Ilustration by @hannahelainesmith
I’ve never been one to be particularly wasteful. I still have makeup that I probably should have thrown away a while ago, I limit the amount of food that I buy so it doesn’t just end up molding in my fridge, and I’m still clinging to my iPhone 5S despite the fact that it basically has the battery life of my daily commute.
While I’m certainly cognizant of my footprint, a part of my attitude may stem from the fact that I’m a writer living in one of the most expensive cities in the country. With such little money to go around, I need to prioritize what I spend my cash on. One thing that I’ve always made a priority, though, is fashion.
While I’ve certainly never decked myself out in runway-ready duds, I keep up-to-date with the latest trends and like to experiment with my look. I’ve never been one to pass up a sale, and there’s nothing more cathartic than a weekend shopping trip when you’ve had a rough week. I never thought of my shopping habit as particularly problematic, aside from the headache I endured while moving in with my boyfriend and attempting to fit everything into our shared closet. That is, until I really delved deep into where and how American clothes were made.
According to KQED News, less than two percent of the clothes we wear are made in the United States, down from 90 percent in 1960, 70 percent in 1980 and 29 percent in 2000. Just about everything from my Doc Martens (apparently only their “vintage” collection is still made in the U.K.) to my cringey college club clothes, to my band t-shirts were made in Vietnam, China, Cambodia, Bangladesh or Thailand. All of these countries have incredibly lax labor laws and very low minimum wages – meaning American clothing manufacturers are able to churn out more clothes than ever before, at a fraction of the cost, leading to those rad $12 Forever 21 garb we all love so much.
Buy products made in America, then, right? Well, not quite. That Orange is the New Black storyline about prisoners fighting over the chance to sew panties because the job paid more than electrical or janitorial work wasn’t totally fiction. In fact, a number of American brands that boast “Made in the USA” on their tags use labor from prisoners making as little as 23 cents per hour, according to The Hill.
While I do love to stay on top of fashion trends, I also firmly believe in fair compensation for workers and ethical sourcing. Those things rarely come hand-in-hand. At first, in a panic induced by seeing how many of the clothes I owned were made in inhumane factories, I declared that I wouldn’t buy new clothes, unless they were produced ethically, for a year. I’ll admit that I only lasted a few months, until winter rolled around and I caved. Going from shopping a few times a month to not shopping at all was tougher than I thought. I realized I needed to do a complete overhaul of my approach to buying clothes.
Since buying US-made clothing isn’t as cut and dry as I expected it to be, I’ve begun doing a lot more research as to where my clothes are coming from. There are plenty of resources available online, like The Good Trade and Well Made Clothes. I’ve also found that it’s a safe bet that a brand that doesn’t make a point to let consumers know they source and manufacture ethically, usually doesn’t. There’s a reason the process of tracking down what factories a fast fashion brand sources from is so murky. The issue, however, is that when factories are safe, workers are paid fairly and corners aren’t cut, that tends to reflect in a brand’s price.
While the idea of “minimalism” has never been my cup of tea, I’ve been learning to embrace it. I do respect the idea prioritizing quality over quantity. Do you really need three pairs of fast-fashion black boots when you have one pair that can take the beating of Chicago winter after Chicago winter? Invest in a sewing kit and some shoeshine and keep your stuff in shape to last you.
More alternatives to putting your hard-earned money into the cycle of fast fashion is to seek out independent vendors and stores and to learn how to shop vintage. Not only were most of these pieces not made overseas or with prison labor, but the fact that vintage dresses and blouses have survived for four or five decades is a testament to the quality. While I personally love retro pieces that not only look like they’re straight from the 1960s, but actually are, there’s a fine line to wearing vintage and looking like you’re in a time-period costume. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to work vintage pieces into a modern wardrobe.
I realize that I’m very privileged to be able to even consider the factories in which my clothes are made. I’m lucky to have the means to purchase clothes at the rate that I do. Limiting my fashion footprint is certainly a process, and an overhaul of the fashion industry won’t happen overnight. However, there are more and more brands making a commitment to ethical fashion, so let’s hope and work for greater accessibility in the future.