I recently found myself defending the sustainability of conscious closets to a friend of my younger sister. She was claiming, quite understandably, that the average young person feels disempowered when it comes to purchasing ethically made clothing because it is not seen as a financially viable option. While I don’t completely agree with the veracity of this claim (something I will elaborate on in a moment), I did empathise with her stance on the subject. I drew the line, however, when the expense of creating an ethical closet was used as an excuse, maybe even justification, for unreflective and unthinking consumption (buying as many cheap, poorly made clothes as you want). The vision of the future presented to me in that moment was one of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them with abandon’, and when it comes to the global fashion industry, I just can’t condone this answer as a conscionable solution.
There is no escaping the fact that the global fashion industry remains geared towards unsustainable and unethical practices; practices which wreak destruction on the environment and lead to widespread human-rights abuse and worker exploitation. The prevalence of such practices globally has led to the creation of a market environment in which clothes are sold for far less than they are actually worth, which of course then reinforces this unrealistic expectation in the minds of consumers. Events like the Rana Plaza tragedy highlight, however, that when the consumer doesn’t pay the true cost associated with an item of clothing, that cost doesn’t just go away.
Somebody else pays it, potentially with their life.
The damage caused by cheap clothing consumption isn’t limited to the mainstream, transnational fashion brands, however. As a result of these unhealthy and unethical consumer expectations, smaller Fair Trade and ethically-made clothing stores are pushed further and further to the fringes of the market because the price per garment is so comparatively exorbitant ($150 for a Gorman shirt, compared to only $5 for a shirt from Cotton On). This forces many Fair Trade retailers to transition away from physical store-fronts to purely online platforms in order to cover costs, which is a problem in and of itself in that it eliminates any chance of ‘casual’ customer patronage (you have to actively go looking for them), and increases the price difference (add shipping to an already expensive item, and many customers will walk away from the sale).
Is it any wonder, therefore, that ethically made clothing can seem financially out of reach for those with limited earning capacity, such as school or university students?
I have always intuitively believed (and I explained to my sister’s friend) that it is in fact possible to compose and sustain an ethical closet on limited funds. The trick is to be aware of, and then fight, the habitual patterns of over-consumption which are ingrained in us through a combination of social expectation and subliminal messaging.
Here are a couple of (perhaps obvious) steps which might nevertheless prove useful, or at least food-for-thought;
1. Be conscious of your consumption. Keep track of just how much you are spending, and what you are spending on; I think you will surprise yourself when you add up the tally.
2. Stay away from places like shopping centres. They are designed to bombard you with advertising and encourage you (through subliminal messaging) to spend money.
3. Buy your clothing staples pre-loved. This will give the clothes you buy a second lease of life, and will substantially reduce your environmental footprint.
4. Buy a small number of treasure pieces. These can be from Fair Trade, ethical or sustainable stores. They can even be from mainstream stores; just think long and hard before you buy about whether you really, really love it, whether you actually need it (do you already have something similar?), whether it will fit with the other items in your existing closet (aesthetically and practically), and whether it is built to last (and if not, are you willing to mend it?).
In light of these suggestions, and to ascertain the accuracy of my claim (that an ethically curated closet can be a financially viable option even for those with limited funds), I have come up with an experiment of sorts, one in which my little sister has kindly agreed to join me as the second guinea pig. Thank you Jen!
The idea is that we will track our clothing consumption patterns by recording each purchase on a scrap of paper and storing them in glass jars (currently sitting empty and unloved on the kitchen bench). Jen will continue her usual shopping habits, and I mine, and at the end of the year we will tally up who spent more, on what, and which clothes, if any, have been retained over the allotted timespan.
Jen’s spending habits are probably typical of many school-aged girls; she doesn’t have a part time job, instead choosing to save and spend her pocket money, or takes part in opportunistic spending with Mum when they are out and see something they like. While Jen doesn’t mind the occasional op-shop, it would be fair to say she largely spends her money and time in mainstream shops (like Cotton On) where she can get many clothes cheaply. She also occasionally purchases a small number of high-end pieces from places like Kitten d’Amour, usually with gift cards from her birthday or Christmasout, to round out her wardrobe. In summary, Jen’s spending habits are better than most of her peers, but nevertheless embody the consumer apathy felt by many towards cheap and fast fashion. In Jen’s world, there is no standing in a store with a shirt in your hands asking, “who made my clothes?”.
Second-hand staples (occasional)
Mainstream staples (some)
Mainstream treasure pieces (lots)
High-end treasure pieces (occasional)
My spending habits are probably also typical of my demographic; young women who are passionate about sustainable and ethical fashion, but who live on a modest wage from part-time jobs while attending university. Unlike Jen, I actually enjoy op-shopping and mending/altering clothes, so I tend to spend far more money and time searching for vintage treasure pieces and necessary (but lovely) second-hand staples. I also don’t mind saving up and investing in expensive treasure pieces from ethical shops, as I tend to wear them until they are thread-bare. I admit to having a soft spot for more mainstream (but high-end) occasional treasure pieces from Tigerlilly, but I make sure I absolutely love them and can commit to wearing them out before I will consider buying them. In summary; I do not claim to be perfect, but I can say with absolute conviction that I limit my impact on the earth by ensuring I really use the clothes I have, try to support ethical and sustainable enterprise wherever possible, and always, always consume consciously.
Second-hand staples (lots)
Second-hand treasure pieces (lots)
Ethical and sustainable treasure pieces (some)
High-end treasure pieces (occasional)
My prediction is that by the end of the experiment, it will be Jen, and not I, who will have spent more money on clothes, despite that the ‘ethical’ clothes are so comparatively expensive. I also predict that far more of my clothes will remain, as I tend to mend and sew rather than re-buy when something is damaged; something Jen has yet to embrace.
I of course recognise that this isn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, a robust or controlled experiment. I hope the result, when we tally everything up at the end of the year, however, will confirm my belief that a consciously curated closet is attainable in some form for all those willing to change their consumption habits, irrespective of income.
I guess we will have to wait and see.