Saturday, May 11, 2013

Factory Girl?

(This post is first of three posts on clothing, personal style and selling and shopping vintage, among other things. Be forewarned: they're long and not entirely unicorns and rainbows. I have faith in you.)


Allow me to first admit that I'm a hypocrite. As I was beginning to compose this post in my head, I was thinking that it was kind of okay that I had recently bought some things new since it was the first time for like six years. I tallied up my "new" purchases from that time in my mind. I mentally patted myself on the back. I congratulated myself for being such a ethical consumer.


 And then I realized that it was so not true. Or at least only a part of the truth.

A couple of months ago I was working on a post called "The Shirt From The Shirtwaists" for the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Since I was also touristing in Finland at the time, the post never quite fell together, but after the events of last week, I really wish I had posted it.

The idea of the piece was that Triangle, seen by some as a landmark case that helped usher in stricter safety regulations in U.S garment factories and further the idea that perhaps children should not work on factory floors in dangerous conditions for little or no pay, was in perfect juxtaposition for how clothes are made in the 21st century.

Since the garment the tragic Triangle fire takes its name from was popular among a rising young set of fashionable folk, The Gibson Girl, it brings a lovely symmetry to the comparison of the two eras. In the dawn of suffragettism these new it girls of America were popularizing a garment who's makers were mostly poor women and, to a lesser extent, children. Wealthy, privileged youth and those who yarned to be perceived as such, unwittingly lending a hand to industrialists seeking to make a profit from exploiting women with few other choices beyond the factory floor. Sound familiar?

Since we know exactly what kind of garments the Rana Plaza Factory in Bangladesh made, I believe the comparison is apt.

If I'm buying new clothes from stores, I'm the Gibson Girl of our era. And I'm not the only one.
The clothes we buy in big box stores, or even small boutiques, were most likely made in abysmal working conditions, that would not be allowed in the West today. When we shop at Target, H&M, Costco, Forever21, The Gap, Joe Fresh, Urban Outfitters, Ross, most any store, we are buying goods manufactured by people who are not getting paid anywhere close to a living wage, who work long hours without overtime, in dangerous and unhealthy conditions, and possibly face physical, or sexual abuse in their place of work. Many are under what is considered legal working age in the countries the wares they make are headed.

Having read Naomi Klein's No Logo at a tender age, it never seizes to amaze me that everyone in the West isn't painfully aware of where their clothes (and everything else!) come from and how they're made. In the wake of any kind of newsworthy event related these factories and their unsavory practices (unsavory, by the way, is an understatement of epic proportions), there's an onslaught of a few articles like this one.  It would appear that very few folks ever read them.

To put it simply: If one buys clothes from said stores, or any other, one must always assume that they were produced in conditions that fulfill the definition of a sweatshop. Period. That's it. No ifs. No buts. No H&M Conscious Collection. There's no wide-spread fair-trade certificate for clothes (yet!). If there's a chance to increase a profit margin by exploiting workers, companies will do it. Every time. Unless we know exactly where and by whom our garments and accessories were made what is known of mass manufacturing dictates that they were created in a sweatshop in the third world. Were this not the case, surely the company producing such goods would see fit to market their product by informing us of this dazzlingly rare fact.  End of story. No ifs, no buts.
The unethical origin of our clothing is not a mystery. Most often it's right there on the "Made In" label, a remnant of the trade barriers eviscerated in the 90s by the WTO. The advances in working conditions made by the garment industries between The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and then vanished almost overnight and by the end of the 90s most American manufacturers had moved their factories elsewhere.  No more "Union Made" labels. No more American flag-tags. No more living wages, healthcare, pensions.
Less than 2% of clothes currently consumed in this country are manufactured here. Statistically that leaves little room for the hope that somehow, magically this particular $ 5.99-$ 59 T-shirt was not made in awful working conditions. If you're buying local, handmade, or even U.S made (hello American Woman Marginalizing Porn Ad Apparel!) you know it.
Which is where we get to my hypocrisy. Even if I'm not as ethical a consumer as I'd like to believe, I'd at least like to think of myself of not easily swayed by marketing and image. Yet as I tallied the things I had bought new since 2007, a disturbing pattern began to emerge. Some of my purchases appeared to be motivated as much by susceptibility to trends and nostalgia, as practicality and personal style. In the actual, honest list of my new, store-bought purchases includes:

-Assorted tights and underwear (approx 15 pairs tights and 25 pairs of undies in the last six years) and two bras. (Most bought either by my mom, or during one of my of Great Underwear Freak-Outs. These typically happen once a year when we're off-Island and I realize that it's now or never if I want to buy undies and get super-upset by the lack of choices and end up in H&M, or F21, or Urban and feel super guilty for days. C's least favorite annual event.)
-One H&M horse dress, bought in 2007, about nine months after I decided to stop shopping in stores altogether.
-One Finnish brand denim jacket, I bought on super sale for about $3 bucks on one cold Finnish summer night in 2008.
-One Kånken rucksack (actually not bought by me, but bought new to me as a gift and I was so stoked on it at the time!)
-A pair of forever21 skinny jeans (I had a pair I'd gotten second hand and when I ended up in f21 during the Great Underwear Freak-Out of 2012, I also caved and bought a replacement pair. For $10. How can a pair of jeans cost $10 New?!?!??! I think we all know the answer.)
-Two pairs of "Scandinavian" rubber boots. 1 Pair of "Finnish" Hai boots bought in 2010 and one pair of "Swedish" Tretorns, bought in this last trip when the shoes I brought broke.
-One Marimekko dress (bought on super sale on my last Finnish trip and still one of the two most expensive things I've ever purchased). Made in Estonia.

Apparently, I'm a sucker for vaguely "Scandinavian" things, made in Vietnam, China and Estonia (Clothes produced in the EU are usually made under more ethical conditions in those European countries where wages are lower.). These purchases prove that I care as much for the image of good quality, the recognizable brand, their"old world" appearance, as for the actual quality of the item itself.  It's worse than just being suckered by advertising, I'm building some self-image with my consumer choices, all the while pretending to scorn the very idea.

Which brings me back to my Triangle comparison. The folks who currently buy the most clothes and expect to get the cheapest prices and the newest styles, are often, though by no means exclusively, young people between the ages of 13-30 something. A segment of society that communicates as comprehensively through clothes as though they were a language. One that considers apparel to be a form of both self-expression and social currency. Acquiring it is a form of recreation, a hobby. And just as the Gibson Girl scarcely cared where her fashionable shirtwaists came from, we too are blind to how exactly the latest trends and identity-strengthening apparel are produced.
And why shouldn't we be? We live in a society where this is considered normal. Aren't we entitled to the whimsy and fun, the self-expression, the little luxury that clothes afford us? We work two jobs, to feed the families we don't get to spend enough time with, we have to clothe ourselves and our kids in something and we're not made of money. It's entitled and elitist to demand that we buy our kids organic, handmade overalls that they'll bathe in mud in and grow out of in three months. Frankly it's unrealistic to expect most people to wear 100% ethical clothing, lest they be firmly in the upper-middle class. (Or conversely, poor.)

At the same time, many of us seem to have plenty of money to squander in other things. As with food, I have a hard time taking a family with, say a flat screen TV, seriously when they complain that they do not have the money to make at least a few ethical consumer choices. Most things we buy are not necessities. Food and clothing are.

Because here's the rub: the money we spend goes to things that we prioritize and really there is no excuse to prioritize over human lives, the environment, the health of children. And that's what shopping in our society is about at its bare bones. Being complicit to these kinds of atrocities.

As a professor interviewed for the NY Times article I linked to earlier stated, rather succinctly:

“Most people probably would not hire a child, lock them in their basement, and have them make their clothes,” she said, “but this system is so abstracted.”

While someone might think that berating yourself over a few new pieces of clothing and underwear, when most of one's clothing purchases are secondhand and awesome handmade items, is excessive in a world gone hog-wild with consumerism. Perhaps so. But I'm always taken aback when I discover unexpectedly that my actions don't exactly align with my professed values.

I don't think I'm a terrible person just because of a few items. Many of them have lasted a long time and seen plenty of use. In addition to store bought ones the only other things I've bought new in the last 6 years are(for the sake of clarity):
-Three tops and a dress from Velvet Leaf. (Organic cotton, made in the US by owner-makers.)
-A bag from my friend Lissa (Organic cotton & linen and waxed canvas from US. Locally made.)
-Assorted organic cotton tote bags (I say assorted, because frankly I'm not sure how many there were. 3-4? I have a lot of tote bags.)

What's troubling about my own choices to me, is how easy it is to take the path of least resistance; the cheaper item, so long as one can still hold onto as much cool and function as possible. Instead of saving for something we'll love for a long time, we are conditioned to go for the instant gratification.

The Fjälraven Kånken cost about a third (depending on where one would buy it) of what my friend Elisabeth sells her handmade, organic cotton and US-produced bags for. It was made in Vietnam. I've worn it about half as much as my Barnacle Bag. Per use, it's cost me way more money.

The $10 jeans, are as certainly complicit to someone's suffering as they are cheap and flattering for my ass.
Our clothes purchases are wrought with heart-breaking paradoxes. Parents buying their children clothes made by other children. Women who consider themselves feminists, who campaign for fair, equal pay in their own countries, and against workplace harassment, waving aside the very same rights of poor women in the third world. Self-proclaimed environmentalists amassing cheap cotton clothing that is known to destroy aquifers, leak dyes and eradicate native forests.

Sometimes I'm apprehensive about writing these posts, because honestly, I expect a lot of people will feel like I'm attacking them and their lifestyle. This is not the case. If I am attempting to tell you anything, it's that like me, you already know all this and like me, you may be choosing to ignore it when it comes time to make though moral decisions. This is human. It's not my place to judge you. I have no control over where and what you shop. I only have that control over my own choices.

The trouble is that, of course, there really isn't a choice. Once you know the truth, there's no way to unlearn it.

(This is a very complicated issue and there are aspects of clothes manufacturing, marketing and retail (let alone all of our other consumer goods) that I have not even touched upon. Which is why this is only one post out of three.)

So now that you've made it all the way down here, what do you think? Where do you shop? Why? Are clothes purchases something worth worrying about?


  1. A really excellent honest post. Looking forward to reading the following ones. Thank you.

  2. Very honest! I sometimes forget to think about what conditions my clothing may have been produced in, and tend to focus on how expensive/inexpensive it is. Will be good to keep in mind thanks!

    1. Thanks for your comment dear. You know you made me think of something. There's a great Joel Salatin (?) quote about how if we had to figure in the real cost of "conventional" food vs. organic organic would come on top, because of soil degradation, illness, leaked toxins, oil inputs. I think the same could be said for store bought fast fashion. The more uses one gets out of an item, the smaller its price. Say if you get 500 out of a fifty dollar fairly made T-shirt that's only 10 cents per use versus 10 uses of a five dollar t shirt at 50 cents a piece, that's a great bargain. And if you are going to buy (for economic or other reasons) a five dollar tee, good sense would dictate that by same measure the more uses one gets out of the less its cost. I guess the point is to buy as little and ethically as possible and wear what you buy. Still learning that one, myself ;)

  3. Oh Milla, this is the kind of blog post that needs to be referred to EVERYWHERE. I don't think your readers should find this in they really really should not. I love your honesty girl. And you drove it home with the NY Times quote. Most of my clothes are scond hand, bought in thrift stores or an online auction site in NZ; a do have some new things though, and they will be in my wardrobe for probably ever. Shoes are my big conscience creeper.......I buy them new but I am careful not to buy into fads or any that can't be resoled...they are still new though huh. The other reason i buy hardly any is because i don't buy cheap throwaway ones (anymore)...i don't tend to find the ones i like secondhand unfortunately.
    Look forward to reading more on this...

    1. Thanks hot babe! Shoes are kind of like tights and undies, something that's way harder to thrift.

      In the case of shoes it's their unalterable nature. You can't make a shoe bigger or add onto it, right? I've been REALLY lucky in this department, but as you can see not in rubber boots. I just realized that ACTUALLY I've bought three pairs in four years and two of those are sort of vanity pairs, lighter for convenience sake. And resoling those babies is not an option. Sigh.

      One pair is us made, but that company stopped making them here last spring and moved producition to China. Result? Lots of wet Fisherman feet. They just kept splitting at the seams and price did not go down. Our fisherman friends were saying they would have rather forked out and extra 20 bucks just to have the product they used to trust. So stupid. Shoes are hard, because you never know. Sometimes cheap crappy ones actually end up lasting for a while.

      Us produced small manufactured shoes are so expensive, I'd be afraid to go outside in them. What's a person to do? I think what you've outlined is exactly the right approach. Quality, fixability. Thanks for your thoughts.

    2. last night after commenting here and going to bed i realised that i was a big fat liar. At least a third of my wardrobe is new. i buy more new than i realise! Thanks for replying honey bun. That stinks about your fisherman boots....i'm so depressed bout China right now, and NZ. NZ government has sold China 40 000 hectares of forestry land....and another huge amount of Dairying land and assets. Also they have bought up mineral mines in Australia for weapons manufacturing. What the hell is this world coming to? It's the expansion i suppose.

  4. Well said and so true! I buy absolutely everything second hand and resent all the H&M purchases I made before I started doing this. Reading No Logo opened my eyes as well as starting to sew and knit myself: it really makes you appreciate how much time it actually takes to create something and how the prices we pay for items are mind boggling. However, I also have a big love for Marimekko (luckily I can only afford their stuff second hand and even then barely), Swedish hasbeens and other Scandinavian goodies. The past few years I managed to resist the urge, but I wonder what moving back to a big city next year will do to that. Best advice to myself and other who can't afford ethical clothing or are rightfully sceptic as to how ethical they are: ignore ads, don't watch television and learn to make your own clothing. Until better alternatives emerge, there are tons of great second hand clothes out there.

    1. Thanks for the comment! I know right, when I was in Helsinki, it was almost impossible to not be exposed to clothes shopping opportunities at every turn. There's ads everywhere, bus stops, billboards, huge video screens, on the seats of trams, in the free magazines. Not to mention, as you know, in Scandinavia, you walk through stores in the winter to stay warm. Good luck girl, you live in so much more temptation than me.

  5. Hi Milla!
    I have felt the call to comment :)
    This merimekko butterfly is a classic and maybe you shouldn't worry so much about Estonia - it is an UE member country (for better or for worse - in many cases the later for the new members, a broad topic to discuss). And the current geopolitical setup might be misleading, as the historically, the country is has strong bounds with the Baltic Sea region countries, that is Scandinavia. Besides, a lot is going on in Eastern Europe and we are re-discovering our strength fast, though the journey may be tough :) I think that being cast in the victim role doesn't help the victim in the long run.

    I have two other thoughts, though. First, this is strange, how the clothes have the power to enchant us beyond all reason. A mystery to me, and I have found a lot of eye opening points about the topic on your blog.
    Second, I would need to meet some of the third world families, you mention, to be able to form a really informed and heart felt opinion: is it better to have an underpaying horrible job, or no job at all? What options do they have? Are there any?

    On a totally different level this question is also a story of my life, a girl from a farming family in some god forsalen communist country. What options have I had? What options do I have now to make this life a bountiful and beautiful one?

    Perhaps one choice is to respect that anonymous labour and to treasure that cheap tshirt and cheap life, and appreciate it. Some months ago I have taken a couple of old tees and made them into a braided table mat. It was a subtly transformative meditation.

    1. Hi hon, thanks for your comment. No, I think I more or less know how working conditions are in Estonia, Bulgaria, the Tsek Republic, where wages are simply cheaper (of course, there are what I would consider labor violations a plenty in the west too, but for the sake of the argument, I totally do not believe that Marimekko makes it's wares in Estonian sweat-shops) and my surprise at having my expensive Marimekko dress made in Estonia, was kind of two-fold. While not exploiting the workers it's interesting that a brand that has such a strong identity as a Finnish brand has most of its products made elsewhere. Some of the jersey stuff (for which they're famous) is actually made in Asia now. Which sucks, because it means that Finnish companies and consumers don't want to support native clothes manufacturing. My shock has to do with how ready I am to assume that this is the case, when it suited my purposes.

      While it's a perfectly lovely thing for Estonian seamstresses and factory floor cutters and finishers to have these jobs, it makes me sad that those jobs are being moved from Finland, I want there to be work and an industry for Finnish workers, because if there isn't one, we have then moved to a weird global class system where those who make and those who buy live in different regions. Or a more interesting comparison: those who design and those who make. This comparison puts all the cool in one end of the process and all stuff we don't like to think about on the other. I do not know what the answer is.

      You make a really good point that often comes up in these conversations in the media. In "developing" nations, is it better for people to be somewhat lifted from their poverty by these jobs as its often described "on their way to having the same economic comforts as the west"? On an individual level, maybe. It's very presumptuous of me to guess at what the pre-factory lives of folks might have been in such disparate countries as China, Thailand, or Bangladesh, but again we get to looking at the complete economics I mentioned in the comment to demetria perhaps those jobs end up costing the people a lot more than they're worth in new social structures left broken when the factories leave, in environmental damage. On an individual level these jobs can make a big difference towards bettering folks lives, but its not our custom to look at the big picture. Living in a post-industrial society, I have my doubts. Of course, I speak from a place of extreme privilege.

      I'll touch upon the equalizing effect of cheap fashion in my next post, I hope. It's an excellent point as well.

      I really like your thought on treasuring everything one buys is a really important one. Thank you for your lovely perspective.

  6. Coincidentally I too was consoling myself for a few new purchases made recently after also about 6 years of abstaining. Like you, undergarments were the only thing I'd bought new over those years, other than things I bought for myself with "gift card" money which I somehow told myself was OK because it was a "gift" - not really me buying it. Ha ha.

    My don't-buy-new decision wasn't primarily an ethical one, though as a Textiles student I certainly understand all about outsourcing and sweatshops, etc. I just really love to thrift / swap / receive handmedowns and had realized that it could be entirely possible to get by with only buying and wearing secondhand. It wasn't hard to do. I very rarely buy new clothing items for my family of 5 either (we don't own a flat screen TV, but do have an iMac and a few other technological luxuries). As for my recent new purchases, well after years of secondhand you start to realize the true value of some things that are made new. Things maybe you've looked for secondhand but just can't be found, or if they are available they are handmade and (justifiably) priced out of my budget (single income family). Such as handmade sandals vs. say, flip flops.

    One of my recent purchases was a pair of $2 Made in China orange flip flops from everyone's love-to-hate big box retailer. Could I have saved up PayPal money to buy a pair of custom made orange sandals on etsy that I've had favorited forever? Sure. But here were these $2 flip flops, just sitting there in a bin of hundreds, already made, waiting for someone to buy them before they went somewhere else, like say an outlet or a thrift store or 3rd world country, etc. So why beat myself up for buying something and getting use out of something already made? Same goes for the two pair of Gap skinny jeans I bought on clearance from an Outlet shop while out with a friend a few months ago. Wasn't snagging it from an outlet sale bin just as responsible as getting it secondhand by some other means? I would still be giving it a use and function as opposed to just letting it continue on the discount cycle until I don't know, it ends up in a thrift store anyway? Or a landfill?

    So part of me feels bad for being just another consumer of a newly made thing which in turn trickles back and creates demand for the manufacture of even more new things... but another part of me realizes that on an individual level, and especially as an individual that already values and practices secondhand shopping & reuse, that I have very little influence in the global manufacturing process. So why not, on occasion, give a good home to newly made products? But also continue to support owner-makers and support efforts to bring more garment manufacturing jobs back to the US and continue to support & champion reuse/secondhand which in some small way may help to decrease the demand for "new" things...

    Thanks for giving me something to think about on this Mother's Day morning while my kids gave me a chance to have a quiet coffee & web!

    1. Thanks for your amazing, lengthy comment and thought-out musings, lady! I'm right with you on some of these thoughts and don't know the answers at all. Because, let's face it, this whole issue is part of a bigger cycle that we as consumer's have relatively little power over. Knowing how much stuff stores routinely throw IN THE TRASH as a part of their cycle of bringing in new goods, buying from sale bins does seem like the equivalent of buying relatively new clothes used. You're shrinking their profit margin, you're possibly saving an item from the landfill.

      Yesterday, I was talking to my friend who has one pair of shoes about buying sandals, would I begrudge her from buying new sandals? Hell no. Girl, NEEDS a second pair of shoes. Would I begrudge myself from buying new sandals? Yes. At the last count, I had 32 pairs of shoes. Three or four of those are sandals. Admittedly, they were all used or free, but until I wear every pair of summer-ish shoes to the bone I really do not NEED new, or used sandals. I guess it's matter of scale. If you NEED something, you have to get it within your means.

      It would be nice if there was a middle way, say a $12 or $22 pair of durable sandals made in ethical conditions. My husband has a pair of Havainas from Brazil that a friend brought him 6 years ago and which he has worn most every day in the months between may and october and they're still just fine. Apparently Havaiinas in the US are not as durable as the ones sold in Brazil, but hot damn! even if they'd cost $50 that'd be one durable, long term cheap flip flop! Makes me want to go research that brand.

      I do want to have a clear point on justifying a purchase of something because it was already manufactured, just because that's what everything is. The jeans I bought were already manufactured and they will be replaced in the shelf by another pair. I know that wasn't your intention in writing this, but I just think that is something that some people use as their excuse.

      In the next parts I'm aiming to discuss what and why we buy. Thanks for important topics to consider, dear. You rock!

  7. Thanks so much for this post!
    This is something that I think about often, and especially try to keep in mind when I am wandering around in the downtown of my city, being visually assaulted by products I "should" buy.
    Most of my clothes are second hand and I also buy from a friend who is a local designer. Still, buying new is practically impossible to escape sometimes, isn't it?
    I buy underwear new and they have that horrible, cheap plastic smell that reminds me that they were made in unethical conditions. And then usually I feel horribly guilty buying them. But what is the alternative? I suppose I could learn to sew better and make my own, but then there is the question of where the materials are sourced from, etc.

    I feel we are pretty similar in that we both love fashion, but struggle with it ethically. What's a lady to do!?

    1. Thanks for your comment, dear heart. These are good points. "Organic cotton jersey" is all fine and good and sewing your own admirable, but where does it all come from? this is definitely something I'll cover in one of the two next parts. It's such a convoluted mess this whole tangled web of production chains. Thanks for your thoughts on it.

  8. Great post - I'm also looking forward to 2 + 3! I buy the vast majority of my clothes secondhand (maybe about 90-95% of them). In the last few years I've learned to sew which gives you even more options in the second hand market with alterations and creating new things out of pretty, old fabric. But my more recent concern is if I still have the same consumer mentality, just in thrifting now rather than going to the mall. There's something about having something 'new' that we all seem to be so consumed by (pardon the pun). I'm even thinking about doing my master's research project on how our movement away from having creative skills such as sewing, woodworking, painting etc. has been replaced by consuming….a need that used to be fulfilled by our own personal creation of something unique and high quality is attempting to be fulfilled by acquiring at the mall instead….just a theory. I have to admit though, I don't think all that much about the people in factories that are being affected by fast fashion…my choices are driven more by my disgust at the profit and greed of corporations. I know you can't untangle one from the other, but that is more my focus.

    1. Hey Kerry, thanks for your comment, much to mull over. Your point on the origin of our urge to consume is an interesting one. I certainly have always felt that it applies to the pleasure of thrifting. Looking, finding, claiming. I find the same joy in it and mushrooming! Your master's project idea sounds awesome. And I agree with you on corporations, the feudal landlords of our time, BUT I do think that the key to defeating them is in universal solidarity between those who make and those who consume. We both certainly pay the price. Keep us posted on your master's project and other thoughts on this matter, dear.

  9. Agreed Milla, such a complex subject indeed! And one that I am constantly conflicted about...because it can be such a slippery slope issue.

    Its often hard to establish that line that you will not cross, and its hard not to ask more and more questions....let me brain dump some ideas. Is a vintage fur coat purchased second hand any more ethical than new? To me, animals still had to die to create it (no matter the decade), and likely unsavory and painful deaths at that. Is a handmade piece of clothing purchased on Etsy REALLY more responsible? Where was that bulk fabric made, by whom, and under what conditions? When you buy organic cotton, where was that cotton grown, and under what conditions, what was the impact on the land where it was grown?

    Not only that, but corporations have created a false sense of consumer responsibility...i.e. "free range" eggs. The waters get so muddied that it can be tough at times to make the most informed choices....

    Ugh, it is so very complicated, and overwhelming....I have no solutions, other than to be aware and do my best. Sometimes I feel like I would just have to do it all myself to satisfy my sense of global responsibility...ha! Weave my own fabric, grown my own makes me tired just thinking about it.

    Thank you for discussing this.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, hon. I don't think any of us have many solutions. Being aware is the key. Paying witness to atrocities is certainly the first step, is certainly better than ignoring the hard truths. These are TOTALLY the questions I'll be addressing in the next couple of posts. It kind of boils down to two points, right? 1. Well what the hell CAN I buy? and 2. Why we buy?
      It's a little overwhelming but so satisfying to try to get to the bottom. It's a deep old well ;) Thanks for adventuring with me.

  10. I loved this post and I totally agree, because it's an issue I've been very concerned about in the last few years. We can ask ourselves a lot of questions, but the true is we all know the sad reality behind a "made in China/Bangladesh/Camboya/etc" tag and, as you said, there's no ifs or buts: we have to asume what we're supporting with our acts and our purchases.

    I have a very hard time finding clothes and other stuff since I decided stop buying products made in unethical conditions, and I've reduced my consume habits to the strictly necessary (underwear is a problem, though). I look for local made goodies, take care of the last new clothes I bought and customize them to give them a new opportunity when they're worn out; oh! and I've made my first skirt and I feel so motivated :) Whenever I can I buy secondhand, wich it's not easy because our flea markets are full of, guess what? Primark, H&M, Zara and so. This fact say a lot about how we consume: cheap items that we wear a few times and we get tired of because, well, we can buy another new cheap one!

    Here in Spain is really difficult to find products made in our country. Back in the time there was a rich industry and some cities or villages were famous for their shoes, textile or even doll factories, but nowadays they only have a local office while all their products are made far, far away from here, or they are simply closed. We're a unproductive country sinking in a horrible crisis. We ignore the delicious asparagus from our lands and sell asparagus from China or Peru in our supermarkets. Weird, and sad.

    I'm not the totally ethical consumer I want to be, but I think that questioning things, getting informed, facing the reality and doing my best is a good start.

    -Sorry, English isn't my mother language and I feel a bit sick due to an incipient cold; I hope I've expressed myself well ;)

    1. Girl, your English is excellent (I know how you feel about that too, you know ; ) and your brain seems to be doing rather well in terms of coherence, thanks for taking the time to comment from your sickbed. Thrift market flooded with fast fashion!!!! I know!!! A long time ago I wrote a post on the future of vintage and I think I'll link to that at the end of the next one. It's actually a real problem if you think about how old and at what price things were in thrift stores when I started thrifting myself at 13 and what the scene is now. It's interesting to hear about the state of manufacturing in Spain, because, boy, it's the same here in the US. We make NOTHING. It's all intellectual property, really. Which is kind of NOTHING. There's a designing class and a making class, whereas before they were rolled into one. Definitely a point worth discussing. Thanks for joining in and for your support always. Feel better soon!

  11. Great post, Milla, so articulate and thoughtful. I *try* to buy only things second hand as well, except for undergarments and pants. I would LOVE to find a pair of jeans secondhand but vintage inseams just don't accommodate ladies over 6 feet tall. Until I got a job as an offset printer I pretty much only wore dresses and skirts, so trying to find used extra tall pants wasn't an issue. But since my job demands pants I've bought several pairs of brand spankin' new (impossibly cheap) jeans. I have no delusions about where those jeans came from, how they were made, and how workers and the environment were treated to get that denim to me. Yeah I feel guilty, and to answer your question, yes this is worth worrying about. For me, educating myself and trying my best to make ethical choices in life is a good step in the right direction but isn't truly radical. {insert rant about capitalist mode of production here}

    Instead, I'll end on a positive note. I am pretty lucky when it comes to acquiring clothes. My grandmother is a pack rat, so I have a pretty legit stash of vintage dresses in my closet. Also, I get a lot of hand-me-downs from friends or happen upon free boxes. Oddly enough, I tend to wear these clothes that find me more than what I buy for myself.

    Lastly, I made paper yesterday out of an old holey cotton sheet that otherwise would have been thrown away. And not that I'm saving the world by doing this (handmade paper consumes tons of energy and water) but it was a fun exercise and still better than a pulp mill. I'll post pictures of the final paper sculpture on my blog when it's done. . .

    Looking forward to Part 2.

    1. Hi hon, welcome back to the internets land! Are you all done with school?!?! And Yeah, what the heck? Was everybody in the 60s and 70s super short as well as super skinny?!??!

      I love that a lot of you guys feel like thinking about this stuff is the first step because that's how I feel too! It may seem inert at the time, but none of us were born radical. You put it very succinctly. There's a great passage from Tim DeChristopher I recently heard how momentum for action builds slowly over time until the action itself becomes inevitable. We don't just wake up one day ready to make the world different, is by necessity a slow process, both individually and socially. If we don't think things out we wont be as prepared to make choices and actions. Actually figuring out intellectual as well as emotional responses is key to the staying course when it comes to acting out your political, moral and ethical beliefs, because feelings change and are over ridden by other feelings, but it's harder to talk yourself out of your own reasoning.

      Making things by hand is a primal right and medicine. I'd love to see this paper you made (maybe on blog), not everything is all intellect either, art heals the world in a different way. I'm excited to hear more of your thoughts. Thank you.

  12. "But I'm always taken aback when I discover unexpectedly that my actions don't exactly align with my professed values."
    You take the words right out of my fucking mouth. This post is scathingly insightful and brilliant Milla! The underwear "dilemma" gets me too. I recently finally, decided to put my money where my mouth is, as most of my underwear in the past has come from target or the gap, and purchased some organic cotton underwear. I always LOVE when I find an article of clothing, used of course, with the Union Made label.
    Thanks for this post.

    1. Thanks for your sweet words. I think that statement is true for a lot of self-identified idealists. I'm always on the lookout for my own hypocrisies, because its so easy to judge other people, while glossing over one's own short-comings. It's so human. The fault is always someone else's; the world's messed up, the society is messed up, our parents messed up, the people around us aren't as righteous as we are. That's why we can't lead the righteous, visionary life we dream of. That's the typical reaction, instead of finding things within our own behavior that we could better. I think Humility goes a long way in making the world a better place. If everyone thought of others before themselves we'd already be there. In big and small, but small of course is a great place to start with since, you know, those little acts are within our reach, underwear, help, gifts, meals... It's also important not to be too hard on ourselves, amirite, a delicate balance, like everything.

      So what kind of undies did actually get? Undies and jeans are so hard for me, because I have to actually touch and turn them around to see if they'd fit my oddly small yet round bum, that's why I usually end up buying them in actual stores. I almost bought some monkee jeans online (organic cotton, britain made brand) last year then chickened out at the last minute, and when I tried them in a store on my trip to Finland sure enough, they didn't fit right. While totally a first world problem, I certainly don't want to buy something new and then not end up using it. Thanks for your thoughts, I look forward to more.

  13. Thank you for this post Milla, so well thought-out and honest. Nothing like my touching the subject briefly. I too struggle with this. I am fortunate to be able to choose fair and organic though, when I need something. I don't love thrift shopping -I used to, but since having a kid I just don't want to spend the time, except for a quick browse now and then - and then there was the mold illness which made it impossible to go into thrift shops for a while. I also felt like thrift shopping was keeping me just as consumerist, even though it was an ethical choice. I hated to be always looking for something cool or pretty.. to score something worth a lot for a few euros.. The best thing for me is to just buy as little as possible, but of course I occasionally make deranged choices.. which result in guilt. I'm working on it.. I still care too much about appearances and clothes and the "perfect" something and I'm sick of it. My heart breaks at the injustices and depravity of this world and it hurts to face the fact that I sometimes take part in it. I want out. God help me.

    1. Hi hon, thank you for your very excellent point on consumerism and thrifting. Will definitely be covering that in my next post. Also, the whole cuteness, image culture is something we desperately need to talk about, yet I totally feel complicit in it and like an epic hypocrite. I'm having a hard time separating the different aspect of its. Physical, emotional, spiritual, societal. My brain is spinning. Lots of love and thank you for your level-headed and utterly different from mine perspective. Much needed.

  14. Well said. I love your honesty. I try to make all my own clothes, but having a "real world" job means I feel the need for more "stuff" than I would if I worked from home. This led to me tying myself in knots trying to find an ethically-produced wool cardigan to wear to work. I can knit, but I don't enjoy "plain" knitting, so am very slow. In the end I have found a small company based in my own country that makes garments "to order" by local women who are paid a fair wage for their work. The cardigan is expensive, but if I was to try to knit it myself it would take me several months and take up all the spare time I have. My aim is to have fewer, better clothes.
    But I am not perfect either. One day I just cracked and bought a simple black jersey skirt because it was reduced in price, with no regard to its origins. I feel so guilty about that, I have never worn it, which is even worse! If I really "needed" it, I would have worn it by now!
    Oh - and undies? It really is the easiest thing to make your own - try it! So Zo (UK blog) has a pattern to make them from old t-shirts :D

    1. I don't believe you! No but seriously, thanks for your comment, as always it's uplifting and well written and awesome. I just don't believe you. About the undies that is. I've tried making them before and found it incredibly hard. However, inspired by you I will try again. I will not be easily deterred this time. I will make my own sweet-ass (pun!) undies, by George. Thanks for the tip I'll totes check out So Zo. And thank you, for being an amazing reader.

  15. I kind of gave myself the same pat on the back double-take when this happened. I congratulated myself that I've been buying vintage and second hand since I was 16 and defacto am not complicit, but then I thought about all of that underwear, tights, ballet leotards, etc.

    It is very had to get away from feeling guilty.

    As for the general public; proximity breeds compassion, this event was so far away that people can forget about it easily and pretend it is not happening. People have a hard time realizing that wishing the end result (a product) is wishing the means of its production (basically slavery).

    1. "Proximity breed compassion." Love it. Well versed. Thank you, as always for your input is much appreciated. Thanks for your words, dear. If I've learned anything from these comments its that together we can do better. Love.

  16. Touché! :)
    Good post. And I especially loved the combo of the beautiful photos and this text.
    Just as I'm trying to figure out how on earth will I be able to buy me a pair of new shoes to replace the recently broken ones...

    1. Missa on Kitin luvattu blogi eettisesta kirppismuodista, saaristosta ja ihanasta elamasta?!?!?!? Heti nyt perustat jookos? ja kuten tossa ylahaalla todettiin: kengat. Ne on vaikeet. Kiitos kommentista, perusta blogi.

  17. I'm so glad you wrote this, Milla. It IS surprising when your actions don't align with your professed values.

    My relationship to clothing mimics my old relationship to food. I didn't pay attention to the source or the people involved...I just bought what suited my preference and my budget. Out of sight, out of mind.. My son's clothes are all second hand but I cannot say the same for myself or my husband. For so long our number one priority has been to buy a farm so aside from our groceries we always bought the cheapest and saved where we could. It's like we had tunnel vision for the dream, you know? Now that we have the farm, money is going towards animals and feed and fencing and the like. Needing some clothes a few weeks ago I immediately ran to Old Navy for some t-shirts. Let's not talk about how they're already unraveling on me...or about how GUILTY I feel for wearing them after digesting this post and all its links. Guilt aside- I'm welcoming a moment for growth. Know better, do better.

    I am such preacher of good food costing what it costs for a reason. Cheap food isn't good for anyone or anything. It's never occurred to me (which is embarrassing to admit) the parallels between food and clothing. I get so frustrated when people tell me they can't afford organic or local or fresh or all the things other than cheap processed shit food. I think it boils down to feelings of entitlement and wanting it all more often than issues of budget. And.. well, on the clothing front.. I'm guilty of the same mentality.

    Looking forward to the coming posts.

    1. Wow girl. This is why I write. I mean, I'd write if no one ever read it, but this is the encouragement I need to write these long tough posts; the conversation, the different view points, and sometimes, ever once in a while the feeling that i swayed someone to see it my way, to change something. I want to commend you on being honest about your shortcomings, it's so humbling to me when folks do that, because I have a lot of pride that often stands between me and growth from admitting I don't know something. It's one of the things I most actively work on myself and I feel like I've gotten much much better at it, but still; I just wanna say you ROCK! I think the comparison with food is an apt one, yet on both those things I'm continuously puzzled by how people just want them to be cheap, expect them to be cheap. We all need to change our minds and expand our expectations. Thank you, thank you for being a small farmer, a rad reader, an honest humble being. May gorgeous, durable sustainable farming clothes come your way. ♡

  18. Great Post! Thanks for writing about this important and super interesting subject. I go through phases of being persistent of only buying used and handmade and then I brake my promise and of course feel so guilty afterwards. But reading articles like this makes you once again think about where you are putting that hard earned money of yours. Probably shopping at the dump is our safest bet! Excited to see the next 2.

    1. Thanks Lissa! You're so right about the Dump! Most guilt-free shopping spree around! It's hard, it really is, especially for the workwear for our boys and I'm sure, as you'll find out, when it comes to kidlet stuff. I mean damn. We're so busy building lives and saving our pennies that sometimes stuff like this hits me from the left field. All we can do is try though. Love ya.

  19. You are so right Milla, and we do need to find better ways not only to buy own our clothes (so that at least we don't give money to companies using such methods), but also to voice our indignation so that actual changes occur in the countries where most clothing is manufactured.

    If parents had decent working conditions in the Third World, including reasonable schedules and better wages, they could afford sending their children to school instead of bringing them to the sweatshop as well...

    So the big brands should be made aware (persistently, by all the means we can use, including Avaaz petitions) that, just as we do for organic food, we prefer spending twice as much on a (certified) fair-trade pair of jeans/Tshirt/underwear. If Calvin Klein and H&M could start a line of 'Fair Collection' they would probably be surprised by its success, therefore A) inducing the same kind of lines in other brands, and B) starting a new kind of fashion is which fair and traceable is hot and cool (since consumers do follow trends, let's put this to good use!)

    1. Thank you m'dear! You are so right on the money, here babe. In fact in a way I feel like you've answered the question Anne asks below. There's somethings we can do, even if we have to keep shopping at these unethical stores. I'm so happy and proud that I have such amazing readers as you guys. You guys keep me honest. Thanks so much for your part in this little blog.

  20. great post! although 90% of my clothes are thrifted, i cannot say the same for the rest of the family's. and honestly as important as i think this issue is, to say i would even strive to buy handmade or ethically made clothes would be a lie. this is one of those areas where i just don't know what to do. i can't afford the organic handmade and there isn't really a middle of the road option. it's all or nothing. with four children this leaves me feeling defeated. all of marianne's clothes are hand me down's but the other kids clothes are from old navy, target and other such stores. my oldest daughter will wear the things i thrift for her but i don't find things i think she'd like very often. and what's super crazy is that the prices at the goodwill are often more expensive than at the cheap stores! if you have any ideas please feel free to share.

    looking forward to part 2!

    1. Thank you! Good point on the lack of middle road option. I'll definitely cover that in the next post. I think that's gonna have to be the next step in mass manufacturing. Sadly, until we demand it it'll be a very compromised fringe market a la H&M Conscious Collection bs. That's so interesting about California (?) thrift stores, and yet another thing I want to try to get to in the next post. A commentator above had a really good point about sales bins, vs. thrift for new and I think that's one way of finding a middle road. So much to say, but I'm gonna try to write it down in the post, but thanks so so much for your points on this, dear. So much to has out in person, SOON!

  21. I have re-read this post several times over the last few days. Thank you so much for writing it! When I started my first blog, years ago, my whole intention was to create a space to discuss this very topic. I imagined created this incredible online resource where people could go and find sites and stores dedicated to ethically made clothing. I really thought I just might be able to single-handedly storm the retail world. I'm sad to say how quickly I became discouraged and that blog kind of wandered off into "look at this pretty thing" territory. Your post here has definitely inspired me to re-visit that original passion and truly think about how I can be more and do more.
    I often find it so difficult and frustrating to shop for clothes. I thrift often, don't by any "made in china", and do what I can, but a lot of the time I feel like the resources just aren't there. Like one of the commenters above, I'm also nearly 6 ft and thrifting is pretty much out when it comes to pants. As you said in your article: clothes are one of the necessities of life and more often than not, I find myself making compromises that distress me deeply.
    However, your words and all those above are very encouraging. We need to be challenged to think on these things and work together to make a difference.
    At the root of all this is the fact that WE are the consumers and WE truly have the opportunity to vote with our dollars and demand better.
    I can't wait to read your next posts. Thank you Milla!

    1. That's such a compliment love. Thank you. In the next installment we're definitely gonna have to talk about size issues and vintage, and even handmade shopping. I've always thought of it in terms of how large or small you are, but obviously being tall has its own challenges. There are so many aspects to this that I don't even have a grasp of how to cover. But I'm gonna try and luckily I've got all of you to help the conversation to get better and more nuanced. So proud to have such amazing readers.

  22. I thought I had already replied to this! Now I forgot what I tried to post! Anyway, thank you for posting this. One of the things I like about the Wartime Wardrobe Challenge is that it makes me track what I buy and it's the same thing - not always necessarily what I think it is in general!

    1. WWC is something I look forward to referencing in my next posts, as is well, reading your blog ;) thanks for your thoughts as always, dear. You have so many and they're so awesome.

  23. i love the velvet leaf pieces that i have, but i do not think that they are all made domestically and personally by becky & co (?). just to add insult to injury ;-)
    i love this post (and anything that gets people to stop shopping at walmart and f21)

    1. Wow. I had no idea. Just based on everything I've read I assumed it was all made here. A lesson in not assuming. In the next one I'm gonna talk a little bit about whether buying organic cotton anything is actually any better, or how much better it may be?

  24. A few comments!

    Most people (I'm talking about myself here!) have enough clothes already to last until they die! (apart from undies). Maybe you don't want to wear the same stuff when you're 80, but you know that generally people don't need more, they want more, or different. I'm trying not to buy any clothes at the moment, and also trying to 'liberate' some of the stuff I've got to the charity shop so they can be back in circulation and other people can have more choice. In saying that, as I'm job-hunting at the moment, I decided to buy some smart clothes this week in case I get an interview! My husband was duly speechless when I tried them on (maybe too smart?) so maybe I need to send them back and use something I have already.
    I do buy new clothes for my son as we don't get hand-me-downs. But all his stuff then goes to his cousin.

    People Tree in the UK are running a rag rage campaign which you can see here -
    Also Fjallraven did a survey recently about ethical stuff which I filled in - maybe it's still around on their website. Fill it in and you might not feel so bad about your Kånken!

    A couple of years ago I had to write an essay on environmental management systems. I chose to look at Patagonia clothing. They have a lot on their website about what they do, and I would suggest for anyone buying new clothes, looking at the companies information on their website (or lack of it) regarding transparency and ethics is one way to give you power in what you consume. Some companies are definitely way better than others. Some companies have more to hide than others. Research before you buy and use your spending power wisely.

    As for landfill, there are rag collection schemes here (in the UK) and probably elsewhere. My sons school collects unwanted textiles twice a year as do our church, so I've never felt compelled to make my own underwear! I think my grandmother made rag rugs though, so yes, we are losing these skills. And patchwork quilts are great aren't they!

    Thanks for writing, and look forward to the next instalment!

  25. I love this post, and I think you express what a lot of us feel. It's a balance between committing to a sustainable life and just sometimes wanting something "nice," despite not being able to afford fancy things. I've been trying to really save up for things that I want that I can't thrift, well-made things that will last a lifetime. I notice that the more I do this, the less satisfied I feel when I give in and buy something cheap. And random, if you'll let me shill for an acquaintance, a local girl here makes really excellent, interesting clothes that are pretty affordable: I love clothes more when I'm supporting an artist and I know how much care went into their creation. See also, the Frye boots I recently let myself purchase :)

  26. I love this post! This post plus my recent contact by my first 'sponsor' inspired a post of my own!

  27. I'm late to join the conversation, sorry about that! Excellent post about such a pain-in-the-ass-but-necessary topic. You know, when the factory collapsed, I just couldn't look at style-related blogs for a few days. Not even my own. And now that I think about it, ever since I wrote a handful of posts about sustainable style in 2011, I just haven't been able to participate in style blogging the way I used to. A huge part of me feels that any kind of clothes-as-a-part-of-one's-identity type of writing or photography is somehow adding to the big picture, in which people buy clothes. I try to go back to feeling like I did before when I was just happy to share a picture of a cool pair of boots or a dress with a few readers of my blog or wardroberemix... and I can't help but feel that the picture I take and post now might encourage someone to go buy a similar pair or the similar dress. Stress on the word BUY. And that's not cool. Ugh. And then a part of me feels like this is such a 1st world problem, feeling bad about the clothes I wear... except that it's not, like you point out so well in this post. So it's all of the above, and then add to the mix that I'm interested in fashion. It's just a messed up equation!