Taken at a secondhand shop in Katano, Japan
I don’t buy new clothes. It’s made me the recipient of many a raised eyebrow, and just like asking a vegetarian out to a steakhouse, I’m probably not the first person you’d ask to go to the mall with you. “Oh, you don’t? Hmm, okay…” has been the usual response, and the few friends who I have taken thrift shopping with me seemed a bit ill at ease – “Someone else wore these, right?” Having worked in the sustainable fashion world for so long, the reasons for my shopping abstinence are so obvious to me but I’d be lying if I said I’ve explained them clearly to others. But what’s the point if the only people gaining knowledge about buying clothes in a more responsible fashion are the people who already do it? So let me take this opportunity to explain my reasons to you. I could be totally wrong but I think if you read this, you might rethink how and why you shop. This is in no way meant to be preachy or didactic, so I hope it doesn’t come off the wrong way. I just think it’s information you might want to have. So if you read it and hate it, just discard it from your mind. But if it makes sense to you, there is a possibility that it will change your life for the better.
Why I don’t buy new clothes
My friend Joey recently shared a video called the Story of Stuff on his Facebook wall as what changed his mind about buying a pair of new kicks he’d been eyeing. I’ve been writing for a sustainable design site for three years now and for people like me (hippies, treehuggers, whatever you want to call us), this video is nothing new. In fact, the whole reason that I made the major change in my life a few years back to minimize the number of new things that I buy was that I saw the Story of Stuff and thought that it made a lot of sense. The basic idea behind the video is that whether you like it or not, you’re probably controlled by your stuff – the stuff you want, the stuff you already have and the stuff that “they” tell you to buy. Sometimes our desire for stuff is so strong that it dictates how happy we are. You get a new iPad and you’re floating on clouds for a day, right?
Well for me, that part of it is fine and dandy. I’m not going to lie. I love stuff and I still buy it (more about that later). It’s the other part of the equation that really bothers me – that the stuff I buy to make me happy hurts so many others. Most of those people are far away in other countries, which is why it’s easy to ignore for a lot of us, but what really struck me is that many of them are women and girls just like me. Now I’m not saying that I don’t feel for the men being paid pennies to work just so I can have a new cellphone for $99 bucks but for me, the idea that my frivolous clothes shopping was contributing to fellow women having to work in super shitty conditions became especially unacceptable. And by shitty conditions I don’t just mean making thirty cents a day or not getting to eat lunch. I don’t know if you’ve heard about this recent news story, but while hoardes of Americans were lining up outside of Targets to buy the new Missoni clothing line, yet another woman who was raped in the factory that makes clothes for Target, Macy’s and other U.S. chains came forward. Though located in Jordan, the factory is notorious for hiring women from Asia who will work for cheap, and the sexual assaults against them (perpetrated by the supervisors at the facility) have led to it being dubbed the Rape Factory. Now, saying that the reason these women were victimized is because you bought mass-made clothes from those retailers is obviously a stretch and that’s definitely not what I’m insinuating. But if you think about it, one of the reasons that the supervisors were able to take advantage of them was that the women were desperate to keep their jobs. That’s what happens when mass-retailers go to other countries to make our clothes. They want to keep prices down for us so they find women and kids who will work for practically nothing under incredibly demeaning conditions. The result is that yeah, you get to buy a pair of pants for $14.99 but someone else paid dearly for them – and not in money.
A selection of secondhand clothes at the Clossette Pop Up Shop – not as fancy as Topshop but not too shabby!
So that’s one reason I don’t buy new stuff. Sure, you might think it’s weird or gross to wear clothes that someone else has worn already but I would much rather do that than wear something that some little old grandma busted her ass to sew for 3 cents. Which brings me to my one exception to my not buying new stuff rule. Well you probably know that just like you choose which candidates get to be in office by voting, you can also decide which companies stay in business by voting with your dollars. So when you’re buying that $5 t-shirt at Target, you’re also telling them that you want them to keep their prices low and that it doesn’t really bother you that they’re hurting other human beings to do it as long as you save money. So what’s the alternative? Well, there are a lot of companies out there now that make sure their employees are happy, safe and paid a fair wage. Some examples I can think of off the top of my head are TOMS Shoes and the Andean Collection. Because of that, I break my rule and buy new stuff from them all the time – even if it’s a bit more expensive. It actually makes me proud to wear stuff that allows a struggling mother to be the breadwinner for her family and give them a better quality of life. It’s almost like supporting the Yankees or the Mets. If you hate the Yankees and what they stand for, you’re probably not going to buy a bunch of Yankees t-shirts and rock them, right? The only difference here is that many times, you don’t even know you hate the brands you support because you don’t even realize what they’re doing.
There are other reasons for not buying new stuff too. I’m sure you’ve heard of the green movement and you might even be sick of hearing about it. But instead of thinking about it as some hippie fad shit, why not think about how it’s actually going to improve your life, and improve life for your kids (if you’ve got any) in the future. Honestly, I think kids are so enlightened about this stuff. I’m always so surprised and impressed when a little kid actually understands that if you only need a few napkins, you only take a few. Meanwhile their parent is standing next to them taking a huge handful. That was totally going off on a tangent but if you never understood why less is more or just write things that are eco-friendly off as propaganda B.S. (though I admit much of it is), think about how not buying all new furniture or buying secondhand will leave some trees for your grandkids when you’re dead and gone. Products may seem to just appear on your store shelf but it takes an incredible amount of energy and materials for that to happen. If you want an example, check out this guy who decided to try and make a toaster from scratch.
Thanks for putting up with my rambling thus far. I hope some of this has made some sense to you and I know it’s not really feasible to ask you to stop buying new things altogether. It’s something that has taken me years to be able to do and there are so many times when I see a cute dress in the window of a Forever 21 and think “I want that.” So yeah, I definitely don’t expect you to quit shopping for new things cold turkey and I don’t ever judge anyone who doesn’t. Shopping, retail and our love (and when I say love, I mean a real emotional attachment) of things are ideas/felelings that have been ingrained in us ever since we were old enough to know what Christmas was, so there is no way to change that overnight. All I’m asking is that you maybe try to think about it differently and next time you pick up a top at a store, think of all the hands that physically touched it from start to finish and what they got (or lost) out of it. And ask yourself if you’d be proud to wear something like that.
Before I leave you I also want to clarify one thing. My friend Daniel Yun told me the other day that he watched the Story of Stuff and was impressed by it, which of course made me glad. But I happened to be wearing my vintage Chanel bag and he said “Yuka, I’m disappointed in you. You’re still sucked into consumerism. I thought you would know better.” To that, I just want to say yes, I am still totally a consumer and proud of it. But that’s the beauty of it. If you buy things at thrift/vintage shops, you can still have your name brands and eat them too (though maybe wearing them is more appropriate). When you buy secondhand, you’re supporting stores (usually local, mom and pop shops or the Salvation Army) that are not only keeping clothes and merchandise out of landfills, they’re also not contributing to people working in sweatshops – quite the opposite in fact. We don’t have to stop being consumers to make the world better – in fact, we should keep consuming at a healthy pace to keep the economy moving. I’m just saying that we should try to stop consuming things that aren’t made in a way that’s good for us.
Anyhow, thanks for reading this and if you have any comments, questions, angry rants, or skepticism, please share it below in the comments. I really hope this didn’t sound preachy or like a lecture. This is what I wholeheartedly believe, but if you believe something else, I don’t want to close myself off from knowing about it.