May 17, 2013

Underwear, Entitlement, and the Value of Bangladeshi People

The comment that caught me was this: "We are basically saying, I deserve to buy a shirt for $10."

It was February, and I sat in Amelia & Varun's living room. We were drinking chai, of course, and laughing and talking about many things. Somehow, it came 'round to clothing and ethics. We discussed the desire to do right by the faceless masses involved in producing my (oh-so-fashionable) wardrobe, and the cost of living in southern Ontario. Is it possible to purchase ethical goods on my budget? I wondered.

And then she said it.

"By shopping at these stores, we are basically saying, I deserve to buy a shirt for $10. Instead of saying, I can't afford so I'll go without, we say, I deserve a shirt that is affordable, so I'm going to buy this one."

Deserve. What do I deserve?

I deserve a closet full of clothes.
I deserve to purchase 6 new shirts every season.
I deserve to look good and pay less.
I deserve to have enough clothes to do laundry every other week.

And what do the workers deserve? What about the humans who happened to be born in a developing country? Do they deserve fair wages? Safe working conditions? Does my entitlement to cheap clothing trump their entitlement to a reasonable life?

This struck me. I slept on it. And in the morning, I felt the same. I decided it was time to stop saying, "I can't do this," and to start saying, "I can't change the world, but I can change my own habits."

I told Amelia that I was contemplating a challenge to myself. It was too far into the year to call it a resolution, but it was, in fact, exactly that. I resolved that for the rest of the year, I would only purchase clothing or shoes that I could guarantee were ethically made or second-hand* (exceptions: pieces required for the weddings I was in, possibly soccer cleats). And she decided she was also in.

So now it is May, and I have purchased 3 items of clothing, all used. One skirt and two sweaters. I have some other new-to-me clothes from our third clothing swap. I bought one pair of non-ethical shoes for a wedding, and I bought two necklaces that were definitely not ethical, because I forgot. I regret those necklaces, not just for their cheap price, but also their cheap quality.

I'm relieved that I have plenty of underwear (thanks, Amelia for sourcing where I can get it next time I'm in need). I'm nervous about how the summer will go; I own precisely two pair of shorts, and find them the most difficult wardrobe piece to find.

But you know what? I'm doing just fine. I'm buying less. I'm curbing the urge to buy emotionally, I'm challenging myself to redefine what I "need," and when the factory complex in Bangladesh collapsed, I felt the conviction of someone who has shopped at Joe Fresh, who is implicit and responsible for the lives that were lost. And the relief that I had already chosen to change my habits.

My friend Michelle wrote more about personal responsibility and how we can make a difference. I encourage you to check it out! 

What are your thoughts? Do you think about the ethics/source of your clothing purchases? What are ways we can demonstrate that we value the humans involved in the process of clothes manufacturing? Want to join me in my resolution for the rest of the year?



*Buying second-hand isn't a perfect solution. There are actually quite a lot of ethical issues within the used clothing industry. For me, this is a starting point - I am hoping this small change leads to further small changes that eventually add up to significant and influential change.

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