A man is truly ethical only when he obeys the compulsion to help all life which he is able to assist, and shrinks from injuring anything that lives. —Albert Schweitzer
I had a wardrobe crisis occur a couple of weeks ago. I looked down at my shoes, the one pair of black, slip-resistant shoes I’ve worn every day for over a year and a half, and saw a hole. I knew what was coming next. Because of the unbalanced nature of my walk, the right shoe always wears a hole in the same place: the inside seam where the upper meets the sole. Every time. The hole starts small enough but expands quickly and is not repairable. I was going to have to buy new shoes.
I hate having to buy clothes. I especially dislike having to buy new clothes as long as there is a reasonable and ethical alternative. Shoes, however, are the one thing I’ve learned to buy new, and to spend a little money. Sure, I could go to a discount shoe place and get a pair for$20, but I’m lucky if those last six months. I want a pair of shoes that lasts at least a year, longer if I don’t wear them every day. Shoes are a justifiable expense. Sort of. I still look for sales and ended up actually purchasing two pair so that neither wears out quite so quickly. I shouldn’t have to buy shoes again for at least three-four years.
That logic doesn’t apply to everything in my wardrobe, though. There is very little in my wardrobe that is less than five years old. I have a couple of sweaters that I’ve retired after 15 years of wearing and washing. About half the black shirts I wear every day are over ten years old. When I do occasionally need to replace one, thrift stores make more sense than do department or fast fashion stores. By shopping for previously worn clothes, I’m keeping something out of a landfill, which is often as much as 30% discarded clothing. It’s an ethical thing for me, not really a standard to which I hold anyone else.
If you’ve seen me, you know my personal style is not exactly on-trend. I soon could be, perhaps. Marc Jacobs has officially declared 1980s retro back in style. The problem with that, on a personal level, is that I’m about 436 sizes larger now than I was in the 80s. Even if I still had all those stylish (cough-cough) threads from back then, there’s no way that I would still be able to fit my ample dad body into clothes that did a good job of making my butt look almost attractive (something that was much more a concern then than it is now). Does that mean I can ethically justify buying new clothes that look like the clothes I wore 30 years ago? Probably not.
Having an ethical wardrobe is more important to me than having a stylish ensemble for every day. There are multiple reasons for holding that view, but fundamental to that reasoning is that I don’t want to get dressed every morning knowing that what I’m wearing was assembled by a child in Bangladesh who is thrilled to be making $73 a month and is using all that to help support his/her family. Yes, I really do think about those things in the dark at 4:00 AM. I’m also not a fan of adding to Amancio Ortega’s $57 billion empire (he own’s Zara, among other fashion-related things). I’m especially not a fan of ripping off designers, which is what fast fashion retailers do on a daily basis.
The ethical implications of what I have in my closet are significant. I’m not ignorant of the ethical challenges that occur in the fashion world. I know that what I buy individually, while it may seem small and insignificant on one level, becomes part of a greater whole. When I make a purchase, no matter where or what it is, I am aligning myself with a larger group of people making like-minded decisions and it is in the rise and fall of those groups from which trends are set. If I want to encourage a trend away from cheaply-sourced materials, then I have to refrain from buying cheaply sourced materials. Likewise, buying clothes manufactured in New York’s garment district, for example, encourages domestic production in an environment where workers are more likely to be treated fairly.
Still, if the 80s are indeed coming back … how do I not get in on some of that action? I felt good about my fashion choices back then. I had multiple pairs of Levi’s 501 jeans back then, and they were still being made in Northern California at the time. Levi’s has moved production south of the border though and I’m not sure one can even find 501 jeans in the store anymore. Shopping directly from Marc Jacob’s isn’t a financial option, either. How do I enjoy this momentary global lapse of stylish sanity while still holding to the ethical standards I’ve set for my wardrobe?
A couple of years ago, a Canadian artist, Sarah Lazarovic, wrote a book, A Bunch Of Pretty Things I Did Not Buy. This very interesting young woman went a full year without buying any new clothes. None. I know a lot of people who would begin to hyperventilate at the thought of going more than a week without making a new purchase of some kind. The book is quite interesting and, while everything she has to say may not align with someone else’s specific situation, she did come up with this interesting pyramid she calls the “buyerarchy of needs” to help one make a bit more sense of their fashion purchases. While she is not preaching a strict ethical behavior, the implications and applications are there. Take a look:
The concept is pretty straight forward. Buying something new should be the last option. Using what you have, perhaps even repurposing what you have, should be where we all start. There’s no good reason why we should be completely turning over our wardrobes every few months. If you’re looking at a once-in-a-lifetime sort of thing, consider borrowing from someone who’s already been there. Kat and her friends swap clothes back and forth, both adult and children’s. Thrift, and I would add Vintage, shopping are my personal preference (though, I would warn, not everything in a vintage shop is necessarily original from that period). Making things yourself is one of those things that varies from person to person. I’m useless in that department.
Does that mean that I still don’t watch labels for where garments are made? No, not at all. Even when I’m thrift or vintage shopping I still look at labels and avoid those I know are unethically sourced. But, following the precepts of this pyramid brings us a lot closer to having an ethical wardrobe than we might achieve on our own.
Again, the standards I set for myself are not necessarily applicable to anyone else. You have to decide for yourself whether an ethical approach to shopping is even a concern. But for me, whether I’m buying a new pair of shoes or a t-shirt to replace the one that just disintegrated in the wash, how I shop matters. A lot.