The recent building collapse in Bangladesh has received massive media attention and I'm sure I'm not the only one sheepishly looking around my closet, wondering if I'm contributing to the problem. As we've made an effort around here to be more mindful with our food choices, use natural cleaners whenever possible, and focus on handmade gifts rather than mass-produced ones, we've also had it in the back of our heads that sustainable clothing needs to be a priority as well. Tragedies like this one only confirm what most of us already know but don't want to confront - the vast majority of our clothes and shoes were made in factories just like the one in Bangladesh.
I've heard and read comments suggesting that boycotting companies that use sweatshops and factories with poor working conditions, low pay and unscrupulous business practice is the only recourse. Trying to find an alternative, however, is daunting and certainly not to be found in your local mall. Others say that boycotting companies such as Joe Fresh and H&M will just result in a loss of jobs for the workers and bring even greater economic difficulty to countries like Bangladesh. I can understand that perspective, but money talks and I don't know what other act of protest will really speak to these companies.
If we really dig deep, I think its obvious that the problem lies with us. It comes down to consumption. We in the west are hell-bent on having an abundance of clothing and we like it cheap. We want to buy more every season so that we always feel in fashion. We have a very distorted idea of "need". We are so disconnected from the source of our clothing (much like our food) that we push back those feelings of unease when we see an item was made in Bangladesh, India, or other countries that employ sweatshop labor. We throw up our hands and ask what choice do we have? Where are we supposed to buy affordable, fair trade clothing without looking like a bunch of dirty hippies? I'm not excusing myself - I've been a part of the problem for many years. I like my cheap dresses and cute shoes as much as the next girl.
Maybe its the extra sensitivity I seem to possess since having kids - every story like this seems to pull me in emotionally more than it would have in the past, as I imagine mothers losing their children, kids without parents, families living in deplorable conditions. I don't know what makes it feel different this time, but I'm really pissed off . I'm sick of ignoring the elephant in my closet. And rather than focusing on what I'm not going to do, I've decided to focus on what I can do.
What I can do is choose to support, as much as possible, companies and stores that make a strong effort towards producing high quality, sustainable products while treating their employees fairly. I'm under no illusion that these choices will make me a "perfect" consumer but small steps are important. If everyone just made a few different choices, I think a strong message would be sent to these clothing companies.
Here are a few links to companies I have or plan to support in the future:
Global Girlfriend - I just discovered this site and I'm madly in love already. Each item was made by women in developing countries and fair traded. Moreover, a portion of each purchase goes to a seed fund and micro-loan program for women in the developing world. The items are beautiful and well-priced.
People Tree - I was so excited to find this site because many fair trade or "eco" clothing items have a less than office-appropriate look about them. One cannot live in yoga pants and t-shirts alone, although I wish I could. People Tree has some really cute dresses, skirts and tops that would be perfect for work.
MEC - Its not just for rock climbing! I love MEC for kids clothes and outerwear. I also have a few pairs of yoga pants that stack up well against my Lulus. MEC also sells Patagonia products, which rate very well on the Good Guide (see below!)
And check out the Good Guide if you're wondering how your favourite company or product stacks up. The ratings are based on criteria of health, environment and social issues.
But never forget that we don't have to live this way. We don't have to buy endlessly just because we're told to. We don't need closets and dressers stuffed full of clothing we'll likely never wear or be sick of next season. We can choose instead to buy mindfully, own less, love what we own and feel good about our choices.
Vote with your dollar and your conscience.