We live in a global society. In fact, you’re probably using a device right now whose components were manufactured in six of the seven continents on our planet. In our modern society, the surplus harvest in Russia affects the US wheat markets and widespread drought in the Midwest can cause famine in developing nations.
Likewise, the clothes we buy affect everyone from the cotton-growers in Alabama to the seamstress in Bolivia to the CEO behind glass doors.
Every Purchase Matters. This is the mantra of Fair Trade USA, an organization and movement dedicated to identifying producers who respect both people and the environment.
You may have noticed many of the products on my site are Fair Trade Certified. If you’ve never heard of this concept, I want to share with you what brought me to decide to make this a central part of my business model.
My Journey to Fair Trade
In college my ethically-minded, Jesus-following friends challenged me to not only speak my values, but also strive to live them in all my actions. It wasn’t enough to love people only on Sunday mornings or before/during/after Tuesday night Bible study (B-Stud, as we affectionately called it). Our jobs as Christ-followers were to love people well in all situations in all walks of life all the time.
A few years ago I decided to put my money where my mouth is and set a New Year’s resolution to only buy clothes that are ethically produced or are second-hand. I had three primary reasons for doing so:
Garment industry workers are frequently exploited so large clothing companies can make more money – and exploited in big ways: paid well below a living wage for where they live, forced to work long hours without sick time or maternity leave, and often in unsafe working conditions. Read more in this Slate article.
I want to help people; but donating to charity can sometimes hurt more than it helps. So instead of simply donating money or food in times of crisis (although this is important, too – I’m a big fan of the World Food Programme) I want to vote with my dollars to give people in poverty an option for employment that pays fair wages and doesn’t exploit them.
We produce a lot of trash and throwing away clothing is really harmful to the environment. It’s not just that throwing away clothing means someone else doesn’t get to wear your slightly-out-of-fashion-but-still-good-quality jeans, it also contributes to climate change.
Believe me, I’m far from perfect when it comes to living ethically. I still cut people off in traffic (on accident, I promise!), I still enjoy M&Ms made from NOT ethically produced chocolate, and am far from living a zero-sum environmental-impact life.
But I’m trying to do what I can. And I’m here to tell you that avoiding clothes produced via a cycle of poverty is not only avoidable – it’s also not as hard as it sounds.
Clothing Swaps & Thrift Stores
At least half of my closet I acquired after somebody else pulled off the tags. In college we would routinely clean out our closets and bring stacks of clothes to swap between friends. As an adult I’ve found friends who will do the same. One of my closest friends is a part-time manager of a thrift store and has taught me the ways of sorting through second-hand clothing stores. It’s the best!
Here’s the standard life cycle of my clothing:
Acquire used from friend or thrift store
Wear to work or social gatherings until it has holes in it
Wear around the house until it’s falling apart
Turn into rags to use for cleaning
Wash & reuse if not too dirty
Throw away after it’s been used to clean the toilet (gross)
I don’t buy trendy clothing because trends change too quickly. I wear clothes that are good for both work and play, and I rarely acquire a piece of clothing that can be used for only one purpose.
Fairly Made Items
If I buy new, I do my research first. The vote you cast with your dollar counts much more than your vote at the polls – because you cast this vote many, many more times.
Let me first give a disclaimer: I know that there is probably room for improvement even in companies who market fairly made products. However, I believe that just because something isn’t perfect doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try at all. For example, this economist reviewed the literature regarding quality of life improvements for farmers involved in Fair Trade Certified programs; while it wasn’t perfect, the overall conclusion was positive.
Here are things I look for when buying new clothing:
Fair Trade Certified and WRAP Certified are the two certifications I’ve sourced for the products in my online store. You can read more about the specifics on their respective websites, but both have standards for working conditions, fair pay, and workers’ rights.
Ethically Produced or Sourced
I judge many stores on a case-by-case basis. Companies that source ethical clothing usually tell their story on their website – look at the bottom of the page for an “About Us” link (take a look at the Sseko website, one of my favorite companies, as an example).
I’ve also found that (especially local) stores don’t always have all of this information, but are able to tell you how they source their products if you ask. For example, when I couldn’t find information online about a running skirt from Skirt Sports I really wanted to buy, I emailed the owner. Check out her response:
Made in USA
I know this has it’s downsides, as there are many people living in the US, working full-time (or multiple jobs) and still not able to make ends meet on minimum wage, but again – better some standards than no standards. USA-made isn’t the only thing I look for when buying clothes, but it’s another option. I also know if I buy products from other countries with good labor laws I don’t have to worry as much about exploiting someone (like this Swedish company I recently found to replace pantyhose socks I need for work).
The Myths I Overcame
For several years before actually setting my New Year’s Resolution, I pondered the option of going all-fair-trade. It took me so long because I was afraid of a few things that turned out not to be true.
Myth #1: It’s too expensive
Nope. It’s not.
Yes, Fair Trade items cost more than the $5.95 t-shirt I found on the clearance rack, but when I’ve compared similar quality products it’s virtually no different. Dresses are priced from $30+ at some of my fave places (and you can find the expensive ones on sale). Leggings are $15-20. Not much different than other department stores.
And to be honest, I’d rather pay an extra $30-40 and know that my jeans weren’t crafted at the expense of a child’s health. I’ll just buy one pair instead of two. When I only buy those jeans once every five years (literally – that’s the last time I bought jeans), I can afford it. And when I balance buying new with buying used, it’s a lot easier to balance my budget.
2. I can’t find what I need/want/what’s cute
Actually, there are a lot of options and producers who treat their workers with integrity – you just have to be willing to look. I’ve found everything from underwear to sundresses to business casual work attire to winter coats that are produced ethically.
Here are a few of my favorite products (but I often save new finds on my Pinterest board):
Naja: bras, fancy underwear, active wear, and swimwear for women. Eco-friendly clothing made by single moms/female heads of household and paid a living wage.
Patagonia: active wear, hiking clothes, swimwear, winter coats & other winter wear. Some are Fair Trade Certified, but all are ethically produced.
Pact: my FAVE undies, leggings, socks, and camis. Men’s, women’s, children’s, babies’, and now bedding! Super comfy and lots of Fair Trade Certified options
Miscoots: great socks. The company employs people transitioning out of homelessness and gives away a pair of socks to a homeless shelter for every pair purchased (one of the greatest needs in shelters)
Fair Indigo: lots of cute dresses (including business casual) and other wear for both men & women.
Also check out the Good On You app to search for other brands or read a quick review of different brand’s ethics. It’s really helpful!
What I Miss (and Why it’s Still Worth It)
Honestly, I most miss being able to walk into Marshall’s or Target and peruse the cute sundresses. I miss actually buying something when I go shopping with my friends. It’s annoying to be on my phone Googling clothing brands in an effort to see whether or not buying the piece of clothing aligns with my values.
But you know what? I don’t miss it that much.
I’ve saved hours and hundreds of dollars on clothing items it turns out I didn’t really need in the first place. My closet is full and my friends don’t seem ashamed to be seen in public with me.
I fall short in living an ethical life in so many ways every day, but buying ethically-made clothes has been a relatively easy change for me. I’m not trying to make anyone feel guilty for his or her choices, but I do believe you should think about the reasons for your actions and actively live the values you embrace.
So eat good food, wear good clothes, and carry stuff in good bags. Go check out the products to start your collection of ethical wares.
With love, from Peas & Hoppiness