Getting lost in the wardrobe

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No, I'm not planning an adventure, the map shows all of the countries I found on clothing labels in a very quick scan through my wardrobe this morning. In some ways I was surprised to find there weren't more and that so many were in Europe. I was also rather surprised by how many companies don't include the country of origin on the label. The worst offender in my own wardrobe was Toast, who do appear to take production ethics seriously. I'd like to see more precise information, however. Although I'm certainly aware of the horrific problems in the global garment industry I find it exhausting and complicated to figure out the most ethical shopping choices. But the horrific, and so easily preventable, tragedy this week in Bangladesh starkly shows how important this is. I can do better, we can all do better.

It often seems like the simplest way to make more ethical clothing choices is to be or become someone who doesn't care much about the aesthetics of clothing. But I do love clothes, I enjoy acquiring new ones, and find putting together outfits creatively fulfilling. Of course, I certainly don't think everyone should share my interest, and would never judge those who don't, but I know that for myself I need to find a way to work with, rather than against those desires. Recently I've been trying to be a little more thoughtful about my daily outfits, and I've been sharing some of them on flickr. I've found that it's helping me to enjoy my current wardrobe and to shop more carefully for items that fulfill a gap and are perfect, rather than just sort of what I was looking for (I'm embarrassingly guilty of buying multiple white shirts in a quest for the one that is just right - it never ends up being worth settling for the ones that aren't perfect so I'm trying to break that habit.)

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I try buy things that are well made, in natural fibres, that will last for several years, but to be honest I find the term 'fast-fashion' about as annoying as I find the term 'real-food'.  Both are loaded terms, implying judgements of people who are so frivolous that they buy cheap clothes by the dozens and throw them away barely worn. Of course, most people in the Western world are buying more garments than they used to, but their reasons for doing so are more complicated than this term implies. Women especially are judged all of the time for their clothing, for their style, for wearing the same shirt too often or on consecutive days. There's a lot of privilege in opting out of that, in escaping, responding to and refusing to participate in that sort of judgement. Building a wardrobe of classic, durable pieces takes money, time or both and I think it's important to find ways to talk about doing that without shaming those who lack those resources. Even if you’re pretty aware of these issues, or don’t fall into the obsessive consumer box, it’s hard to change your perception of what something should cost. Maybe we can start focusing on the positive aspects of well made clothing and find ways to make getting dressed interesting without a constant injection of new pieces.

I pretty much help people to make their own clothes for a living, but I make a very small percentage of my own wardrobe. In many ways, I'm not sure that opting out of the global garment industry is a solution. I know it's not the solution for me, and that it's impossible for many, although I have a huge amount of respect for people who craft all or most of their own clothes. However, making our own clothing might be most valuable in the ways in which it alters our perceptions of quality and value. It's hard to look at a cheap shirt in the same way when you've spent the best part of a weekend sewing something similar, how can it possibly be made so cheaply without causing harm?

Some clothes are, indeed, so cheap that it seems impossible that they could be made ethically, but price is no guarantee of either ethical manufacture or high quality. In yet another vicious cycle the availability of clothing affordable enough to replace regularly has eroded our need for the knowledge required to judge the quality and durability of a prospective purchase. Creating your own garments is one way to learn about the quality of materials and construction methods.

Buying second-hand or vintage clothing, and donating unwanted clothing can seem like a way to opt out of the garment industry but is not without problems. The Clean Clothes Campaign, which is dedicated to "improving working conditions in the global garment industry" outlines some of them.

However, we don't propose this as the simple solution to the industry's problems. Jobs for workers in the fashion industry are a life line for many. We feel it is our job to promote these jobs, but advocate for them to be well paid and secure. Buying less first hand clothing could slow down production, reduce pressure in workplaces, and help improve conditions. But it could also cause job losses for workers who rely on the fashion industry for their livelihoods, and not improve workplace pressure at all. We have no way to measure this effect. (Yes, we know it's not a pretty picture!)

It is also important to mention the big problem of waste created by the second hand clothing business. It is often the case that second hand clothing, when not sold, is dumped on emerging markets in developing countries, and their local fashion industry is damaged. If and when you support a second hand clothing retailer, it is important to ask questions about their waste and ensure that it isn't having this effect.

The second issue is a major problem. Donating unwanted clothing assuages our feelings of guilt, but it's important to examine whether such warm, fuzzy feelings are warranted. Projects such as this Oxfam one in Senegal do seem to be focused on meeting a demand that isn't met by local manufacture and improving the local economy and employment options. It's another good reason for trying to focus on higher quality, classic garments - they'll hold their value in your own wardrobe for longer, but are also more likely to have a resale value or be desired by a friend. I have a large bag of clothes that I don't wear, for various reasons, that I want to carefully consider before simply donating them. I need to find the time and enthusiasm for altering or re-purposing them. Perhaps stating that publicly will help to hold me accountable to that goal.

a little bit 40s, in a dishevelled sort of way

Wearing a vintage blouse, that I'm at least the third owner of, that just needs a little work on the buttons to be truly wearable. Plus raw denim jeans that should get better with wear.

There are also successful companies (Boden, Toast, Land’s End spring to mind) whose success does seem to hinge, at least partially, on actively trying to generate a reputation for quality, long lasting garments.

From Toast's ethical policy.

From Toast's ethical policy.

It can be hard to find companies who focus on fair, ethical trade if your style doesn't tend towards tie-dyed cheesecloth (nothing wrong with that, but it's not, for example, work appropriate for most people). People Tree have also, over the last few years, been trying to combine the fun parts of trendy fashion with ethically made clothing - they had one collection aimed at teenage girls / younger women that was designed (uh… curated maybe?) by Emma Watson. Of course there’s plenty of green-washing going on in marketing and not all of the companies that are focusing on quality are necessarily particularly ethical in other ways but I’m hopeful that this will start to change perceptions.

Patagonia take an interesting approach, it's possible to track the manufacture of any of their garments here http://pcpsia.com/ They have a lot of information about the production of their clothing on their website, and I appreciate that it's very upfront about their imperfections and past mistakes, it would be great to see this approach from more companies. One of the things I find fascinating is that they apparently decided to improve their ethical standards partly out of a desire to do the right thing, but also because their customers were noticing a decline in quality. "It really is true that you can’t make good products in a bad factory."

Patagonia also highlights the practices higher up the supply chain that can put pressure on factories: "Last-minute changes to orders, unreasonable price demands and hurry-up delivery times can exacerbate already difficult conditions on the factory floor." Whoever is ultimately held responsible for the devastating loss of life in Bangladesh, or the less dramatic but no-less devastating daily brutalities in garment factories around the world, the clothing companies that place such unreasonable demands on their suppliers surely deserve some of the blame.

Not all companies are going to work to improve conditions in factories solely out of a desire to do the right thing, or in response to consumer demand, but is it possible that things could change in such a way that profits become a motivator? Perhaps I'm being overly optimistic, but I'm starting to notice some changes that might have that effect. The trend towards online shopping, and to discussing and sharing style on the internet seems to be changing the focus somewhat away from having new garments in store weekly, to limiting returns and making sure that people can still buy that great sweater they saw on a blog.

Garment sizing would be a whole other blog post, but one of the biggest reasons for returning clothing has to be that it's an inconsistent size. Some of the most successful online retailers have achieved their success partly by offering free, easy returns and marketing the hassle free nature of trying on multiple sizes. But returns cost retailers, and more and more seem to be aiming for more consistent sizing. In terms of consistency, I mean partly that a size 12 is a size 12 is a size 12, but also that the the same garment in the same size will have consistent measurements. 'Runs small, large, true to size' is a common checkbox on online reviews, and Boden, for example, now include both a sizing chart of body measurements and the actual garment measurements.

Only functional if a certain quality and consistency in manufacture is maintained.

Only functional if a certain quality and consistency in manufacture is maintained.

Customers love this, and it has to help to reduce the number of returns, but it only has value if multiple garments that should be the same actually are. That's not easy to achieve when you're making those garments as cheaply as possible, with a poorly treated, disposable, low-skill workforce.

Modcloth encourages reviewers to give their own measurements and feedback on the sizing and quality of garments.

Modcloth encourages reviewers to give their own measurements and feedback on the sizing and quality of garments.

One reason that the same garment in the same size can measure so drastically different is the way that the fabric is cut. In commercial garment production several garments are cut at the same time by stacking the fabric in layers and cutting through them with something that looks like a jigsaw or a laser cutter (you can see this process here - scroll down). The more layers there are and the more quickly the person operating the cutter is trying to work then the more the layers on the bottom will shift, and result in different measurements even though the pieces are being cut to make the same style in the same size. Making more consistent sizes therefore requires more time and care and costs more, but maybe that investment will start to seem worthwhile if it builds customer loyalty and reduces returns from online orders.

Online reviews also often focus on quality and fit in a way that hopefully leads to more customers being aware of the things that affect quality and demanding more. Body shapes are diverse, but in most cases, better fitting garments require more seams and more complicated pieces. The result is again that they require more time, skill and cost to produce and these things are simply, as Patagonia describes, hard to achieve when buying products made in factories with awful conditions.

I'm sure awful people will continue to find ways to avoid local labour laws (when those even exist), mistreat people horrifically and ignore safety concerns in ways that lead to avoidable deaths. But I am cautiously hopeful that by continuing to demand both clear and transparent ethical standards from the companies that we shop from and developing and interest in the fit and quality of the clothes we buy that change is possible. And the more people we can get interested in craft, in quality, in styling clothing in ways that remain fresh and interesting, the better. But let's try to do it by sharing our enthusiasm for these things, rather than shame. 

I took a break from writing this post to help Sarah fit the dress she's working on.

I took a break from writing this post to help Sarah fit the dress she's working on.

I don't really have any answers, and these issues often make me want to hide under the bed, but I think it's a really important discussion to have and I'd love to know what you're thinking and doing. My friend Miriam has been doing some very inspirational sewing recently, I'm particularly impressed that she's sewing boring basics, and also blogged about her own journey today. We've been chatting about this stuff for a while, but our rants about 'real food' were completely coincidental.

Playing with Pioneer

Breathing space