check out my affiliate link toShukr. I’ve discussed their philosophy in this post . If you’re outside the US, please contact me for my affiliate link for your country, it won’t cost you a penny more, and will send a small commission my way. Also, you might want to check out this post, where I discuss this subject from a different perspective. When in doubt, check out the About tab of the company you wish to purchase from, the language used and details provided often give quite a clear picture of their philosophy.
Until next time