One of the many things that I really love about my husband is his sincere effort to be a conscious consumer. When he has to purchase household items, he goes first to the local consignment stores and resale shops. Things like socks, that aren’t easily found used, are ordered from socially responsible companies and worn until they completely wear out. As we hear about the tragedies that have recently befallen garment workers in Bangladesh, I feel the need to increase our activism in this area beyond the purchasing power of our own dollars.
We live in a society that encourages consumerism. Living beyond our means with loans and credit cards is the norm, whether we make minimum wage or hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. We are constantly bombarded with advertizing messages about the latest gadgets and clothing styles. How many of us take time to read the labels on our clothing and ask questions about the working conditions that brought us that pair of “skinny jeans” or the new swimsuit?
Purchasing items that are already gently used is one way to save quite a bit of money. Consignment stores and resale shops are abundant, ever-changing resources for thrifty shopping. If you must purchase new items, there are options available from companies who treat their workers well and provide safe working conditions. Sometimes these options may cost more than the “cheap” clothing from Bangladesh, but this is where the concept of investment purchases comes in.
Just like the way we save on medical bills by investing more money in the up-front cost of our food, we can actually save money by purchasing household items and clothing that are of higher quality. If you are like me, you talk to people about a purchase that you are considering. You may hear from friends, co-workers and family that “They just don’t make things like they used to.” When I look at older cars that can be fixed without computer diagnostics, my grandparents’ 25-year-old clothes washer, our couch from the 1960’s and my aunt’s beloved sewing machine; I know this is somewhat true. If you want to purchase something that can last for years and be repaired when it breaks, you have to do some research and look beyond the super stores. Sometimes you have to save up your money to invest in a vacuum that will last a lifetime or a mattress that will last more than 20 years (and is free of harmful chemicals). This is not the norm in our culture of “buy it now” sales and instant gratification. Still, there is a growing movement toward simplicity, which includes thoughtful purchasing of “investment” items for the household.
As with household goods and appliances, clothing seems to be losing quality. At least you may think it is if you only shop for cheap products that you wear for a season. Unless you are in a job where the latest fashions are important to your career, you may want to choose classic styles that will stand the test of time. Opt for a few high-quality, classic items that you will wear for years and years.
At the very least, think about choosing locally made items to wear on weekends and around the house. There is a company in the US that makes a 10 Year Hoodie. Purchase fewer pairs of shoes by finding quality items that will go with multiple outfits. Follow the washing instructions on your clothing to extend its useful life. Lay your sweaters and bras flat to dry so that they don’t get stretched out. Use natural laundry products and a minimum of detergent.
Most of all, be a conscious consumer. Our cheap clothing and goods are not really cheap when you consider their impact on people and the environment. The nonprofit group Verite monitors working conditions and works for change. They suggest the following actions on their website:
Ask Questions: Where does what you purchase come from? Look at the labels of clothing and the stickers on fruits and vegetables; goods sold in the United States are required to disclose the country of origin.
- Do the brands you buy publish corporate social responsibility reports?
- Visit the brand’s website. Do they monitor their suppliers?
- What about your company? Does it buy its promotional products from sweatshops?
- Does your school purchase sweat-free garb?
- Contact the brand. Companies want to know if their customers care about the labor and environmental impacts of production. By letting them know you are paying attention, you support their efforts towards positive change in their factories.
If more of us start paying attention to the way we use our buying power, bigger companies and local stores will have to start paying more attention as well. The things we buy have a cost that goes beyond the price sticker or fabulous discounts. Mindfulness of these other costs will go a long way toward impacting change in the world, especially if we share our values with each other and with the companies we support.