It’s finally spring you guys! The air is still a little cool around here but the sun is warm and the trees are turning beautiful shades of green again. Since we are going to be putting away our coats and sweaters soon (some of you probably already have, lucky ducks!) I thought this would be the perfect time to do a short series on creating a fair wardrobe. All through this month we will cover topics like why fairly-made clothes matter, how to create a thoughtful wardrobe, where to find ethically-sourced clothing and more. I wouldn’t consider myself an expert on all this but it’s a topic I am passionate about so hopefully we will all learn something together!
Let’s get started. Brace yourself…this first post is going to be a long one!
A Bit About The Garment Industry
Unless you have been hiding under a rock, you probably know that most of our clothes are manufactured overseas. A quick glance in your closet will show clothing from far-flung countries such as Thailand, India, Nicaragua, China and Bangladesh. It’s hard to get a grasp on what the garment industry is REALLY like from all the way over here in the United States, thousands of miles away from any clothing factory so I want to stop short of going crazy and declaring that every single factory is a sweatshop and that manufacturing overseas is a horrible idea and it’s all just bad, bad, bad. Because I honestly don’t think that’s the case. There are many factories that pay a decent wage and follow safety regulations. Being a garment worker may not be the most glamorous job but it’s a viable option for thousands around the world. Unfortunately, right alongside these decent factories are sweatshops that get away with paying the workers as little as possible. The employees work long hours (60 or more a week), receive no overtime pay and are denied things like maternity leave and medical benefits. The factories are not up to code on safety regulations (as we saw last year with the Rana Plaza incident), workers are often harassed and in some extreme cases, barred from leaving the factory.
Garment factories are such a mixed bag, which makes it difficult to know if the clothing you pick up off the rack was made in a sweatshop or by a fairly compensated worker. To complicate the situation even more, major clothing companies sometimes work with a hundred or more different factories (Nike has reported working with 600!). While companies attempt to audit the factories, this is often an outward appearance of goodwill, as many of these audits are scheduled in advance so the factory has time clean up its act to appear legit for the review. Companies also have a difficult time tracing exactly where all their products were made, due to the volume of factories they work with and the practice of sub-contracting (when a factory parcels out some of their work to smaller, questionable factories to reduce workload, often under the radar of the retailers. This is frowned-upon but still happens. This incident is believed to be a case of sub-contracting.).
Since not all companies have “boots on the ground” to verify the conditions and supply chains of all their factories it’s hard to know what is the truth and what it being covered up. Some clothing companies do a decent job with ethical sourcing, thought almost every well-known clothing brand has been caught using a sweatshop at one time or another. It’s such a tangled web but it’s just how the industry is, unfortunately.
The good news is we can do something about this problem. And it starts at someplace as simple as your closet. At the heart of a fair wardrobe and ultimately, a fair lifestyle, is the desire to create good through our lives and our actions. We are so wealthy, you guys. We have access to so much and how we spend our money really has a lasting impact. We can choose to let things be as they are and just consume as we always have or we can step off the well-traveled path and chart a way through new territory.
More than ever I want to blaze a path of thoughtful, intentional purchases. I want to consume in a way that brings life to others. It feels wrong to amass more and more for our enjoyment if it allows someone else to remain in poverty. Are you with me?
We can choose to live a little differently. We can shift how we buy to reflect how we value others. It’s simple. And it can start right here, in our own homes.
Action Point: Your Personal Ethical Standards
Now that you know why buying fairly is important, it’s time to think about where YOU stand. We all have different lifestyles and resources so what a fair wardrobe looks like to one person may look entirely different for someone else.
For some, you may feel convicted to buy everything ethically.
Others might commit to buy only thrift or consignment clothing.
You might decide to support conventional retailers that are taking serious steps to ethically sourcing their products (H&M is a great example of this).
Or you may chose to take baby steps and change just one area of your wardrobe at a time.
I firmly believe there is no right or wrong way to approach ethical shopping.
Take a minute to think about where you stand in the whole ethical spectrum. Don’t feel pressured to base your standards on what you think you should do according to what other people say (including me!). Make it something that you can believe in and put into practice every day. Your convictions may not look like someone else’s but they don’t have to because they are YOURS. Any step you take toward buying thoughtfully (however big or small) is amazing!
If you are wondering, I fall somewhere in the middle of the above convictions. I am committed to buying fairly, which is most cases means shopping at a local thrift store and occasionally, if my budget allows, through a fair trade/ethical retailer. Every now and then, when I can’t find what I am looking for in the ethical shopping world I make what I feel is the best possible purchase from a normal retailer (case in point: this rug).
I highly recommend reading Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth Cline. I mentioned it before and I bring it up again because I thought the book was fascinating! I learned so much about the fashion industry and ethical clothing through this book.
For more information about fair labor and ethical news you can check out these websites:
Clean Clothes Campaign
International Labor Rights Forum
Huffington Post on Sweatshops
As we dig into this series on fair clothing, I would love to hear from you! If you have any questions or comments about fairly-sourced clothing please share away in the comments below or send me a note and I will hopefully address them later on this month!