Thursday, May 2, 2013

sustainable clothing consumerism

Did you know that a pair of jeans today costs approximately the same price as a pair of jeans in the 1980s?

How can that be, given that inflation and everything else in between has raised in price dramatically since then?

The only answer that explains this is the rise in cheap, global factory labour that drives the cost of labour down in order to be able to produce goods at cheaper and cheaper prices. However, in light of the recent garment factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where at least 160 workers are dead (as I write this) because at their $40/month salary they could not afford the luxury of not going to work, even though they were concerned about factory conditions, I wanted to take a moment to think about this practice of cheap labour for cheap goods in relation to sustainability and clothing.

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Amongst many other North American companies that this factory provided goods for are Joe Fresh and Walmart, both of which are sellers of cheap clothing and popular shopping choices for families on a budget.

Did you know that it used to be cheaper to make your own clothes than to buy them? And that this is no longer the case these days?

I'm not condemning people for buying cheap clothing. We all want to save our sheckles. It's a fact and it's understandable. Most of us are either saddled with debt loads that can feel crippling at times or making wages that make it hard to maintain a certain, expected and desired, standard of living. So we make choices that reflect those realities.

After all, why would we buy jeans for $496? And given how often we hear about greenwashing, we have to be careful to read into products that claim to be eco. In fact, if you look closer at those $496 jeans, you'll notice that they are "Bleached wash finish using eco-friendly processes" but there is no mention about whether the cotton is made under sustainable conditions or whether the workers made a fair wage.

Did you know that fair trade does not necessarily mean that an item is ecological?

In light of the state of the clothing industry, the growing ethical challenges of our capitalist society, and our consumerist society, I can't help but feel that the only real solution is for us as consumers to really look honestly at our spending choices.

It's inevitable that we will all will buy something we thought was eco and fair trade, only to find out that it's been greenwashed, that we will endorse something only to realize that the wool had been pulled over our eyes. There are just too many things to look into, to many veiled loopholes that are exploited.

All we can do is our best. And yes, admittedly, sometimes our best won't feel good enough and sometimes we'll drop the ball because it just feels like doing our best puts us in a losing position. But here's the thing, I'm not convinced that eco-consumerism, as it is touted, is really the answer.

Did you know that recycling is really the least effective of the 3Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle?

Ironically we are told to vote with our dollars, but I think that we actually might be better served to think of NOT voting with our dollars, in other words, embracing the idea of reducing our consumerism and our goods.

Don't get me wrong here... I like shopping. I'm totally that girl. I like buying things, things make me happy. And for every step forward I take, I take a step back every now and again because I get lured in by some fancy new thing that I just want to have. Not that I need, but that I want. But why?

I know I've been talking about this a lot lately, but it's part of the challenge that I've set for myself to reduce the stuff in my life; to be less ruled by stuff; and to reduce the amount of stuff I bring in during this turn of the wheel (from Ostara to Beltane).

This week, I'm working with students to promote Earth Week and one of the projects that relates to this ramble down the eco, sustainable shopping aisle, is a booth set up by students who bought goods second hand and altered all the items to make them more modern, and fashion forward. While I realize that sewing it not an option for everyone, there are choices that you can make: consignment stores or stores that specialize in selling upcycled goods. One of the stores here in Montreal that I have long admired is La Gaillarde, which originally offered goods upcycled and refashioned by women who'd been in prison as part of their rehabilitation process and has since evolved to have a much broader scope. 

I think that we need to stand back and look at our purchasing choices and make smarter decisions: from "Do I really need this?" to "Do I need so much of this?" to "Can I buy a more sustainable version of this?" to "Can I support local, small business by making a different purchasing choice?"

The trend of shipping our labour off shore in order to get cheaper prices is a problem that extends well beyond the clothing industry and is having a pernicious effect on not only our national economy but also our personal livelihood. Every time that you and I make the choice to buy something that is produced abroad in factory conditions where workers have no choice but to come to work, despite their growing dis-ease with their personal safety, we are not only endorsing a system that exploits them, but also a system that cannot be maintained with serious detriment to our children and our children's children.

The way I see it, we have the following options, all of which are dependent on our financial ability and our personal investment:
  • Buy less
  • Buy things that are local
  • Buy things that are more ethically produced
I'm not going to lie to you... I personally am making the choice to find a middle ground between the 3 options. Sometimes I will continue to buy that cheap good, but I'm trying to only buy it if I need it, not just want it. And I will continue to fall short of my ideals from time to time. I know this and I accept this. But I am trying. I'm trying to buy things that are more locally produced and to not cave into my love of new things so much. When I need a new fix... I'm trying to go second hand shopping! It's a baby step, but still a step, right?


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