This week's Friendsday Wednesday post is by one of my dear college students, Briley Higginbotham. As part of her work with the Catholic Relief Services Ambassadors, Briley was instrumental in making fair trade clothing accessible to students through the campus bookstore! Her passion for global issues, great taste, and desire to procrastinate further on her thesis make her a perfect fit for our first installment of Friendsay Fashionista! Get excited about future posts from some of my fellow Aunties and Nieces in our new "Friendsday Fashionista" segment!
I just love these students. Can you tell that I'm a proud Aunt? Enjoy!
My friends Stacey and Clinton of What Not to Wear fame once taught me that, when shopping for clothes, one must remember four things: color, pattern, texture, and shine. While I may not host a hit TLC show, I’d venture to say that there’s something even more important to bear in mind when strolling (or scrolling) through the retail racks: Who made this product? You may be wondering, Do I ask myself this before or after I check the clearance rack? Good question! The Trinity is proof that the best things come in threes, so let’s move on to the third and best question of all: How can our purchases make the world a better place?
Often, money that is used to do something good is called “charity,” and it is a separate part of our pocketbook that we only shell out at certain times to certain organizations. But what if our everyday purchasing habits could also benefit someone in a powerful way?
The fact that our clothes have a global impact is easy to see—just check your garment tags (or the label on any mass-produced product, really). Most of those tags will mention that the garment is made in another country—98 percent, in fact. In the western clothing industry, retail stores compete to have the largest selection of new styles at the lowest cost. To accomplish this, companies outsource their labor to countries where clothes can be rapidly mass-produced for only a few dollars per product. In the rush to meet deadlines, workers in these countries are required to work overtime to meet the demand. (Remember how long it took fidget spinners to hit shelves in almost every store?)
Often, workers in garment factories work all day near hot machinery with no air conditioning, denied even bathroom breaks, with only a meager salary to show for it. The monthly wage for garment workers in China, the largest supplier of clothes to America, is about $150 a month. The monthly wage for garment workers in America, at $1,660 a month, is more than ten times the monthly wage in China but is still well within the American poverty range.
Like any college student, I love seeing a cute shirt worth less than the price of brunch. But if a $10 price tag covers materials, workers’ wages, international shipping, and the brand still makes a profit, it’s no surprise when that shirt doesn’t last a month. It’s no tragedy to part with a $10 shirt, after all. However, cheap clothes will quietly drain our bank accounts if we must toss out unwearable clothes and replace them with new ones every season.
In this way, the western garment industry has created a culture of waste. Americans send 11 million pounds of clothes to landfills annually. One alternative to throwing away clothes is donating them. Massive amounts of donated clothes are exported from America to third-world countries, which creates a problem of its own: the local clothing economy in these areas is rendered obsolete. (This also creates an alternative universe in which Super Bowl results are reversed.)
To summarize: the clothing industry we grew up with can be detrimental to workers, our wallet, and the environment.
Let’s Do Something About It.
Here are some ways we can treat garment workers, our environment, and even our wallet a little better (inspired by Anuschka Rees' "5 Ways to Build a More Ethical Closet No Matter Your Budget.")
First, take care of the possessions you already have. Follow instructions on the garment tags. Don’t be afraid to sew! The goal here is to reduce waste and make our investments last longer.
When it is time to go shopping, have no fear if you can’t afford to buy all fair-trade everything. Search Google or Pinterest for fair-trade alternatives just to see what’s out there, and skim this article about 35 ethical brands. If you see one you like, sign up for their email list. You’ll get coupons and notifications about sales that make it easy to buy ethically!
Warning: this may make you want to buy all the things. Remember to buy intentionally. Buy only what you need and what you love. Go for classic looks over trendy items. Which leads me to a really fun suggestion:
Build a capsule wardrobe! Do you ever look in your closet and say, “I have nothing to wear”? The goal of a capsule wardrobe is to create a coherent collection that ensures you have all the basics, plus some fun things thrown in, so you can mix and match for something classic yet new. Thank you, Pinterest! Of course, this is not something that happens overnight, but it is something you can keep in mind as you have need of new items.
Click the link to read more about capsule wardrobes!
As you cultivate a capsule wardrobe, look for quality items that will last, especially for items you will use more often. This applies to all products, not just clothes. Backpacks are something that students use nearly every day—it’s worth it to invest in a durable one over a $20 one from Target (trust me, I’ve ripped enough of them).
Sometimes it’s can be difficult to justify spending money on a nice top when you’re struggling to pay for textbooks, rent, etc. Here’s my favorite step to becoming an ethical fashionista: have a clothing swap your friends! It’s a fun and free way to refresh your wardrobe. I’ve had several over these get-togethers in the past few years, and I’ve left with items that are still my favorites.
Save cash and the planet: buy secondhand! See if your city has a store where you can buy quality secondhand clothes from brand names. Even better—you can probably earn cash by selling some gently used clothes there as well. My favorite of these stores is Clothes Mentor which has 147 locations in 29 states! An online alternative for buying/selling secondhand items is ThredUp.com.
With all the money that you’ve saved through the previous steps, consider purchasing an item or two from an ethical trade brand. These purchases are the most powerful because you are tangibly helping a worker break the cycle of poverty. Remember, these brands will send out tons of coupons, so don’t forgot to sign up for emails. Many of these websites are so inspiring to read through—they may even introduce you to some of the people who make your items.
Let’s treat all people with the dignity and respect they deserve as our brothers and sisters in Christ. It starts, as all things do, with small steps.
Briley Higginbotham is a senior at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. She is currently serving as President of UL Catholic Relief Service Ambassadors, and the Global Solidarity Intern with Diocese of Lafayette, LA, and is a member of St. Mary Mother of the Church LifeTeen Core Team. In whatever free time is left she can be found reading a good book in a hammock while thinking about her approaching thesis deadlines. You can reach Briley at Brileyrose@gmail.com and follow CRS on instagram: @crsambassadors_ul.