When did shopping get to be so complicated? Part 2-clothes

Part 2 of my ethical shopping dilemmas-this time focussing on clothes.

The inside of our wardrobe...

The inside of our wardrobe…

I was kind of smugly thinking that by shopping secondhand, I was was neatly side-stepping any of the issues associated with ‘fast-fashion’-like child labour, and pesticide usage on cotton.

But does buying secondhand really absolve me of thinking about the materials my clothes are made from, or indeed, the people who made them?

At last week’s Big Mend in Bath, I was chatting to the inspirational lady behind the Craft Tea Party, who is in the midst of organising her wedding-a sustainable, ethical wedding-which sounds fabulous (you can follow the wedding planning live on Janine’s “Craftyactivist’s Blog”). We got to talking about clothes and ethical choices with regards to the clothes we buy. Janine then sent me an e-mail which opened my eyes even more to the ethical quagmire that is shopping for clothes. I am going to paraphrase part of Janine’s e-mail as she explains it far better than I could:

“Ethical clothing is super complicated. It combines sustainable materials (or not) – on which some retailers clearly do good stuff, but also rights for workers who gather those materials (or not) & the rights of the workers making the final garments (or not)….. and it’s not as simple as just buying second hand as the garment industry is relied on by workers in many countries, particularly women. So if the garment industry collapses, they get pushed further into poverty. Many (most) are far happier having a job and working more hours that god sends in order that they can have enough to live just above the poverty line. There’s no easy answer, but ensuring workers are treated with dignity; empowering them to stand up for their rights and campaigning on their behalf when they ask is surely at the heart of it (as well as reducing excessive consumption & fast fashion to reduce the demand for clothes at any price to the workers & the world)”


So if I know that certain retailers have poor records with regards to worker’s rights, then should I try to avoid buying their clothes, even from the charity shop?

And if I am buying all my clothes secondhand, am I effectively depriving someone somewhere of a wage (albeit a very tiny one, but a wage nonetheless)?

And even when you think a certain retailer is doing a good job, is it all just ‘green-wash’? For example, if retailers are trying to use more organic and Fairtrade cotton in their clothes, does this mean that they are also ensuring that the people making the clothes are being paid a living wage?

Just to complicate the matter even more, I read a great post on Scrapiana’s blog about sandblasting jeans to get the ‘distressed’ look.

Ethical dilemmas4

A pair of my jeans-possibly more ‘distressed’ than most, with my attempts at patching…

This practice has been banned in many countries due to the fact that it causes long-term, irreversible damage to the lungs of the people doing the sandblasting, but it still continues in other countries where these things are less well regulated.
So how do you know where your jeans were made? And if they were sandblasted by some poor unfortunate soul, who knows they are damaging their health, but desperately needs the pittance they are being paid to put food in the mouths of their children?

Thankfully, I can’t be the only one who is giving more and more thought to these issues, as the rise of ‘Slow Fashion’ demonstrates.

This article here, explains very well what ‘Slow Fashion’ is and what the Slow Fashion movement is trying to achieve. The article goes on to list and explain the ten Slow Fashion Values as they apply to the whole supply chain.

It is thought provoking stuff.

I don’t have any answers, and I am finding the whole thing is a bit like a can of worms, that now I’ve opened it, just keeps on spilling out, and making me aware of more and more issues.
I will hold my hands up and admit that in the days BMMDAMY (before My Make Do and Mend Year) I was partial to a little browse around the clothing sections of the supermarket while doing the weekly shop (I don’t get out much!) and would often snap up a bargain, or a few bits for the Smalls, but I would like to think that even when My Make Do and Mend Year finishes, if we do buy any clothes new (I would be quite happy with my ‘pre-loved’ style forever more I think, but hubby might object) I will give more thought to where the clothes have come from, what they are made of, and who might have made them.

What does everyone else do? How do you negotiate your way around the ethical minefield of shopping for clothes?

32 thoughts on “When did shopping get to be so complicated? Part 2-clothes

  1. Crikey, I don’t even know where to begin in answering any of these questions :s

    I prefer buying from a charity shop as I know at least somewhere along the way the money will help the charity undertake the work they do. But in terms of where the clothing comes from in the first place… well I’ll join you in looking at the mahoosive can of worms we’ve just opened!


  2. I purchase second-hand clothing since these items would be tossed away if not donated. Plus the proceeds help others in need at many thrift shops. I assume that items have been laundered enough to remove residues to some extent. And yes, the growing of cotton and manufacturing of cotton clothing is laden with chemicals, but short of buying organically grown and manufactured cotton and making my own clothes, what other options are there? It is extremely rare that I find second-hand clothing made from organically grown cotton. I can think of about three items total. Plus, both of my little loves have groaned throughout their teen years about always shopping in thrift stores, so we’ve purchased new clothing from time to time. It’s sometimes tough, this being consciously aware. Smiles!

    • It is tough isn’t it?! I guess the same applies as it does to the food-by the very fact that we are thinking about the choices we make, we are making it better (I hope!)

  3. It’s tricky, it really is. I enjoy thrift stores a lot, in the beginning it was because I could buy a lot of “new” clothes for cheap, but the more I thought about how and where and by whom clothes are made, it’s become more of an art of choosing where to buy things from. I actually thrifted most of my posessions and often wonder about people for example at ikea, who might not know or do not want to buy used furniture. I guess you have a choice, but I really don’t get it sometimes, especially in this throw away culture…

    Cheers, Anni

    • I think often, it is more a case of people not stopping to think that there may be ‘not-new’ alternatives out there. Before we started My Make Do and Mend Year, we would be those people who headed to Ikea if they needed new furniture. and hadn’t really given much thought to alternatives. Now, I would search the sales rooms and the flea markets, and find something much nicer, with much more character, and unique to us!

  4. I think it’s so difficult to get your head around all the various ethical issues around making a purchase. I try to buy most clothes from charity shops as it diverts the clothes from landfill and gives the charities some money. I also buy from car boot sales and on eBay for the kids so that I’m not depending on the new / fast fashion retailing. I do look into online ethical clothing companies, although I don’t get a lot from those. I’m not perfect though and there are still items that are purchased for the family from the general high street shops.

    As you say, if we are all thinking about it and making careful choices it will help.

    • I think that after the end of My Make Do and Mend Year I will continue buying clothes from charity shops for all the reasons you said 🙂

  5. Clothing is a complete nightmare! I’ve never been a fashion victim (I was proper Goth back in the day!), and so my wardrobe has contained much of the same items over the years. However, like you I was partial to looking around the clothes in supermarkets, or on the high streets and buying cheap stuff.

    In September I took the challenge to not buy any new clothing for a year. Not so much of a challenge for me really as I don’t buy much anyway, but I wanted to see if I could do it. I also felt it would help me develop my sewing skills.

    Now I wonder where my material comes from! But at least if I make it myself, I know how to repair it if I break it!

    (I’m going to a wedding at the weekend and bought myself a dress in a charity shop for £1.99!)

    • Loving the charity shop dress for the wedding! You can take great pride in telling people what it cost, and then trying to guess how much they spent on theirs!
      Fabric is an issue-I pick up lots of bits in charity shops and vintage fairs etc, but I am still not that confident making clothes, so I mostly use mine for cushions/bunting etc for pressies. There is a great website called the Offset Warehouse http://www.offsetwarehouse.com which is an ‘ethical haberdashery’ and has lots of organic and sustainable fabrics, as well as remnants- Check it out!
      And at least if you make it, you know it’s not from a sweatshop!

  6. I recycle most of my clothes … they get washed & put back in the wardrobe to wear again ! My kids now realise I wear “vintage” clothes, as in they’ve been around for years! Then I upcycle what I can when they don’t fit or I take them to charity shops where I buy everyday wear. I only buy new underwear socks. For special occasions I shop in John Lewis where I work because I get my discount but I also trust they’re ethically sourced !

  7. As you know this is also a nightmare for me, made all the more complicated by being more ‘amply proportioned’, Manufacturers think that if you are bigger than a size 14/16 you dont want ethically produced clothes! :o(

  8. I’ve been paying attention to ethical fashion for a bit over a year, and you absolutely hit the nail on the head – there are soooooooo many different factors to consider. I think that the best you can do is be aware of the different issues and try to do the best you can. Every improvement in your choices is good.

    Second-hand is good, but I also consider it important to support companies that are making some ethical choices in their manufacture, and individuals making handmade clothes, so that these ventures will be successful and continue to grow.

    My personal take now is to wear what I already have, mend or alter if I can, then spread my new purchases between charity shops and new clothing with some ethical cred. This way the cost of the more expensive ethical clothes is countered a bit by the thriftiness of the other choices.

  9. Gosh wow! I never really thought about this. I make a lot of my clothes and my daughter’s clothes but now I worry about where my fabric comes from.

    Also charity shops may not be the best answer. My! You have opened a can of worms here! I will never look at clothes the same way again!

    • Crazy isn’t it? How once you start thinking about thinking about something, there are more and more issues that keep cropping up!

  10. There are certainly lots of things to consider, the whole production thing – growing cotton, fabric production, slave labour, finishing treatments (like the sandblasting)
    I think you shouldn’t worry about buying second hand, there is still plenty of it after we have bought what we want for the second hand clothing trade.
    More important to stop it going to landfill!!

  11. Loving this blog thread and hearing all your ways of managing to be ethical with your clothing. I guess it’s a lot more difficult with underwear though! Have any of you heard of Who Made Your Pants? It’s a great brand that makes pants from offcuts from the lingerie industry and employs marginalised women in the UK to train them for this skilled work. Although not the cheapest they are seriously gorgeous and definitely tick all the boxes.

    • I have Keely-I am following them on Twitter! Thanks for reminding me though-I am not sure my pants will make it to the end of the year (nice mental image for you all there…) and in the rules I can buy new underwear, so if I don’t manage to make some myself, then I will definitely check out Who Made Your Pants!

  12. I have been buying from charoty shops for years, as well as some new (sometimes organic and/or fair trade but not always) and my kids have always had lots of hand-me downs. In fact I now get hnd-me downs from my eldest daughter! But my middle daughter starts secondary school in September, and they have a brand new uniform, mostly synthetic fabrics, very expensive, and has to be bought from official supplier, so all my efforts at ethical clothes buying will have to go out of the window! There’s not even any hand-me-downs as its new this year.

    • That’s very frustrating! Maybe you could suggest to the school that they set up a secondhand uniform ‘shop’. Is it just t-shirt and jumper you have to buy? There must be families who can’t afford to buy these new?

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