One year and four months ago, I made the New Year’s resolution to stop buying clothes for a year. This decision came after several years of struggling with the idea of fair trade and ethically-sourced clothing. I’d heard the horror stories of child slaves in Bangladesh and Uzbekistan, but cognitive dissonance and cute sales at Macy’s kicked in, and I’d push them to the back of my mind.
While studying in Costa Rica in 2013, my program went on a 10 day trip to Nicaragua. While there, I lived with a host family in their home.
My host mom would tell me stories about how she used to work in a clothing factory in Managua. She and her coworkers would arrive at 5 a.m. They would remain until 10 or 11 in the evening. They weren’t allowed to use the restroom except in emergencies. If they took too long, the overseer would wrench open the door and expose them to the rest of factory.
They made less than a few dollars at a repetitive job working with bleeding fingers and negative criticism echoing in their ears.
“It was slavery,” Johana said. “It’s simple, these factories are slavery.”
Could she leave? When 80 percent of the country is living on less than two dollars a day, and she has three boys and an elderly mother to feed, how could she quit?
“Nothing in this life is easy,” my host dad, Francisco explained.
When my Nicaraguan dad is making $4 a day so I can buy a shirt on clearance at Target, we have a crisis of values.
While in Managua, we visited Nueva Vida, a worker’s cooperative that’s fighting back. They make quality organic products and have safe conditions for their workers.
The workers make a fair wage, but it’s difficult to get enough clientele to buy products that may cost a little more. They’re in debt. They often go without customers. They labor even harder to feed their families, but they’re working toward a new system.
I have great respect for those who don’t take the wide path, who try to be good to the earth and their employees.
When I got back to the States, I was shopping at the mall with my mother and sister. I had toyed around with the idea of not buying clothing for a year. A sort of social experiment to ease into a more fair trade lifestyle. It was more like a game or a goal then a conscious decision based on a moral obligation.
As we were shopping I stopped in Forever 21 and saw the plain white T-shirts. “I could use a simple shirt like this.” I thought picking it up. The shirt was loose and seemed like it would go perfect with jeans or a long skirt. It could be dressed up or down. I checked the tag to read the size. On the label, under the washing instructions, were the words Made in Nicaragua.
I put the shirt back and haven’t bought clothing since.
To be honest, the decision hasn’t been a difficult one. I still received more clothing items than I needed. When friends or family members heard that I wasn’t buying clothing, they’d give me old dresses or shirts. My former university gave away free T-shirts with every campus event. My mom gave me some sweaters for Christmas, but she bought them from a fair trade store online.
I haven’t missed buying clothes. I’ve saved time and money, and I’ve started moving toward a minimalist lifestyle. Honestly, having less clothing options makes my morning less stressful and leaves my mind less cluttered.
I read a few articles about how the mass production of cheap clothing is rapidly changing and damaging the environment, the economy and the lives of employees. Even donated second-hand clothing can have negative effects.
Today, April 24, marks the two year anniversary of the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh.
This factory had unsafe conditions for its workers while manufacturing apparel for brands including Benetton, the Children’s Place and Wal-Mart. The last four stories were built without a permit and when the building collapsed, it trapped thousands inside. One thousand, one hundred and twenty-nine people died, more than half the victims were women along with a few children. At least 2,515 people escaped with injuries.
In my society, choosing to not buy clothing is an uncommon decision. However, it is a much easier choice than I thought. I’ve gone over my year now and have been investigating fair trade brands like Mata Traders and Indigenous. I try to support local businesses with local products.
I understand that systemic change won’t happen because one girl didn’t buy a T-shirt from Forever 21.
However, by speaking up and out against unfair practices to our favorite brands we are making a difference.
There’s a quote that says “every time you buy something you are casting a vote for the kind of world you want.”
I know the kind of world I want. It’s one where my Nicaraguan host dad says, ‘maybe nothing in this life is easy, but at least I have enough to care for and enjoy my family.”
It’s one where I don’t have to sacrifice substance for style.
It’s one where I can buy a piece of clothing without destroying my conscience.
Here are: ways you can buy clothing ethically