It's Not Really for the Garment Worker

Business Ethical Fashion Fair Trade Fashion Revolution Shop Local Shop Small Sustainable Fashion

My instagram feed is flooded with "Secondhand September" posts.  I LOVE shopping vintage and secondhand (even carved out a few hours next week specifically for it - wanna come?).  It's a great thing.  Keep that stuff out of the landfill or incinerator for as long as possible and "save" your wallet and the planet some grief at the same time.  You are winning and Mother Nature approves.  You are not wrong.  You you you.  Me me me.  However, I can't help but notice an element of this campaign some (not all) ethical/sustainable fashion "influencers" are using that simply doesn't jive.  In fact, it drives me batty (rhymes with catty). 

It's the connection to women in the fast fashion industry, laboring for pennies in potentially life-threatening and poverty-breeding factory jobs.  Somehow we've convinced ourselves that the goodness of buying secondhand trickles down to these women.  That our responsible, secondhand, money-saving choice is doing them a favor too.

Cute.  But no.  It doesn't work like that.  In most cases, boycotts are in opposition to the benefit of the worker.  Boycotts could mean the Big Bad Brands will go under or find an even cheaper factory, putting the garment worker out altogether.  Then they have an even worse set of employment options to choose from.  So let's get real transparent here:  we don't choose secondhand for them.  We choose it for us and the environment.  Again, that's not bad.  But using the factory worker story to push secondhand comes from a shortsighted place of privilege.  Let's not do that.  Instead, let's talk about how we slow down while being considerate of the skilled human beings behind the scenes.

This is a system we bought into, quite literally, ya know.  Maybe not directly or intentionally, but as a capitalist economy and society.  It's a long(er) story, but when Free Trade (FTA, NAFTA) let loose in the 80s and 90s, domestic manufacturing took a hike along with our concept of fair prices for goods and labor.  Out of sight, out of mind.  When in reality, American and European brands began employing the world to feed their greed.  Meanwhile, training consumers to think fair is expensive and more is better.  So perhaps the first step as a consumer and fashion lover is to simply acknowledge that we've been duped by capitalism.

But back to the factory worker.  She's important, right?  That's what our instagram says.  Say we pull our spending money out of the Big Bad Brand and put it into a small, ethical, transparent brand or factory in the same region.  Good Brand's growth can support more employees and that skilled factory worker has somewhere to go.  The cost to the consumer will be more, but reasonable.  A brand out of Cambodia that uses deadstock (leftover) fabric from the fashion industry in that region can supply a t-shirt for $25USD.  How?  Because they're being resourceful, eliminating middle-men in the supply chain, and the owner of that brand is NOT lining her own pockets with the brands profits.  

Take that a step even further.  If we are willing to pay more, say $50USD for a t-shirt from a Good Brand out of India that manufactures their textiles, that money can also include a fair wage to an organic cotton farmer in that community.  The more people in the supply chain (farmer, miller, dyer, pattern maker, cutter, printer, designer, sewer, etc.) the higher the price should be.  We - as the sustainable fashion community - should be willing to pay it to Good Brand.  We can afford it, right?  If we really said no thank you to the last 20 $5 fast fashion t-shirts, the $50 for Good Brand's t-shirt ain't no thing.

Furthermore, Big Bad Brand would ideally take notice and adapt to consumer behavior if they're smart and want to stay in the game.  This change is slow and subject to extreme scrutiny.  But if Big Bad Brand can hack it  - and I really mean HACK away at their entire supply chain and financial structure - then perhaps Good Brand status is attainable for them.

Is this an infallible idea?  Of course not.  There is no such thing.  Like there is no such thing as doing sustainable or ethical fashion perfectly.  We all have to do it our own way, with our own set of values and priorities and budgets.  But when we say one thing: "I'm for the garment worker!" and then in the same breath say (post): "I boycott anything new!" we aren't making sense and are doing this movement (and quite a few people) a disservice. 

So YAY for secondhand!  I hope you're supporting a local thrift, consignment, or vintage shop in your community FIRST and not undoing your good work with carbon emissions and packaging from unnecessary online purchases.  Because it's for Mother Nature, right? 

Just don't say it's for the garment worker. 


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