A few months ago, I bought a pair of black canvas shoes from a discount department store called Big W. They were $3. I had sticker shock when I saw the price – is it even possible to cover the cost of materials with three measly dollars? My next thought was about the workers who made these shoes – there’s no way they were earning a living wage. I felt extreme guilt about supporting what must be an extremely unethical enterprise. But then I bought them anyway. After all, how could I pass up a deal like that?
The ethics of how I live and shop has been weighing on my mind recently. It’s just getting harder to ignore all the facts. I used to think I shopped ethically and had environmentally responsible habits. I recycle. I try not to create unnecessary waste. But the truth is, I tend to only make ethical choices when it’s easy.
Like many, I’m appalled when I hear about the horrid conditions those who work in factories in countries like China (where my shoes were made) have to endure. The painfully long hours, low wages and abysmal working conditions. I’m outraged when a disaster happens, like when 1,100 people died and 2,500 were injured when a garment factory collapsed in Bangladesh in 2013. But then I continue to shop at stores that profit from these factories like Big W, H&M, Zara and Forever 21 (to be fair, some retailers like Zara have been applauded for the steps they’ve taken to improve wages, though I’m skeptical if these steps are anywhere near enough).
Last year, I watched an eye-opening documentary about the perils of fast fashion called The True Cost. It explained that not only does our continued desire to buy trendy clothing as cheaply as possible perpetuate horrible working conditions for vulnerable people desperate for work, most of whom are women, it is making people sick.
In order to cut costs and meet demand, large amounts of pesticides, toxic dyes and bleaches are used to make our clothes. These chemicals not only cause cancer and other horrible illnesses in factory workers, but improper disposal is poisoning water supplies, destroying irrigation for farming and causing children to be born with mental and physical deformities at alarmingly high rates.
I also recently heard about a survey that found the average American throws out 81 pounds of clothing each year. Throws out. Not donates or recycles. While that in itself is somewhat upsetting (although at least one article argues even charities don’t want discarded fast fashion), you have to question how people wind up with so much clothing to begin with. Clothes have become so cheap that many think nothing of buying an outfit for an occasion, wearing it once or twice, then throwing it out.
With all this in mind, I’ve felt compelled to make some changes. The first thing I realised was I needed to stop treating items as disposable. While at least part of this mentality stemmed from our living situation for the past few years, the truth is, I’ve been guilty of this behaviour for quite some time.
I’ve realised I need to treat all purchases as long-term investments, regardless of what they cost. Rather than buy four things because they’re on sale or I’m in the mood to treat myself, I need to evaluate each items utility, choose quality over quantity, and only buy what I really need. Or as Vivienne Westwood once summed it up – buy less, choose well, make it last.
I’m attending a wedding in a few weeks and in the past, that would have meant a new outfit. New dress, new shoes, new purse and maybe even new makeup. But the reality is, it doesn’t matter if I wear the same outfit that I’ve worn to a previous event. I’m probably the only one who would even notice.
It can be difficult to find ethical options that don’t break the bank. While I’d like to vow to only choose these options going forward, the truth is, I just don’t think I can realistically commit to that at the moment. What I can do is fill my closet with staples rather than disposable pieces, always recycle rather than throw out and continue to educate myself on ethical and sustainable options. It might not be much, but it’s a start.