Today, I stood in my closet thinking I have nothing to wear.
Well, actually I do have things to wear. When I say I have nothing to wear, what I really mean is that I do not have an intentional wardrobe. I have a closet full of clothes, but they all arrived there accidently and in ignorance. I have nothing to wear that fits my heart because now, my awareness has changed. Let me share with you what I learned.
One brisk fall afternoon in 2019, I watched The True Cost. If you haven’t heard of it, it is a documentary about clothing. If you haven’t seen it. I highly recommend you do watch it, but be warned that it was a rough movie to see. You can find it on Amazon at the affiliate link below or for free if you have Amazon Prime.
“It’s about the clothes we wear, the people who make them, and the impact the industry is having on our world.”
I didn’t think it would hit me so hard. After all, I shop in thrift stores. I know how to knit, and I make my own scarves and fingerless mittens. I don’t shop for clothes very often, and when I do, they are probably OK. Right? Most brands are probably OK? Watching The True Cost broke my heart because it opened my eyes to the fact that things are really not OK.
The children who are injured from drinking water contaminated by textile factories up stream, the women who were beaten for demanding better working conditions, the families wailing with grief while digging through the rubble of the Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh (a textile factory that collapsed and killed over 1,100 people also injuring hundreds more because known structural problems were not addressed to cut costs) the scientist who explained that our clothes are shedding tiny acrylic (plastic) fibers with every washing, those fibers that are finding their way into our oceans, the men in Africa burning piles of clothes that were accepted as charity donations in Canada only to be sold off to Africa for disposal, the families who must survive on absurdly low wages, the lies fed to consumers, and all of the things I became aware of after watching The True Cost weigh heavy on my heart. When I went to my closet for a cursory glance at the countries where my clothing was made, my heart broke and I cried when I saw “Made in Bangladesh… Cambodia… Vietnam…” on everything. As shown in The True Cost, these are countries where workers do not receive living wages or safe working conditions. These are countries where the factory workers are exploited to profit huge clothing brands that then avoid any responsibility for the systems they created.
After becoming aware of the multitude of problems in the fashion industry (truly there is so much to unpack), I started doing research. What I discovered was frustrating. While I think awareness about the environmental impact of fast fashion is increasing and I’m hearing more people talk about it, I still feel like I don’t know what to do about it in any kind of meaningful way. Some things have improved since The True Cost was made in 2015, and I don’t want to diminish any of the victories that human rights activists have achieved. For instance, companies are being pushed to give transparency on not only the countries where they source their goods, but the actual factories they use giving accountability for the workers conditions to the brands doing the final purchasing. You can learn more about these initiatives from Fashion Revolution. The fast fashion company Forever 21 filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the USA during September 2019 which many articles say reflects consumers changing their tastes to move away from fast fashion. However, many fast fashion companies are still making substantial profits including Forever 21 in other countries. I don’t want to diminish the efforts and successes of people who are working hard to make a difference; however it must be recognized that less terrible is still terrible and there is a lot more to do.
I signed petitions along the path of my research trail and I was able to spread the word to several of my family and friends. These are good things, but not nearly enough. I think that where I can have an even larger impact on the problem is where I am literally surrounded by the problem…in my closet. What can I do there? There are real and tangible roadblocks to leaving the system that currently clothes me. In a perfect world everyone would be fairly compensated for their labor. Conditions would be humane. We could all have the things we want to have, and the environment would be filled with sunshine, rainbows, and happy sea turtles. But this is simply not reality. I’m not an activist. I don’t run a company. Where is my power? What can I as an individual do about any of this terrible mess?
Here it is: I’m a consumer and my power is in my wallet.
Looking at the garments in my closet, searching for something to wear that won’t make me feel heartbroken about the environment, the human exploitation, the greed, and the lies fed to me by a system that places profits above all else feels like an impossible problem for me to solve. However, at the same time, I’m just not OK with continuing to do nothing because I feel overwhelmed by the problems of the system. I want to take a real look at the things I perceive to be standing in my way of a wardrobe that will fit my conscious. I made a list of the things that seem to be obstacles so I could look for solutions.
Obstacle #1 My budgetary constraints limit my access to fair-trade companies. After all, paying people a living wage for the work they do costs money. But up until now, I haven’t accounted for that in my personal finances. I can’t afford to pay several hundred dollars for a single dress no matter how much I want to fairly compensate the garment workers who made it. My financial situation reflects the system in which I live. The accessibility of cheap clothes means I have gotten a lot of clothing using a small budget. However, my budget is probably bigger than I realize. Also, transferring random spending into intentional spending will, I’m sure, allow me to make purchases that will be more of an investment into my clothing rather than getting by with something I’ll have to buy again and again. Additionally, I can buy clothes from resale or consignment shops. This keeps that clothing out of a landfill and doesn’t create new items. I think there are many frugal ways to change my wardrobe that I can discover.
Obstacle #2 My body size. I’m overweight and outside of the range of sizes that most fair-trade companies carry. My initial searches didn’t lead me to any fair-trade clothing companies that carried my size when I started looking into it last year (3X/28). I have only recently discovered clothing lines that carry plus sizes. I should have looked harder because they were there before. I have included a non affiliate link to an article with a list of ethical clothing brands that carry plus sizes here if it is helpful to you. Having PCOS and other health issues including a mobility limiting knee injury has made losing weight feel impossible. Please believe me when I say that if you struggle with your weight, I understand. I get it, I really do. But my unpopular opinion is that my weight is something I can control. To do it though, I have had to remove myself from another toxic system, the food industry. My struggle with my weight has been real and difficult and above all not perfect. That said, with a lot of hard work and focus, I’ve lost 70 lbs so far. While I’m not quite into standard sizes which typically run to a size 14, I am almost into an 18 which is getting closer. I have chosen the journey of health and wellness for myself and I believe I made the right choice after reversing and improving several health issues I was struggling with. I’ll continue my health journey and I will talk about it because it is hard to talk about clothing without talking about my body size, but I won’t be delving too deeply into specific diets or routines. I just have to acknowledge that the roadblock here is real and there are no fast solutions. How can I invest in a wardrobe filled with pieces meant to be worn many times when my body is changing? While I am very crafty in general, I don’t really know how to sew clothing. Can I make my own alterations? I don’t know. Ultimately, I think that learning new skills may become part of the solution to this problem.
Obstacle #3 I’m not a fashionista. Really. I don’t really have any identifiable personal fashion. I see something I like because of the color or design so I wear it. I shop in a lot of thrift stores already and often I’ll purchase something because I found it in my size but not because it is a style I prefer. I don’t even know my style. The best way to explain my wardrobe right now would be “eclectic”. Some people refer to this as an accidental wardrobe. Planning out a wardrobe of intentionally selected ethical and environmentally conscious clothing feels daunting to me. How do I plan an outfit if I venture away from the quantity of options afforded by the current system? I honestly have no idea. My solution here is that I am open to learning. I want to curate my own wardrobe so maybe I’ll just have to take the time to learn how. I probably do have a preference toward a particular style that I maybe can’t recognize because of the random pieces currently taking up space in my closet.
These are three roadblocks, but even now my brain is coming up with more. This feels daunting and overwhelming. There are so many factors and so many problems that even finding a solution to one thing seems to lead me to other problems. Is rayon better than acrylic? When is cotton ok? Where do I stop digging and trust that a company that says it is fair to its workers is honest? Can boycotts on the consumer’s end really help the workers on the manufacturing side or does it just result in more marketing and green washing from the brand? Which dyes are toxic? Is vegan better for the environment?
However, isn’t making a change, even a small change better than doing nothing at all? Yes. It is. So I need to look at my solutions and what I can do about these hurdles because if you ask me if the glass is half empty or half full, I’ll tell you it’s both, but I can choose how I look at it. I have more control over the ethics and sustainability of my wardrobe than I probably realize.
Considering all these things has led me to desire a big change in my life. I want to embark on a fashion journey akin to my continuing health journey. I want to explore what solutions I can find as alternatives to the seriously problematic fashion industry. Since I am writing this on the cusp of 2020 it feels like a fitting time for a challenge.
I will spend 2020 exploring both my wardrobe and my personal sense of style with the goal being to create a capsule wardrobe that is ethically and sustainably sourced.
I am certain I will discover more things along the way, but some things I already know I want to include in this challenge are to:
- Organize my wardrobe so the only things I keep are things that fit and that I wear.
- Study the history of textiles and fashion. I want to know how society got here. I want to call some of this exploration archaeological experimentation because I will be getting very deep into the history of textiles. I have dabbled in this area, and I want to discover so much more.
- Make 12 of my own garments. I am crafty and I know how to knit, weave and spin yarn. I want to expand my skills and put them to good use.
- Learn how to do basic sewing such as hemming, fixing a button, and making sizing adjustments. I’m crafty, but I haven’t really learned how to sew…yet.
- Learn how to launder my clothing in an environmentally conscious way. Can I make my own laundry soap? Will it get my clothes clean? Caring for clothing is a part of owning clothing and laundry chemicals are a relevant part of the life of a garment.
- Intentional clothing purchases only with careful consideration.
I’m struggling to say no clothing purchases for the whole year, because if I lose more weight, I might find certain things necessary and beyond my ability to adjust (bras for instance). Also, if I have some budgeted money to spend, I want to give it to companies that are paying workers living wages and making sustainable clothing. People need to work and new technologies need to be supported to become viable. I’m not going for a truly minimal wardrobe but rather, an intentional wardrobe. To define what I consider an intentional purchase, I will create a list of my personal values relevant to clothing purchases that must be satisfied before I’ll give money to a brand or a company. I think refining that list will be a part of this journey.
How will I know if I am successful? On December 31, 2020, I want to walk into my closet and know that every piece of clothing that takes up space there has a purpose and aligns with my conscious. Even more than evaluating my possessions, I want to learn and grow throughout this year’s journey. I want to walk into my closet on that day and know that I am a different person than the woman who stands there on December 31, 2019. I am ready for all the possibilities this new journey will bring, so I suppose I better get dressed and get moving. Welcome to my intentional wardrobe journey.