I spent about 3 hours googling ‘Fair Trade Underwear’. I didn’t do this because I have no hobbies or friends, but because we made an Unofficial Commitment to buying only ethical and/or Fair trade, or second hand clothing items for the year. I wasn’t sure if this was something I would blog about (Hey everyone! Look at me! Aren’t I sacrificial and AWESOME?), but after the tragic garment factory collapse, I wanted to open up some honest discussion about clothes.
In case you’re not aware, last week a clothes factory collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Today, the death toll is over 600.
600 people dead in one day because of unsafe working conditions.
The BBC shares the grim truth: “In order to capture the lower end of the global market, successive governments have promoted Bangladesh as the source of cheap clothing…But the lure of quick dollars has attracted a whole range of cowboy operators who cut corners to drive costs further down. The result is factories in unsafe buildings with poor safety measures.”
While I’m not an economist and realize the situation is quite complex, I know one thing: I have access to clothing that is unreasonably cheap. And halfway around the world, our brothers and sisters are dying in factories made unsafe by greed–and a desire to provide cheap clothing.
Like most commitments, this one emerged from a late night conversation about Life, The World and Clothes. My dear friend Beth and I were sipping chai and giggling when the topic turned to ethical buying practices. We lamented our lack of cash flow. We lamented slave labour and unsafe working conditions. We realized our ‘cash flow problems’ were nowhere near as lamentable as children working (or dying) in sweatshops.
For me, buying ethically is something of an ideal I aspire to someday reach. But for reasons of knowledge, time, money and resources, I can’t just switch over tomorrow. So, we started with chocolate. Tiny, but it is something. While Beth and I chatted, I realized how easy it would be to do clothes.
I don’t know about you, but I could pack up half my clothes right now and still be good for all four seasons. And look half-decent. That is startling to think about. And yet I wouldn’t hesitate to order something when Old Navy has a Free Shipping! sale or when I realize that peach and mint green are The Colours. But really, how are these clothes so cheap? And why do I keep filling my closet just to fill more boxes for Goodwill? And why do I spend money on things I don’t need?
When I say blithely that I can’t afford to buy ethical clothing only, I mean “I can’t afford it if I want to keep buying at the same rate”. That’s true. So, I considered my wardrobe needs for the year and agreed to Beth’s proposition: no clothing items (shoes, clothes, jackets, etc) that aren’t ethically made, Fair Trade or second hand.
And you know what? It’s been awesome.
I have bought exactly two clothing items since January. Today as Varun and I walked through the mall to buy batteries, I didn’t feel the pull of neon tank tops for $10. I didn’t have to talk myself down from “Well I don’t need it. But it is cute and you can always use another…”
I just kept walking.
But let’s be honest, sometimes you absolutely do need new ______. And it came to pass that I needed some new underwear (Yup, we’re going there. Don’t worry, this is PG). Let’s just say elastic does have a limited life expectancy and it’s approximately 5 years. Apparently, I bought several pairs of underwear on the same day in 2006 and they all died this spring. On the same day.
This is how I found myself googling Fair Trade underwear. The prospects were grim: I found websites featuring middle-aged models fording streams in hiking-trip-coloured underwear that was ‘comfortable’ and ‘quick dry’. Meh, not so much. I also found websites based in the UK offering £30 ‘pants’ with cherries on them. Le sigh.
Finally, I came across PACT. Here is ethically made (Not Fair Trade because it’s made in the USA), stylish and comfortable underwear. For a reasonable price. And some of the proceeds go toward planting urban gardens. And they are fully returnable, come in normal sizes and who doesn’t want their underwear to help plant lima beans in downtown Detroit?
To be fair, this underwear is not dirt cheap. They cost $10-22 (cheaper on clearance and depending on style). If I wanted to buy 6 pairs in one go or keep up my normal rate of spending on clothing, this cost would be prohibitive. But because I haven’t spent a dime on clothes since January, and because I was looking for only how many I needed, I picked two pairs. My total was $24.
Not only was it mailed promptly and sent in recycled packaging, it comes with an awesome tag. Seriously, how can you not love this?
So far, we haven’t really been feeling the pinch of not buying things. Like most North Americans, we have far more clothes than we need, and besides being slightly behind the season’s fashions (which we would be anyway), it’s only saved us time, money and headache. I imagine though, that within the next few months, we will have to adjust our expectations. We may have to go without something new and trendy that we’re really wanting. Or, we may need to shell out a bit more cash for new shoes or a new belt (someone help me find Varun an ethically made belt!).
But when we take a step back, and look at the cost of cheap clothing, I think I can easily say it’s worth it.
How do you balance legitimate needs with ethical concerns? Do you have a favourite company, brand or website that sells ethically made clothes or shoes? What are your thoughts on fair trade or ethically made? What is the life expectancy of underwear elastic!?
(These thoughts are entirely my own. Pact did not sponsor or endorse this post in anyway.)