Retail Therapy (It's "Nothing New")
On Aug. 31, 2014, I watched the short BBC documentary, "The Secret Life of Your Clothes," about the impact our cast-off clothing is having on the culture, economy, and ecology of third-world countries. Not wanting any further part in the subjugation of the world's most vulnerable people or the potentially irreversible pollution of our planet, I decided to forgo all newly made, mass-produced garments for a year.
Could I do it? Could I resist the lure of the adorable, ridiculously cheap garment du jour at Target or on Pinterest?
About half my closet is costumes (both vintage and new). And I don't pay much attention to what's trendy, except to notice it's been done before. But like most people, I enjoy a cute, affordable, new thing, whether I "need" it or not.
Fashion industry profit and production has exploded in the new millennium. It's now a $3 trillion industry. What's changed most is how much of that money goes into production and how much goes directly into the pockets of corporate executives.
We used to buy clothes the way we bought refrigerators -- to last. Well-made everyday garments could be handed down, reworked to the current silhouette, and worn for decades. Today, we're encouraged to buy clothes the way we buy paper towels -- to use quickly and throw away. They're far cheaper, so we can have a lot more of them. They fall apart, so we have to replace them.
Until just a few decades ago, nearly all our garments were made right here in the U.S., under the watchful and protective eye of the ILGWU.
Now, although profits remain here, 97% of garment production is outsourced. To meet shareholder demand for rising profits and consumer demand for lower prices, "fast-fashion" requires its manufacturers to produce more for less. Factory bosses must cut corners.
With no labor unions, no OSHA oversight, and no environmental protection laws, that means ever-worsening conditions for the 40 million garment workers in third-world countries who produce clothing for western markets. Most are women and children, earning less than $3 per day.
In 2013, more than 1,100 people died and 2,500 were injured when the Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed in Bangladesh. Earlier that day, workers had been forced to return to the building after reporting cracks in the walls.
We watched the carnage on TV, briefly horrified. Very sad, yes, but these people are not like us and they're so far away. Our fleeting guilt is assuaged when we're told that this sort of tragedy is just part of the "development" process. In fact, low-wage work in appallingly dangerous conditions are their "least-worst option" and "a necessary step on the road to becoming a first-world country."
Really? Isn't it actually a choice we make with every purchase? When we buy a $10 dress at H&M or a $5 t-shirt at Old Navy, we are voicing our approval. We know we may only wear the thing a couple of times, but at that price, who can resist, right? And why should we?
In 2015 we will buy 80 billion pieces of new clothing. That's 400% more than we bought in 1995.
Producing and processing that staggering quantity of goods at ever-lower prices is having an unprecedented impact on the environment. Today, only the oil industry creates more pollution.
Birth defects, mental retardation, and cancers all directly linked to pesticides are exponentially higher in areas where heavily treated cotton is grown. People living downstream from leather processing plants where unregulated runoff contaminates the drinking water and soil suffer from skin and digestive disorders.
The average American now discards 82 pounds of clothing a year, adding a staggering 11 million tons of textile waste (most of it non-biodegradable) to landfills.
And giving your unwanted clothes to charity doesn’t help. It merely spreads the problem around. Just 10% of our donated clothes are sold in thrift shops. The rest arrive, by the ton, in enormous, shrink-wrapped parcels at the markets of poor Caribbean and African countries. Our endless stream of cast-offs, dubbed "dead white people's clothes" by locals, have generated an entire industry that is wreaking havoc on traditional manufacturing and threatening local cultures.
So, enough with the depressing statistics. Here's what happened during my year of "austerity." First of all, I spent some money. With a self-imposed ban on anything newly mass-produced, I gave myself free license to buy whatever vintage, antique, individually hand-made, and second-hand items I wanted. Here are a few of my acquisitions.
Not shown are the gorgeous 1920s tap pants, the original Civil War bonnet and 1910s dresses, and a knit jacket from the consignment store.
It really wasn't a very trying or difficult experience. In fact, I was tempted off the wagon only twice. First, with the arrival of the Garnet Hill clearance catalog, and second, oddly enough, with the Chadwick's of Boston catalog. Those old-fashioned, slightly frumpy clothes really appeal. I can't deny my traditionalism. But I can find the same thing, better made, in vintage versions. A 50s pencil skirt, or even a union-made 80s version, will always outdo and outlast a modern made-elsewhere version. Plus, it'll have a hem to work with. I resisted.
It's now Sept. 7, 2015, and the challenge is over. I still haven't bought anything new. I need to restock my underwear drawer, and since I tend to wear everyday lingerie until it's unwearable, I suppose I can go ahead and click "buy." Still, I hesitate. It takes 3 weeks to create a new habit, and I've had 53.
This experiment has definitely made me a more conscious and conscientious consumer. I'll never again say, "It's so cheap, it's silly not to buy it, even if I only wear it once." That's no longer the bargain it once seemed.
There's one question the original BBC documentary that inspired my plan, and the even more revealing "The True Cost" (which I watched more recently and highly recommend*), do not address. Namely, how does the production of insanely overpriced designer goods compare?
If I go to a high-end department store or boutique, and pay $175 for a pair of jeans or $75 for a t-shirt, where have all those extra dollars gone? Was it into advertising and merchandising, into the pocket of the designer or the corporation? Or did it go to the responsible production of the garment? I have my suspicions, and I'll need to do more research.
* Many of the statistics I've quoted come from this film. I've consulted various sources for corroboration.