If there is one particular industry that exemplifies some of the worst aspects of our throwaway culture, it would be the world of fashion.
Traditionally, clothes were very expensive. They would be mended, reused and handed down. Home sewing and repair skills were crucial. Frugality and caring for the items you had were values taught to children. People tended to have fewer pieces of clothing that were made to last, especially as styles did not change quickly.
But all this started to change with mass-produced clothing. It became more economical to buy clothes rather than make your own. Still, clothes were somewhat of an investment, and quality trumped quantity. If something was too inexpensive, you would wonder what was wrong with it and assume that it was poorly made.
The real problems arrived when we began moving clothing manufacturing overseas. It used to be that you could have one earner working at a laboring job who would be able to support a family at a middle-class level. But once jobs were outsourced to other countries, it not only brought us cheap goods but also deflated wages.
As a result, we were forced to shop at discount retailers because that is all we could afford.
The cycle has reinforced itself, and we have become dependent on inexpensive imports. We can’t afford to buy what is made here because it is too expensive. What is called free trade really ends up being a form of colonialism. How quickly we forget what it felt like to be the colony!
I saw a quote that the exploitation of workers in China and the contraction of the American middle class are two sides of the same coin. If we were to demand that workers in other countries were paid a living wage (according to the standards of their local economies), it would actually benefit us because it would give us a chance to once again be competitive manufacturers.
Overseas garment workers earn only about 1 percent of the retail price of the products they make. Wages could be doubled or tripled without affecting the price for the American consumer (according to Elizabeth Cline’s “Overdressed.”) Of course, the CEOs of clothing retailers may have to take a pay cut, but they are the ones most able to afford to do so.
Also, the power used to lie with the manufacturer, but it now resides with the retailers and distributors. These entities have such enormous leverage that they can demand what they want and at what price. This makes it difficult for smaller, fair trade groups to be competitive, and it also leads to generic styles in which uniformity is valued over innovation.
There are also sustainability issues. To make clothes even cheaper, natural fabrics are increasingly less common. Synthetic materials, often petroleum-based, have a negative environmental impact. With so much available to us at so little cost, we tend to buy far more than we need. We may be generous and give clothes away, but what the donation centers can’t use often ends up in landfills.
Even if you don’t feel compelled to become an activist for global workers’ rights, you can still make a difference as a consumer by purchasing things made in the USA. Buy fewer items of good quality. (You really don’t need as many clothes as you think you do.) Also, you will save money in the long run by not having to replace things as often. Then you can look forward to the extra free time you will have by eliminating all those shopping hours.
Stephanie Haines is a writer from Greenfield who now lives in Bloomington. She can be contacted through her website, www. stephaniehaines.com.