Women and children are dying in factories in Bangladesh. Cambodian factory workers are being killed in the streets while they protest for a living wage salary. Buildings are collapsing on top of the people working inside, simply because the factory owners refuse or can’t afford safer conditions for those people working 12-hour days to sew hundreds of $10 dresses. Kids in India are being poisoned by chemicals sprayed in cotton fields and farmers are killing themselves with the pesticides they are forced to use because they can’t afford to keep their own land. Meanwhile, I just bought a really cute sweater at H&M on sale for $10.99. And now I feel like shit about it.
Shopping has always been my personal vice. And because I’m not a rich girl, $5 t-shirts at Old Navy are my best friend. If one gets irreparably dirty from sweat or muddy goat hooves, I can easily let it go and get a new one. But that’s the problem, friends. We just go and get a new one. And we throw the old one in the trash. If it’s not too dirty, but we’re “tired” of it, we can always send it off to Goodwill.
Anyone else been inspired by the Marie Kondo trend lately? This past Sunday I sat in a line of cars donating carloads full of bags of stuff. Stuff they didn’t like, stuff they didn’t need, stuff they bought on a whim and changed their minds about. And I was one of them. I’ve always believed I was doing a good thing, giving my clothes a new life, offering them ‘cheaper’ to those who couldn’t afford retail prices. But it turns out I’m just another part of the problem. An ungrateful, spoiled, consumer.
Yesterday, I got myself into a whole load of trouble. First, I listened to Rachel Hollis’ Rise podcast with Able founder Barrett Ward. Able is a cute, basic fashion brand located here in Nashville, and they fairly employ women both here in town and all over the world with honest wages. They teach them a trade making leather goods, jewelry, denim, and shoes so that they aren’t only given charity – they make a new life for themselves. I love their bags, and it’s always felt like a nice pat on the back to support a brand doing good in the world. But I never really thought much further than that. In the podcast, Barrett mentioned a documentary called The True Cost that reveals the horrors of the fashion industry…especially Fast Fashion, which is the true culprit of the “buy a $5 tee then get a new one next week” mentality. I was genuinely curious, so I wanted to watch it.
But what I saw made my heart sink. People risking their lives every day to make us cheap clothes. And not only risking their lives, but making mere pennies for it. Like I said, I’m not rich, but I’m practically a millionaire compared to these folks. And here I am living in a luxe, cushioned world of safety where I can run out to Target and buy a $15 denim shirt on a whim, thinking almost nothing of it.
Brands like Able, People Tree, and Everlane are working towards safer working conditions for these people, as well as better wages to ensure their health, comfort, and ability to get by on a daily basis. Meanwhile, I’m standing here staring at my closet feeling guilty about everything I own.
So what to do?
The truth is, getting rid of everything in a fit of rage will only add to the problem. These items I own have already been bought. The damage is already done. Plus, many of them I’ve had for years and truly love and wear on a weekly basis. Throwing things out, donating them….it’s certainly no appreciation for the sweat and blood that was put into those items. And rushing out to buy more ethical fashion right this moment only makes my personal problem worse. I don’t need more stuff right now. I’ve got plenty.
What hurts the most is how ignorant I’ve been. The documentary was right – I see a cheap price tag and think nothing of it. It’s a good deal. Great for me! But the catch is, I can’t afford to drop $45 on a white t-shirt that will likely have coffee or wine spilled on it over the next month. Granted, I should be taking better care of the ones I own now, but accidents happen, right? Especially on a farm.
No, the only thing in my power right now is to NOT go shopping. To see that tempting sale at Old Navy and just say no. To walk on by H&M. To take a good, hard look at that $3.80 pair of leggings at Forever21 and really think about why and how they can be that cheap. To re-consider all the trendy influences I can often be drawn to and just think about who I am and what really defines me. Heck, I love white t-shirts and black denim. That’s almost all I really need.
I’m already evaluating every item I’ve put on my body today, silently thanking the hands and the humans who made these items, praying they’re still okay over there. And maybe, for now, being mindful is the best thing I can do.
The next time I do “need” something, maybe I can be a little more conscious of where it’s coming from. Maybe, if I’m not dropping dollars on all that cheap stuff, I can afford a nicer t-shirt that actually supports the woman who made it. Though I don’t know if there’s another pair of jeggings out there that will fit me just as perfectly as my Old Navy Rockstars.
Bu of course, one person saying ‘no’ to fast fashion won’t change much. So if you’re curious, I encourage you to watch The True Cost (it’s on Netflix) and think about your own role in all of this. Able is working to encourage other brands to publish the wages of the people who make their products in the hopes that consumers will be discouraged to purchase from those who aren’t ethical, and encouraged to purchase from those who are. And of course, there are probably plenty of ways to become more outspoken about this issue and press for change.
It’s hard to deny the siren’s call of a quick, easy fast fashion fix. But it’s harder to enjoy when you face the reality of its origin. Sure, if things change, clothing will get more expensive, but that price hike will also encourage us to be more mindful about the items we do bring into our lives, whether it’s a sweater, a tee shirt, or a cheap little Buddha statue from TJ Maxx.