I was about 6 months into a 10-month stint as an au pair in Paris when I decided to stop buying new clothes.
This is not to say I will never buy clothes again; I decided to buy exclusively second hand until I could afford clothes that are made in ethical and environmentally friendly ways.
So at 19-years-old, living in a city ripe with second hand stores, I broke up with Urban Outfitters, American Apparel, H&M, Zara, and a bunch of others for good.
I would love to be the kind of person who wears clothes exclusively made in America or those that they could say with confidence were ethically made, regardless of country of origin.
Unfortunately, I am not yet at a place in my life where I can drop $228 on a top from Nanette Lepore, who makes 85% of her merchandise in NYC. When I decided to dedicate myself to ethical fashion, I was making 70 euros a week as an au pair and was a few months from the start of university, so as great as made-in-USA brands are, they just weren’t in my budget.
Besides, I have always loved thrifting. Since middle school, I’ve been scouring second-hand stores around my hometown, reveling in finding a piece that I could count on no one else owning (although one of my Facebook friends in Boston recently posted a picture wearing a shirt hauntingly similar to one I thrifted in Paris).
To me, the beauty of thrifting is that you’re buying something that someone donated and that most other people sent to a landfill. When we support second-hand shops, we support them as businesses, encouraging people to continue donating their clothes instead of filling up those landfills I mentioned with 10.5 million tons of clothing every year.
Thrift stores also directly stimulate the local economy and usually give back to the community in some way. For example, my nearest thrift and consignment shop is run by my town’s service league, meaning proceeds go to things like disaster relief or even scholarships for local students. It’s important to always choose independent second hand shops when you can, because Goodwill and the Salvation Army have their own closeted skeletons.
The thing is, I have known for years all the reasons why I don’t like fast fashion brands and the reasons why I shouldn’t support them. I also knew why I should support second hand stores. I guess I was just too lazy, or thought I would never find the clothes I really wanted to wear in thrift stores (even though I’ve found all my favorite stuff in them). Plus, I’m nineteen! I’m allowed to make stupid decisions! I’m allowed to wear $5 t-shirts from H&M!
But if the clothes I wear are affecting things I care about (see: the environment, human rights) in tangible ways, I need to hold myself accountable. The reality is that I don’t want to contribute to the compromise of ethics in any way. The clothes I bought from these stores weren’t worth the pit in my stomach when I read about the 2013 factory collapse in Bangladesh.
There is an excellent Vice News report that follows women who are the targets of Cambodia’s anti-trafficking efforts, which is meant to “rescue and rehabilitate sex workers.” The women end up miserable, making less money under worse conditions as garment workers for western brands.
The video reports that a number of studies found that most of Cambodia’s sex workers chose to be sex workers instead of garment workers. I think it’s clear that the garment production industry needs reform when women are choosing prostitution over clothing work.
But beyond work conditions overseas, some of the stores I used to frequent had questionable (and by that I mean bad) ethics here in the States as well. Let’s take Urban Outfitters, one of my favorite brands before I quit new clothes:
URBN Inc., the parent company of Urban Outfitters, Free People, and Anthropologie (companies whose target customers are women), only has two women on the Board of Directors and one female executive officer.
If that doesn’t bum you out, Urban Outfitters consistently plagiarizes the designs of independent artists and mass produces them with no permission from or compensation for the artists. Of course, there are the infamous offensive products that UO has put up for sale over the years, including a blood-splattered Kent State sweatshirt and a T-shirt with the words “eat less.”
Then there are there are the environmental issues. ABC News says 98 percent of the clothing purchased in the United States is imported from abroad. Most goods imported into the US are brought on cargo ships, and in 2009 The Guardian reported that larger container ships “can emit almost the same amount of cancer and asthma-causing chemicals as 50 million cars.”
So if a garment made in America can travel, at max, from northwest Washington to southeast Florida (considering the contiguous states exclusively), you are even further reducing your ecological footprint by only driving a few miles to your favorite local thrift shop when you need to restock your wardrobe.
Even if I looked past all the glaring ethical errors, I was spending an obscene amount of money every year on clothes that weren’t even serving me. If I bought a top at H&M for $10, I would need to replace it the next month because it fell apart after a few washes. If I bought jeans on sale at UO for $30, I would need to replace them 3 months later because they wore out and eventually broke between my thighs.
So $120 on the same top every year and $120 on the same jeans total every year? That just doesn’t make sense! I could have saved all that money and bought one $120 top and one $120 pair of jeans every year, but those items still probably wouldn’t have been made ethically.
Now I own two pairs of high-waisted Levi’s 501s that I got in Paris for 10 euros each that are the only pants I wear (you have no idea how good it felt to replace all my ill-fitting Zara jeans with 501s, which I now believe are the best jeans ever made).
Flimsy tops from H&M were donated and replaced with knit tank tops from a garage sale in the 10th arrondissement. For my internship with the wardrobe department at CNBC, an intensely corporate environment, I wear my growing collection of dresses compiled over years of sifting through thrift stores, going to and hosting clothes trades, and looking through my female relatives’ old clothes.
I have to add that I still wear a lot of clothes from fast fashion retailers that I’ve bought over the years if they still fit; I didn’t purge my wardrobe of all corporate labels when I stopped buying new clothes because that wasn’t the point.
I wanted to be more mindful about my consumption, and getting rid of perfectly good clothes would not be mindful. It would be wasteful, even if I donated them, because then I would have to replace those clothes.
Now, when I read about a brand of made-in-USA floss, I email it to my parents so that everyone in my family can start using it (but only when we all run out of the floss we’re currently using).
I believe that these small, floss-sized acts of mindfulness will turn into larger, jeans-sized acts of mindfulness, and then into factory-sized acts of mindfulness, and eventually we’ll have corporation-sized acts of mindfulness happening every day.
Until then, consider supporting your local second-hand shop the next time you need jeans.