Clothes Shopping with a Conscience

The case for avoiding sweatshop manufactured garments is overwhelming. Heck, nobody wants to support unethical labor practices, low wages, child labor, you name it. But the cheapest garments on the market tend to be made in factories located in countries where such practices are commonplace. What's a Christian to do?

Clothes Shopping with a Conscience: Shopping from the Heart

Have you ever thought of where your clothes are made? If you're like me, you probably just walked into a store, found a garment you liked, tried it on, checked the price tag, and if the price was right, you bought it. What's the problem?

The problem is that the entire garment industry is upside-down today from the way it was 100 years ago. Consumers benefit from this massive industry upheaval by paying the lowest prices ever for staple items like jeans, underwear, t-shirts and socks. Clothing prices today are lower than they ever have been through history. People, mostly women, are also liberated from the time-intensive task of sewing all of the necessary garments for their families.

Walk into any store and you can find the latest runway or movie fashions sported by your favorite model or actress on the shelves almost instantly from when they hit the media. That's because with today's computers, savvy clothing manufacturers snap photos at Fashion Week, upload them via their camera phones, and translate them into garments within weeks, not months or years.

Many (but not all) of those clothing manufacturers are located in Asia, in countries like China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India. The biggest cost to make clothing isn't usually the fabric or the notions, the zippers and buttons. It's the labor. 

Garment-making is labor intensive, and so the garment industry moved from local factories to overseas factories as labor costs rose. When you have to pay your workers more, you have to raise your prices. Consumers balk at higher prices and complain. Store owners complain to their wholesalers. Wholesalers then seek the lowest labor costs they can find...which means outsourcing the work to poor countries with lax labor laws.

Therein lies the problem with our current shopping paradigm.

How Long Do You Keep Your Clothes?

I keep my clothes until they don't fit or they wear out. I rarely get rid of clothes anymore because they aren't in fashion. That's because I look for classic, timeless pieces...things that generally don't go out of style. That's why this blog is called A Return to Elegance and why I love styles reminiscent of designers like Chanel, Yves St. Laurent, Halston...well, you get the picture.

I'm the exception, rather than the norm. Most Americans own so many clothes that they have to buy storage boxes for them. You've seen all the gadgets on shopping channels: vacuum bags that help you squish more clothes in less space, space-saving hangers, closet organizers, shoe racks. We wouldn't need those items 50 years ago because:

  • Trends changed more slowly, so you could wear garments longer. Women were also taught to sew, so they could update an outfit simply by raising or lowering a hemline, changing collars or buttons, etc. 
  • Garments were made from higher quality materials, so they lasted longer.
  • You paid a lot more for your clothes. You were motivated to keep them because you'd invested more in them.
  • You mended your clothes rather than discarded them when they showed slight signs of wear and tear.
  • You owned a lot less, because you needed fewer clothes. Being fashionable and stylish meant finding flattering garments that suited you, not chasing the trend of the day.
  • There were fewer places to shop, and shopping was more of an ordeal or treat. Today, women think nothing of running out at lunchtime and buying a few new items...sometimes several times a week!

Look in your closet now. How many black pants or skirts do you own, pairs of running shoes, t-shirts?

Where were they made?

Factories Overseas: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

In the book, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, author Elizabeth L. Cline details numerous visits she made to garment manufacturers worldwide as part of the research for her book. She visited factories in America, China, Central America, and other countries.

 Here is what she discovered:
  • Quality of life for factory workers varied not necessary according to the laws or business practices of the country, but to the demands of the wealthy customers purchasing the final garments. In other words, if the American-based companies contracting the manufacture demanded better working conditions, they could get them. Market forces are changing the social situation. 
  • Some factories in China had very humane working conditions. Workers slept in modern dormitories with shared rooms, bathrooms like a college dorm, and meals served cafeteria style. Others were just what you'd imagined, and horrible. But in China today, the increased opportunities for better-paying work around the country mean that factories must make their conditions better to attract more workers. In other words, again marketing forces are changing the social situation, not the other way around. 
  • Garments made in America and in better factories, where workers have more, charge more to the end consumer. Eileen Fischer, for example, is an American made brand of women's clothing where you'll pay $300 for a dress you'd probably pay $50 for in another store. The reason the price is higher is that it reflects the higher costs of employing American workers, the higher insurance and salaries required by our government.

The Environmental Impact of the Garment Industry Is Staggering

Another thing that I learned during my research into this topic was the disturbing news that the garment industry creates an inordinate amount of waste that directly and negatively impacts the environment. I don't know why this never occurred to me before. I guess I always assumed that those garments I dropped into the Goodwill or St. Vincent de Paul collection box were gratefully received by someone in another country who didn't have anything.

In truth, much of what is donated is sold for scrap rags! It's sorted, and if it doesn't make the cut to go into a thrift shop, it's bundled by the pound and sold off to companies who make rags, break the fibers down, or yes, ship the garments to Africa or other developing worlds. 

But fashion and tastes in Africa are different than America. Yes, poor African people want what's fashionable, and the vendors there will pick through the bulk garment lots from American and sell only what their public wants to buy. They're capitalists, after all.

What's left is a mess of garments that end up in landfills. Worse, newer fibers made from hydrocarbons don't break down. Polyester and rayon are often added to fabric today to make the cotton and other natural fiber content added into the mills go further, and to make garments stretch and wash better. Yet these man-made fibers are dreadful for the environment both in their making and in their breaking down. 

Shopping with a Conscience: Action Steps You Can Take

Today's complex, interrelated system of supply and demand, manufacture and trade, can make it almost impossible to shop with 100 percent certainty that your garments weren't made under inhumane and unfair labor conditions. Even if they were, buying a lot of clothes you wear only once is harmful to the environment. 

Now, some of you won't care too much about that, and I get it. I really do. But for those of you who pull out your kit of essential oils whenever someone gets sick, or who choose organic produce and cosmetics and cleaning supplies...your clothing choices may actually make a great impact than that organic head of lettuce you just put into your shopping cart. Buying fewer garments may mean less clothes end up in landfills, polluting the land and sea in places too poor to say "no" to having a garbage dump on their doorstep.

I've been mulling over these concepts for many months now. This past week, someone on a modest fashion forum that I moderate asked about just this very question. The group member asked, "How can I avoid purchasing clothing from sweatshops? I don't want to support poverty and unfair labor practices, but how do you buy clothes these days without buying from the countries that support them?"

Here's a longer version of my answer to her. I follow these principles, and feel I can shop not with a clear conscience, but at least with a clearer conscience that my actions support my faith. As a Christian, I want my faith to infuse everything in my life, down to where I buy my clothes. I feel that these steps, today, make that reality. 

Tomorrow I may change or add steps, but today, to shop with a clean conscience and a loving heart, I choose the following:

  • Buy less. It's going to go against the grain for those of you used to rushing out and buying clothes on a whim. But try spending less. Make it a Lenten sacrifice. Shop from your closet first, trying to combine new outfits to come up with a new "look."
  • Buy from thrift stores. Buying used garments may sound like a funny way to shop with a conscience, but shopping from your local thrift store does a few good things. It adds money back into your local economy. It supports whatever charity runs the shop. It uses an existing garment rather than calls for creation of a new one. It's economical and has a lower carbon footprint than buying new.
  • Buy used. In addition to thrift shops, shop on eBay, and other clothing sites that encourage thrifty secondhand purchases.
  • Buy handcrafted.  I love shopping for accessories on Etsy. I purchase handmade jewelry, purses, and hats on Etsy. I'm saving my pennies to buy some handmade vintage reproduction items I've seen there. I have also contacted local seamstresses to ask about having dresses made. Look for tailors in your area who do custom work. You purchase the fabric and pattern, you pay them to make the garment. It's more expensive than off the rack, but you get an elegant, one of a kind garment and support your local economy.
  • Have clothes altered. In addition to buying used, you can have a tailor alter existing items if you have some nice pieces you need restyled.
  • Learn to sew. Sewing isn't for everyone. I'm not very good at it. But do learn how to fix buttons, hooks and snaps, and other simple mending tasks. Instead of throwing out ripped garments, fix them.
  • Buy from small companies. I love ModestApparel USA, a small online store that allows you to customize your garment with pockets or not, hem length, etc, because the clothes are made in the USA by a network of people working from home. eShakti works on a similar model but has people in India and other countries make the garments. Small companies and online companies have less overhead and can afford to pay their workers better. 
  • Donate only good clothes. It's a loving and kind gesture to donate clothing to a charity, but please only donate what you yourself would wear. The poor don't want your ripped t-shirts and stained sweaters, either. They deserve better. Recycle (see below) or throw out the clothes if they are beyond any hope of repair or reuse.
  • Recycle at home. Old garments like t-shirts, sweatshirts and household linens such as towels and sheets should be cut into squares and used as dusting rags and cleaning cloths for household tasks. Use them instead of paper towels to mop up spills, too.
  • Buy new only what you need. Purchase underwear, bras, socks, nightclothes, uniform items, and jeans or other difficult to make items new from the store. Purchase only what you need. 
  • Pray for the workers. Every morning as you get dressed, say a simple prayer for the garment worker who stitched your shirt, pants or skirt. A quick Hail Mary, Our Father, or simple heartfelt prayer may help that person today.

I hope that these tips have helped you as much as they've helped me over the past few months as I considered this question. Dressing with elegance and style doesn't mean shopping for the latest fad or trend. Timeless beauty comes from the heart, and charity for your brothers and sisters working worldwide in the garment industry never goes out of style. Elegant, beautiful women are also kind women who shop with a conscience. Be that woman starting today.