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On the Right to Cheap Clothes

December 24, 2017

A few weeks ago I co-hosted a panel discussion with on “Has Sustainability Become Stylish?” (full talk at bottom) and one thing that panelist Dr. Christina Dean mentioned really stayed put in my head – “What really irritates me is that people think they deserve things really, really cheap… They think it's their right to buy clothes very, very cheap.”


Her main reason behind it is that if you look at the top-line US household expenditure for clothing for the last 100 years, it has gone from 15% to 3% – yet people have bought way more with that 3%. So people have been spending way less on clothes yet been accumulating a lot more. Complaining about getting clothes even cheaper simply doesn’t add up.


I too, am sick of people thinking it is their right to buy clothes for very cheap – but for a slightly different reason. Scratch “sustainability”, scratch “ethical”, scratch even cheap or expensive, because they could be vague terms.


We want to talk about rights? Let’s talk about rights.


When you pay for something at a store, you are also in effect paying for the people who made your clothes and the materials. Naturally, if a garment is more expensive at retail, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is made with clean labor and resources. That’s why cost and production transparency from brands should be encouraged. But when someone says they deserve – they have the right to pay $2 for a tee shirt – even a second grader could do the math here –  they’re in effect saying they’re okay with someone (possibly a second grader, if school’s an option) being paid 13 cents an hour, working possibly in unsafe conditions, made with cotton that were drowned in pesticides when grown. There is no way to bend it – the math just doesn’t add up. When someone has the right to make decisions that are not right for others stakeholders involved, that’s called inequality. That’s called unfairness.




You know what’s also unfair? What’s unfair is that most of the time, it is only by a stroke of luck that someone gets to wake up in a nice house with their family and doesn’t have to think twice about adding $3 to upgrade their coffee to a cappuccino, and someone somewhere gets paid 13 cents an hour to make a piece of clothing for 3 hours which the former someone might toss in the bin after half a year. All because they were born in different places, to different parents, at different times. Where’s the justice in that? There is none. And of course, there is also nothing one could do about that.


However, what one could choose to do when one is in a position of choice and power is to help empower and enable those who have less of them, not because they are lazier, not because they are from a certain country, but simply because they didn’t win the birth lottery.


And by empower, I don’t mean one has to jump right into charity work and give away half of one’s fortune (though that would be nice) – I simply mean when we do purchase something, we make better choices that don’t support people and companies who profit at the expense of someone or some place’s health. A $2 tee shirt isn’t cheap – someone somewhere is paying.


Sometimes I catch myself talking about the same issues and quoting the same statistics over and over again that I am almost sick of my own voice, but I keep doing that because I truly believe that people still make unfair purchase choices or demand cheap prices not because they are bad people – they just don’t know, or they forget, because it is easy to, in a world which is often designed to point you away from looking at whatever that would distract you from the checkout point. I imagine a technology where upon touching the fabric of a piece of clothing, you get these colorful flashbacks to where that piece of clothing is made, what hands it has pass through, back to the fields where the crop was grown, where the waste water is discharged… and then once you lift your hands from the material you’re back in the sun-lit shop floor on Melrose, or 5th Avenue, or IFC… wherever you are – because I genuinely believe that if people are reminded of who and what’s at stake behind their purchases, they will make better votes with their wallets for the kind of world they want to see.


And by they, I really mean you. Somebody else could be doing something about it – but then again, you are that somebody. Never let a world which is designed to make you feel small distract you from seeing that.


Then again, there is nothing wrong with small. As they say – If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.


Image Credit: Ecoage




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