I have never been the girl who lives to shop. Where I come from, the mall was appreciated just as much for being an oasis of air conditioning during the hot summers as it was for anything else.
But all the same, I have always worn clothes that reflected how I wanted to be seen by the world around me.
When I was in high school, I wore a self-imposed uniform of hoodies and maybe-too-tight Levi’s with a slit cut up the bottom hems of the legs so that the jeans (did I mention that they may have been too tight?) would cover the tops of my gleaming white Adidas shoes. Sometimes I wore other things, but hoodies and Levi’s were my favorite. They went with my black eyeliner perfectly. And they let me blend in with my friends.
In college, perhaps in response to the Freshman Fifteen Twenty Five and perhaps in response to the early 2000’s, I traded in the hoodies and tight jeans for baggy jeans, flip flops, and maybe-too-tight t-shirts that had quippy little sayings on them. My favorite shirt said “New Jersey: Only The Strong Survive.” I wore it as often as I could once I was accepted to grad school in New Jersey. Not only did this outfit also compliment my black eyeliner, but it made me feel brave and independent in the sea of women on campus who were on the cusp of the emerging “short shorts” trend.
Perhaps it was following a year spent in the UK, coupled with the realization that flip flops and t-shirts wouldn’t work well during east coast winters, but I trashed the jeans completely in grad school and replaced them only with tailored tuxedo style slacks. I would pair them with patent red leather loafers, socks with crazy prints on them, layers of thermals under t-shirts with a blazer and, inexplicably, a tie loosely strung around my neck. While I still own those loafers, I have no explanation for this choice in style. All I can say is, I felt like me.
My style has continued to change over the course of my life to reflect how I saw me and how I wanted others to see me: those red loafers became the stilettos of a young professional; stilettos were traded in for the running shoes of a stay at home mom. Button down collars were traded for nursing tanks, which were then traded for exercise wear as I chased toddlers around the park following my morning work-out. When I returned to work four years ago, after five years at home, it was looking at my closet that induced anxiety about my future. For some reason, it was easier to declare “I have nothing to wear!” than it was to admit that I was suffering from imposter syndrome as I returned to work.
Clothes have always reflected who I am into the world.
When Rana Plaza fell in Bangladesh in 2013, I have to say, I was not deeply affected. It’s not that I was cold hearted to it—factory workers shouldn’t have to make the non-sensical choice between death or “keeping their jobs”—it’s just that traumatic stories around sweat shops had been common place to me since Kathy Lee Gifford’s gaffe circa 1996. By 2013, I had accepted disasters like this to be a necessary evil if I wanted to stay clothed. I didn’t like it, I didn’t think it was right, but there was nothing I could do about it if I didn’t want to be publicly nude.
My husband, on the other hand, was mortified. In 2013, he was the chair of the board of the first fair trade clothing company in Africa. And he couldn’t stop talking about Rana Plaza. By December 31st of that same year, he had rid his closet of all of his clothes and replaced them only with clothing that he could guarantee, to the best of his ability, that the workers were treated both fairly and ethically. But because ethical clothing is more expensive than fast fashion, that meant that he could afford less: one pair of jeans, one pair of shorts, two t-shirts, one zip-up sweater, four pairs of underwear, two pairs of socks, and one pair of ethically made flip flops.
To be this close to someone making this much of a change with this much passion was really inspiring. I wanted to make a difference too. So I went online and searched for ethically made clothes for women.
And I searched. And I searched. And I searched.
It’s not that there wasn’t anything out there for women—there was plenty. It’s just that there wasn’t anything out there for me. I didn’t want to look like a hippie. I didn’t want to look like a girlie-girl. I didn’t want to look basic. I wanted to look like me.
Even more disappointing, there wasn’t anything that I could find in early 2014 that I could wear in a professional context. I had spent years finding business blazers of varying lengths and styles to wear for any occasion, but in the ethical space, I couldn’t even find one blazer. I was disappointed. And rather than feeling the freedom my husband felt, I returned to that feeling that I had before Rana Plaza collapsed—buying slave made clothes was a necessary evil if I wanted to be taken seriously as a professional woman in a man’s profession.
But for my birthday that year, my husband gifted me with a t-shirt from an ethical women’s brand. It was plain, but I liked the cut. It fit me well, and it felt good on my skin. I could wear it under a cute jacket. Then for Christmas, I was gifted another shirt. It was silk, sleeveless, with a collar. Great for work, great with jeans. I wore it twice a week.
Every now and then, I would go to the Nordstrom’s Rack and look for something new to refresh my wardrobe. But as the new year went on, it became difficult for me to look at the racks and racks of clothes and not imagine the hands that stitched them. I guess that, before now, I had imagined that clothes were stitched together by faceless machines—there is just too much merchandise to believe that individual human hands had put them together. What massive amounts of people must be needed to stitch together all the clothes in Nordstrom Rack, let along all the clothes in the mall, let alone all the clothes throughout all the malls in the city, and the country, and the world? It started to become overwhelming, and by fall of 2015, I stopped going into fast fashion stores completely.
I continued to wear the clothes I had, and when I could afford it, I would buy a piece from the ethical market to update my wardrobe. Every morning when I looked in my closet to choose an outfit, I found myself choosing the ethically made clothes over the fast fashion attire more and more. It felt good to put them on. When people complimented me on my outfit, it felt good to say, “Thanks! And it wasn’t made by slaves!” I found that, as time went on, dressing like me started to mean dressing ethically.
In late April 2017, coincidently the day before the fourth anniversary of the collapse of Rana Plaza and three years after the start of my own journey, I found I had enough essentials to have an largely ethical wardrobe. And so I pulled all of my clothes out of my closet, sifted through them, and gave nearly all of my once-beloved pieces of fast fashion away. My husband saw a shirt on top of a pile that I had worn quite regularly once-upon-a-time and lamented over it, wondering aloud if I should keep it for nostalgia. But I didn’t feel the same. I didn’t want it anymore. It wasn’t me anymore.
If you’re a person who likes stats and figures, like I am, then here are some of the stats I have. In 2013, following the Rana Plaza disaster, the Bangladesh government raised the minimum wage from $38/month to $68/month. This raise still keeps workers below the poverty line, eating fewer calories than they would need to get through a day of work at the factory. In Sri Lanka, 66% of women garment workers have anemia. In Cambodia, 1/3 of garment workers are underweight, which means fainting is common in the factory. And even in these countries where standard minimum wage is enshrined by law, there is no guarantee to workers that they will actually receive it on time, or receive it at all.
Also, check out these numbers: standard mark-ups on clothing by companies ranges from 60-70%. So let’s do the math on that H&M top that is advertised for $5: three dollars is 60% mark-up, leaving two dollars for fabric, buttons/zippers, elastic, thread, as well as to pay the laborer who put it together. And buying clothes on the higher end doesn’t actually mean that workers are being paid better, or that better quality materials are being used—it often just means that the mark up is higher. The truth is that many of numbers in fashion are impossible to know, because fast fashion companies do not share their financial or production figures to anyone.
Most of the time when people talk to me about ethical clothing, they tell me that they can not afford ethical clothes. And this is painful for two reasons: 1) it shows how much of our economy is dependent upon fast fashion practices and the subsequent oppression of workers overseas and 2) it’s just not true. The relative cost of clothing has gone down substantially over the last four decades while the relative amount of disposable income has gone up. This means that where $100 may have afforded your parents two outfits decades ago, $100 affords us upwards of four outfits today. We’ve changed the way we prioritize budgets, justifying paying more on one thing because we pay less on clothes. But that is a direct result of unscrupulous practices that have been rampant and unchecked in the garment industry for generations.
You may have noticed that I said that I gave nearly all my clothes away. Let me be clear: I still have some fast fashion pieces in my closet. For instance, I still can’t find a blazer that is ethically made, so I’ve kept my old ones. I’m required to wear a white dress for a sorority event once every few years and it seems silly to spend money on any level to replace it. While exercise clothes are some of the biggest offenders in the garment industry, I teach cardio-kickboxing four times a week and can’t exchange out all my exercise clothes at once because my budget won’t allow it. But this isn’t an all or nothing game. I’ve committee to a one in/one out policy—for each piece of ethical clothing I buy, I get rid of one piece of fast fashion. And while that might take me many more years in this already-three-year journey, I’m okay with that. Because now, with each garment I buy, I am buying in line with my values.
I am becoming more of me in what I wear.
To contact Jessica, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Note from Traci: I was so touched by Jessica’s story, and my favorite part of it is this line: this isn’t an all or nothing game. So often I feel that way. I know my clothes and my children’s clothes are often made by slaves and trafficking victims. I know that the fact that our clothes are “cheap” means that there’s a very high human cost behind them, yet doing something about it feels overwhelming, and like it won’t do any good. This post is a great reminder that doing something is better than nothing. Last week I decided to support visible clothing’s Kickstarter by getting an ethically made tie for Elias. Though it’s the first item of clothes I’ve ever bought that I know for certain is ethically made, I have to start somewhere, and I can’t wait to give it as a gift. What do you know about ethically made clothes? Leave a comment. Let’s have a conversation.