The True Cost of Your Closet

There are two truths that precede this post.

The first is that I am staunchly, whole-heartedly, unapologetically, no exceptions pro-life.

The second is that I understand documentaries have an agenda, but this particular film’s agenda lines right up with mine, so that made this all so very convenient. wink.

You look in your closet for this weeks outfits. Shoes, jeans, yoga pants - even lingerie. But, do you know the real cost of all of that fashion that ends up in your laundry room floor? Who is sewing your latest winter outfits from Nike or fall outfits from Urban Outfitters? Where does your maternity fashion or fall fashion come from and at what cost? Find out how you can be sure your closet is socially responsible while still being fashionable.

image via dollar photo club | saratm

Ever since Mike and I read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, we have been looking at our consumer habits much more closely. We didn’t just donate a few things here and there. We got rid of almost half of our belongings, and we are attempting to keep it that way. We’ve noticed that, yes, we have regretted some of the things we gave away, but the freedom of having less has been much more worth it.

Even more worth it is our new outlook on consumption. For years, heck, my whole life even, I have gone through fits where I purged tons of “stuff” from my room or my apartment or house. I didn’t want all of these belongings, and I didn’t want to feel attachment to possessions. But, stuff kept creeping back in.

We all know why that happens. Products promise to fix problems in our life, but, well, they don’t. Instead we are left with more stuff to take care of (goodbye, time), and less money in our accounts. It’s what our society is built on. It’s really hard to get away from. I still struggle with this. I want all the stuff. This will be a lifelong process of unlearning my poor consumption habits.

What I’ve come to realize after our great and final purge (please, God), is that clothing is one of my weaknesses. Raise yo hand up if that is you too. After watching The True Cost, my resolve to fix this part of my life became firm…

But man, can I burn through Target tees and other cheap, expendable clothing. After all, it’s only meant to last for a season, right? But, where is all of that cheap clothing coming from? Sweatshops and poor working conditions are not foreign concepts to us, but they are certainly things that are easier to not think about than to put in the front of our minds when making purchases.

Cheap clothing has its advantages: people who are on a tight budget are able to afford new clothing at these cheap prices, and many people who come in contact with this clothing (from harvest to retail) are making money in the process.

Here is where my problems come in.

Do we accept the fact that workers are being paid pennies per day working in dangerous conditions so that we can fill our closets? Do we tell ourselves that these people need work otherwise they would have no money at all? Is it ethical to justify the abuse and sadness that these humans put up with day in and day out by saying, “well, they are lucky to have a job?”

Are there other alternatives? I can’t fix the garment industry on my own. But, there are ways we can make noise with our dollars. There are other places we can put our money. And yes, that may mean a worker from Bangladesh is not seeing work immediately, but it will also mean that companies are forced to change the way they do business. We cannot accept the fact that a mother must give up her child so that she can make less than a dollar a day in a garment factory where she plays the odds each day of whether she will die from a building fire or chemical exposure.

The alternatives to our shopping desires certainly range in price. We can always buy second hand. This is my favorite way to make sure no new manufacturing is taking a toll on humans or the environment. But, if you are looking for something new, you’re going to pay the price. You’re going to pay that person’s wage and healthcare and so on. Which means you won’t be able to buy as much. But it begs the question: do you need more?

It boils down to a life issue. With this knowledge of where your clothes are coming from and how they are made, can you be pro-life while supporting fast fashion industry that puts profit and quantity over human life?

I think not.

5 Tips for Shopping Smarter


A List of Better Alternatives

Please feel free to add more resources in the comment section. Or, if you know something about these companies that I don’t, let me know. I’m ready to learn!

Second Hand and Resale Stores
People Tree
Lands’ End (nevermind…)
American Apparel (Although I take issue with their marketing practices.)
C&C California
The Good Trade
Fair Indigo

some links affiliate

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  1. Jenna says

    I started looking at my consumer habits after using the KonMari Method on our home, as well. It really is a life changing book! For your list: Patagonia is a great company to look into for outerwear and exercise clothing.

  2. Rachel langley says

    Free to work is an amazing and helpful app and web site for finding humanitarian companies. Check it out!

  3. says

    When I was in college and we studied sweat shops I remember learning that United Colors of Benetton has great labor practices and pays fair wages. Unfortunately that means their pretty pricey. Although now that I went over and looked at their kids lines it looks a lot more reasonable than I remember it being when I was looking for business clothes after college and wanted to buy all the things there!

  4. says

    That documentary really got me thinking too. And after watching the montage bouncing back and forth between the sweatshops and Americans rushing into stores on Black Friday all I could think was, “I’m an ass.” The only solution I could think of was to buy second hand clothes as much as I can, but it’s hard to clothe a gaggle of children and always shop ethically. I find myself drifting into Old Navy looking for cheap kids jeans since all the ones I bought at the consignment store are already knee-less and we’re only half way through the cold season. I’m glad Land’s End made your list because that’s pretty much where all my clothes come from. Online. I don’t take this circus to the store.

  5. says

    I respectfully disagree with your conclusion that it is immoral to buy new clothing with the exception of a tiny niche market of kind/respectful manufacturers.

    Some of my objections:
    1. You acknowledge that the workers may be unemployed without manufacturing jobs, but you seem to thing that unemployment is really better for them than their lousy jobs. Considering that they have freely accepted, maybe even fought over, those jobs, they disagree with you. Unemployment might mean that their families literally starve to death while we’re working to change the system.

    2. You also seem to think that if we all unite and refuse to abuse for long enough, that will magically solve the problem. That mass manufacturers will decide to pay poor people in Bangladesh $5/hour with benefits after all. They will not, until their labor and productivity is actually worth that much. At that price point, they would prefer to relocate.

    3. If I have to choose to do business only with businesses who make moral and respectful choices, I cannot function in society. I can’t buy food picked by underpaid Mexicans, or meat from abused animals, or any product from any company that supports planned parenthood, or that doesn’t provide paid maternity leave. I can’t have any electronics or anything made from mined metals. I can’t turn on the power in my house because it’s causing pollution. I can’t mail a package because many shipping workers are overworked and underpaid.

    I don’t mind that you want to be a shopping activist or buy used clothes. I love thrifting. But I don’t think that continuing to buy clothes from target is immoral, or that every pro-life Catholic is morally obligated to stop buying clothing immediately. That’s a very strong claim.

    Every company values profit or they wouldn’t exist at all. Most companies also value human life. You have to decide, as an executive, how much human life you can support and still make a profit. Every single company makes those choices because they can’t all provide every employee with first rate insurance, great leave policies, a salary to support a family, beautiful and absolutely injury-proof working conditions.

    People in China used to live and work in dire poverty. “Abusive” manufacturing has raised millions of Chinese from poverty every month, and now many of them have the luxury to turn down the worst jobs and take better ones, so that companies are relocating to find new cheap labor. If the West had decided decades ago to refuse to buy things made in China, where would the Chinese be now?

  6. Ali says

    Thank you so much for writing this blog post. I’ve wondered about this for a long time. I’m a shopaholic, I love a good sale, but I also enjoy consignments. Do you thing companies like: J.crew, Gap, Nordstrom are gility of unfair wages too? Or is it a general rule; if it coats more, they are paying the workers more.
    And what about children’s clothes too? I shop at Old Navy a lot but now reading thins article I’m going to change my shopping habits. Any tips or guidance would be greatly appreciated!
    Keep doing what you are doing, LOVE the blog!

  7. says

    Great read! Recently I read The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up too. It led me to embrace a more simple lifestyle, and I started to think about where stuff was really coming from. Rarely do I buy new clothing anymore. In fact, I shop much less now, and can walk out of a store without buying anything. Something I was unable to do a few years ago.