Ten Ways to a More Ethical Wardrobe

Most of us would like to have a more ethical wardrobe. Most of us don’t. It’s not a case of active ill will, or even apathy – it’s a matter of not knowing where to start. Or what to do.

After all, clothes don’t come with labels saying how many toxic chemicals were used in their manufacture, or how many hours of unsafe, underpaid or even forced labour went into their production.

Made in Sweatshop (10139206873)
Which makes it hard to know whether the item you are buying is supporting people who desperately need the work, or taking advantage of their desperation to effectively transform them into your outsourced slaves.
Which is why it was not only informative but invigorating to read Lucy Siegle’s book To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World? Because she not only points out the problems, but suggests a few solutions. I’ve collated ten of them here for your consideration.

1: choose your fibres carefully. Production, useful life, disposal. Some man-made fibres are actually less unfriendly to the environment in production than, say, cotton; but on the flip side your grandchildren’s grandchildren will be cold in their graves and the stuff still won’t have rotted down. I recommend Siegle’s book for a more in-depth analysis of the pros and cons of various fibres. Organic cotton and wool are two of the better options.

2: mend. Siegle suggests putting aside 10% of your clothing budget for mending; you get more Little Old Lady points if you do the mending yourself. Personally, I take my shoes to a cobbler for resoling and mends (considerably cheaper than a new pair of good shoes), but I try to do other mending myself – buttons, hems, darning…

Elderly cobbler 2
3: buy second hand. Alas, the nature of fast-fashion means that the quality of second-hand clothing is considerably lower than it once was: if you expect people to move on to something new after two or three wearings, there’s no need to make the item durable. Not to mention that if you’re a sweatshop worker paid by the item, there’s a lot of pressure to construct the garment quickly, not well. Still, good items can be found, they just take a bit more finding than they used to.

4: swap. Either casually, among friends (it helps to have friends of similar taste and/or size) or at an organized swap. As with buying second-hand, it gives the garment a useful second life, rather than consigning it to the dump.

5: make your own. I was delighted to read Siegle’s line, “In many ways knitting is the perfect cornerstone for the burgeoning ethical fashion movement.” I can knit my own socks, hats, gloves and so forth; my next big batch of skills to be acquired is learning how to sew my own clothes. Obviously, this is a long-term, take-it-a-step-at-a-time proposition. Still, the freedom inherent in being able to decide for yourself what cloth, cut and colour you want, instead of being forced to choose from a limited number of options, is very alluring.

Costume workshop at a theatre, Prague - 8581
6: launder carefully. We tend to forget that some of a garment’s eco-impact is neither in its birth nor in its death, but in its life with us. Wash your clothes in cold water, air-dry where possible, and don’t wash your clothes unless they actually need it. (You don’t need to launder a garment just because it’s touched your body. Unless you have some sort of oozing skin disease…) Avoid dry-cleaning too, if you can – the ‘perc‘ which is most commonly used in dry-cleaning is not only carcinogenic but neurotoxic. And in any case, most things marked ‘dry clean only’ do not explode in a ball of flames if you gently hand-wash them.

7: re-use materials. One garment can be refashioned into another. A sheet can become a dress. A pair of jeans can embark on a second life as a skirt. A hideous knitted monstrosity from the op-shop can be unravelled for the wool and reknitted into something much more appealing. (Unless it’s glittery mohair. Not much can be done about that.)

8: buy from ethical brands. This takes a fair bit of digging, as nothing pleases the corporate pocket-book more than marketing to the fair-minded without actually putting their money where their mouth is, but happily there are those who will do some of the digging for you. Baptist World Aid’s Ethical Fashion Guide is compiled for the Australian market, but globalization being what it is, people from all over will find it useful.

Dhaka Savar Building Collapse
9: move slowly. Don’t allow yourself to be rushed into purchases, either by lack of planning (hole in the last good pair of socks!) or by cunning marketing ploys. Do your due diligence. Plan ahead. Savour the pleasures of anticipation. Don’t buy anything unless you’re sure that you’re making a good decision, one that you’ll be happy with tomorrow (and all the years to come).

10: consume less. As Dame Vivienne Westwood says, “Buy less. Choose well. Make it last. Quality, not quantity. Everybody’s buying far too many clothes.” Wearing the same things over and over again is not a penance when each item is something you love, something which tells the world a bit about who you are, something that is a pleasure to wear.

Lucy Siegle writes at the end of To Die For, “Free of the constraints of endless consumption, you can have a wardrobe that is more sustainable, more valuable, more enduring and more you.”

warm enough?
Doesn’t that sound wonderful? If you’re anything like me, there’s a fair way to go yet, but we can get there – one step at a time.

The End of an Era

I saw the light – and I wish I hadn’t. I am normally in favour of illumination, mind you, but not through the side of my slipper.

You see, these are no ordinary slippers. I have had these sheepskin slippers lo these many years. I wore a mould of my foot into the fleece so long ago I can’t even remember. I wore right through the fleece in places some years ago, and now, it appears, I have worn right through the leather as well. The stitching, can I just point out, is as firm as ever.

Ugg boots gnangarra 11These slippers have been a largely unnoticed part of my life for so many years. I have worn them in tropical climes and in allegedly temperate climes. I have worn them in winter and I have worn them in all but the height of summer. I have even spilt ink on their tops while refilling a fountain pen (for that personalized writerly look).

Since I don’t wear shoes indoors (regardless of what FlyLady says), they are my feet’s near-constant companions. If I’m at home and awake, I am probably wearing those slippers. (Now, for instance.) I have rather low blood pressure, which means my circulation is not all it could be, which means that my feet are easily susceptible to cold. Therefore, the slippers.

I have had them for so long I began to take them for granted. Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure I’ve had these slippers for about fourteen years, give or take half a year. Going on for half my life. Good quality, yes? They’re Paddy slippers, made by Golden Fleece, if anyone wants to Argonaut forth to secure a pair of these wonder-slippers for themselves.

Erasmus Quellinus (II)- Jason with the Golden Fleece, 1630And now, alas, the end is nigh. In accordance with the old motto of “Make Do and Mend” I considered taking them to the cobbler for a patch. However, not only have I worn most of the wool right off the sheepskin, I have also worn the grip right off the sole. I am therefore compelled to admit that it might be more sensible to acquire a new pair. After all, “Use it Up, Wear it Out, Make it Do or Do Without.” I’ve done the first two, at least.

But the guiding principle of simplicity does not knock off for the weekend, simply because an item has worn out and it is time for a new acquisition. Far from it. Simplicity steps up and scrutinizes the possibilities with a gimlet eye.

Now, Dean Koontz may go for bunny slippers (or one of his characters may; the internet has not divulged) but I am not of that party. For one thing, if you leave them together on the floor at night you’ll wake up to a room covered in bunny slippers. Cheaper than carpet, perhaps, but easier to trip on.

DiechäschlabbnThe other – slightly more serious – reason for turning down novelty slippers is that they don’t tend to be designed for durability. I myself have owned both tiger-foot slippers and punk dinosaur slippers, back when my feet were still growing. I remember them with fondness, although not enough fondness to want to get a pair now.

Nor do I want to get a pair of slippers made of artificial materials. Artificial materials do not, in my opinion, come anywhere close to the natural marvel that is wool, when it comes to keeping yourself warm. I want warm feet, not overheated sweaty feet, thank you kindly.

And since, according to Statistics New Zealand, there are nearly 30 million sheep in this country, acquiring a new pair of sheepskin slippers should not be too difficult. My dying pair are of the classic style with a seam up the front of the foot and a ‘ruff’ around the ankle.

Sheep Mustering at Bendigo Station, Otago (1965)Now I am thinking of trying a different style for a change. I am by no means a proponent of change for change’s sake, but after a decade and a half of the same thing, even I am feeling that a bit of variety – a change of scenery whenever I look down – would not come amiss.

Perhaps a sort of moccasin style, and perhaps in chocolate brown instead of the plain colour which is I believe known as ‘cane’ in the sheepskin slipper industry. I shall have to consider the options and see what is available in my size (usually not much).

While it might take me some time to look at all the possibilities, instead of dashing down to the mall for the first slipper-shaped thing my eye falls on, I think that something I will use every day is worth the investment of time (and a decent price). After all, these will hopefully be part of my wardrobe for the next fifteen years.

What will not be in my wardrobe for the next fifteen years are the things I pruned in June:

pruning shears and gloves

a skirt
a pair of skull and crossbones sleeves (adapted from socks)
a scarf
a bandanna
some cotton undershirts
some cotton leggings
a wool dress
a brown dress
an embroidered top
a t-shirt
a denim jacket
a pair of woollen gloves

My Simplicity Heroes

I don’t really go in for hero-worship, but there are always going to be those people who make me think “Gosh! What a life! I wish I was a bit more like them…”

Julien Bryan - Look - 47403Number one on the simplicity charts is Jesus Christ (also the exception to the hero-worship clause). Jesus had so little that he once pointed out to a would-be follower that he didn’t own so much as a place to lie down. Foxes have dens, birds have nests – but if you’re going to follow me, don’t plan on being as comfy as them. Famously, he was so poor that when he died they had to borrow a tomb to bury him in.

But he wasn’t a grim, joyless race-to-the-bottom kind of person either. He often got criticized by the establishment for going to parties (first miracle: turning about 600L of water into 600L of wine to spare some newlyweds the embarrassment of having under-catered their reception) and he once laid into his followers for lambasting a woman who poured a bottle of expensive perfume all over him. Thrifty it might not have been, but loving it was.

And while he might not have owned much but the clothes on his back, they weren’t the lowest rags available. He wore a seamless robe, which, as any weaver will tell you, is not the easiest thing in the world to make. Like the perfume, it was probably a gift. Medieval art suggests that it was made by Mary, although rather than getting into the technicalities of weaving, they just depicted her knitting in the round (using DPNs, not circulars).

KnittingMadonnaI learned from his example that why is often at least as important as what; that good things are gifts to be enjoyed, but not expected; and that you should always give your grave back when you’re finished with it.

Fast-forward a millennium or thereabouts and you encounter Francesco Bernadone, better known these days as St. Francis of Assisi. Francis was crazy in love with “Lady Poverty” (his term) and hey, people in love do weird things. Francis took a vow to never refuse to give anything that was asked of him “for the love of God” and his followers had the greatest difficulty in persuading him not to give poor people the clothes off his back.

When he retired from leading the order, the new leadership made him promise not to give his clothes away any more – it looked bad, having your founder running about in his underwear – and Francis obediently promised. So the next time he encountered a beggar wearing less than him, he sorrowfully informed the fellow that he couldn’t give him his clothes – and then suggested the beggar should mug him. Possibly the first recorded instance of legalism being used in a good cause.

Habito de s francisco
The poor didn’t want this one.

I learned from Francis that having little or nothing can be as full a life as having much – or even fuller. As he pointed out, as soon as you start having stuff, you start worrying about people nicking it. No stuff? No worries.

#3 on the list is a group rather than a person: the Quakers, a.k.a. the Society of Friends. (Mostly the historical Quakers. Richard Nixon, not so much.) Unlike #1 and #2, they didn’t generally divest themselves of all possessions, up to or including their clothing. They took a slightly different approach. Instead of reducing themselves to a level of poverty where they were dependent on the kindness of others, they aimed to be the ones whose kindness others could depend on.

In order to be able to be generous, they worked hard and developed businesses along sound ethical lines. Many were wealthy – bankers, manufacturers – but unlike the wealthy of today, they shunned luxury and conspicuous consumption, believing that no one was superior to anyone else and it was shameful to act (or dress) as though you were. Instead, they poured their time and resources into social justice causes, such as the reform of inhumane conditions in prisons and – famously – the abolition of slavery.

Laura Haviland holding slave irons ca. 1864However plain – or rather, Plain Quakers were, they weren’t against the good things of life (apart from being teetotal). They were industry leaders in the chocolate business – need I say more? Plainness was a hallmark of the Quaker, yes, but so was quality. A Quaker would, for example, infinitely prefer to wear the same plain, good quality garment for years, than to have a never-ceasing cycle of cheap fashionable tat filling their wardrobe.

The point for the Quakers was not that it was wrong to spend money, or even to spend money on things for yourself. The point was that it was wrong to spend money on things for yourself that you didn’t need, when others didn’t have the things that they needed.

I learned from the Quakers that #1’s command to “Love others as you love yourself” can be taken as a practical instruction for living; that living simply so that others can simply live really does make a difference; and that being thought odd is no barrier to making change in your world.

History bears witness that their simplicity brought great good to many. I hope that one day that can be said of me.