Let’s talk about responsible shopping. After the 2013 tragedy at Rana Plaza, where at least 1,100 people were killed in a garment factory collapse, there is no excuse for ignorance. That was our wake up call, exposing the dire conditions and measly pay of factory workers across the globe. Most of us know that companies like Gap and Nike rely on underpaid, often abused, sweatshop laborers. So why don’t we shop better? At first glance, this seems like a straightforward question with an easy answer. We don’t shop responsibly because we can’t afford it.
Can’t we? The average household income in the United States is $51,939 a year, but we are an exceedingly wealthy country. Let’s put this in a global context. Even if you make just $40,000 a year, well below the national average, you are still in the richest 5.7% of the world’s population.
Still feel like you can’t afford to shop responsibly? Then consider this: Americans regularly wear just 20% of their wardrobe. Women buy half their body weight in clothes each year, and the average woman has 22 items of unworn clothing in her closet. And then there’s the time factor: women spend more than 100 hours per year shopping for clothing and 40 hours per year shopping for shoes. And yet, we spend only 95 hours per year shopping for food – a daily need that actually requires shopping.
We are wasting a lot of time – and a lot of money – on things we clearly don’t need. And all that shopping only seems to make things worse. Forget for a moment the environmental and human cost of producing all that stuff. 54% of Amerians say they are overwhelmed by their clutter and a whopping 78% find it too complicated to deal with. We have accumulated so much stuff that we now have a whole industry of experts dedicated to decluttering. Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is a #1 New York Bestseller and women’s magazines are filled with tips and tricks to purge your closet.
Even with our overflowing walk-in closets, we spend just 3% of our annual income on clothing. Compare this to 1949, when Americans spent 11% on clothing. They certainly weren’t’ buying more. Back then, the average American woman owned nine outfits. Today, she owns 30 – one for every day of the month. Clothing production has gotten cheaper and cheaper, and Americans have responded by buying more and more.
It’s clear that we don’t need all this clothing. If we only regularly wear 20% of our wardrobes, maybe we only need 20% of what we own. Maybe we don’t need a different outfit for every day of the month. Sure, ethical clothing is more expensive than the conventional stuff – but the conventional stuff has a human and environmental cost that we can’t see. Conventional clothing production pollutes rivers, produces greenhouse gasses, and exploits workers. Are we really willing to pay that price for more stuff?
If we just slow down, shop less, and invest in higher-quality, responsibly produced clothing, we can do our part to protect workers, the environment, and even our own sanity.
For links to responsible retailers, check out my Shopping page.