The Cost of Cheap Clothing, or Why I Choose to Buy Used

by Katy on November 21, 2017 · 25 comments

The following is a reprint of the previously published post.

I’m a lucky person. Why? Because I was lucky enough to be born into a country that values workers’ rights. As a hospital nurse, I take for granted that my enormous hospital has multiple fire extinguishers, fire doors, fire prevention protocols and policies that keep both people and structure from igniting.

Were Americans always so lucky?

No.

The industrial revolution hit our cities hard, and the influx of fresh immigrants meant that labor was both cheap and easily replaceable. Complain about your working conditions? Well there were many others who would be happy to take your job, so keep your mouth shut or get fired was pretty much the policy around the turn of the last century.

The New York City 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was a wake up call to America industry, and it allowed for the union movement to start bringing safe and reasonable working conditions to our workers. Child labor, unending work hours, locked work spaces and other blatantly unsafe working conditions finally got the scrutiny they deserved.

It wasn’t immediate or easy, but unions brought safe workplaces to America.

Problem solved, right?

Wrong.

American manufacturers, now saddled with  the cost of paying working wages built overseas factories in countries that did not require the same workplace safety measures. Where cheap unending labor was once again easy to find and where abject poverty was the norm.

I wrote in 2010 about a factory fire in Bangladesh that killed a least a hundred people, where most deaths were attributed to workers jumping from upper story windows because a gate to the stairwell was locked.

Read that again, the stairwell was locked.

This garment factory was producing clothing for Gap, JCPenney, H&M and Wal Mart.

And now the story of another Bangladeshi garment factory fire has hit the news. 

“The Tazreen fire is the latest in a series of deadly blazes at garment factories in Bangladesh, where more than 700 workers, many making clothes for U.S. consumers, have died in factory fires in the past five years. As previously reported by ABC News, Bangladesh has some of the cheapest labor in the world and some of the most deplorable working conditions.”

I like a bargain as much as the next person, probably more. But there is a cost, a human cost to all those super cheap deals.

I will not be taking advantage of all the awesomely cheap consumer goods to support my holiday shopping this year.

Or any year.

Join me and buy used, buy American, buy local, buy from manufacturers who certify their safe labor practices.

And keep those poor workers and their families in your thoughts. They are just as deserving of safe working conditions as you and I.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Mrs. Picky Pincher November 21, 2017 at 5:54 am

In high school one theatre class put on a play about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. I think, too often, people don’t realize that building codes and fire safety are IMPORTANT. And when we buy cheap clothes, we’re feeding into the cycle of unsafe work conditions. We can do that through buying used, but it’s also an option to buy new, American-made clothing (although you have to pay attention to where the garment was sewn and assembled too).

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Karen November 21, 2017 at 6:37 am

Excellent post! Yes, we can promote valuing of safety, care and life by not supporting companies who do the opposite. Buy used or buy from companies whose ethics center on compassion. Consumers have a lot of power to improve conditions and avert misery all over the world.

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Jen from California November 21, 2017 at 9:15 am

Thank you for the re-posts as I am a new reader.

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tia November 21, 2017 at 9:45 am

Probably the only way to limit your involvement in this process is to be a minimalist when it comes to what you wear and wear the same thing everyday until it falls off your back. I don’t know if other industries are as bad as the clothing industry, but the clothing industry is bad. It goes where labor and resources are the cheapest. And most people who get these jobs want them to provide for their families. And even when clothing brands send reps to inspect the factories for safety and code violations there are people working at the factory whose job is to unlock doors and what ever else ahead of the inspectors so that the factory seems up to code. Then when the inspectors leave that floor they lock things back up. Right now many clothes that say made in China are actually being made in North Korea. An article I read said there are to sanctions agains textiles from North Korea, even if there were China could still sell them.

Then there’s what you do with the excess clothing you already have. Only 20 percent of donated clothing typically ends up on shelves of donation centers. The rest of donated clothes go abroad, to recycling facilities and landfills. Many African countries don’t want used clothing from the US. It hurts their economy. They can’t manufacture clothing as cheaply as those huge bundles of unwanted American clothes so many jobs are never even created. And as for recycling clothing, most clothes are a blend of yarns so if they can’t be shredded and used as fill in something they go to a landfill. Even Goodwill, with it’s stellar efforts, sends tons of clothing to landfills each year.

If you want to save the world from the garment industry you need to buy locally grown and manufactured textiles that are made into clothing locally and inspect the whole process yourself to be sure no human or animal rights are being violated. Then wear those clothes until they fall apart and make them into rag rugs or quilts like your great grandmother did.

When you buy used, those clothes were originally made unethically so you are still supporting the process.

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tia November 21, 2017 at 10:06 am

update….I did find an article where in late September this year China agreed to sanction textiles from North Korea. I don’t know when this will begin though. And they will just go exploit someone more politically correct anyway.

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janine November 21, 2017 at 10:54 am

Excellent Post. No one can save the world – by themselves.. However, we are able to be mindful of how much we buy and the source from which it came. Very few of us will follow the directives of Tia, but we can keep our clothes as long as practical, (I’m wearing slack that must be 20 years old) refrain from mindlessly following the latest fashion trend, and buying used when we can. This was a timely article as we go forth into the holiday season.

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Savannah November 21, 2017 at 10:55 am

Such a short, unsweet, eye-opening post Katy. Since reading your blog, and other frugal/minimalist type blogs, I have made it a point to research where the clothes I purchase are coming from or made. While I don’t always purchase American-made clothes, I make certain that I am purchasing from companies that utilize factories abroad that are inspected by third parties for compliance with regulations.

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Mary Beth Danielson November 21, 2017 at 1:29 pm

I just wrote (today!) about buying Fair Trade gifts for the holidays. In 2002 I went on a MayaWorks tour to Guatemala – which significantly changed my life for the better. There are very few pure consumer strategies, but there are ways we can all do a better job at some of the stuff we buy. http://www.marybethdanielson.com/content/shop-justice-share-love

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Susan November 21, 2017 at 5:41 pm

PREACH! 🙂 Loved this post the first time and it’s a fantastic reminder as we head into the holiday/buying frenzy of November/December.
Thanks Katy.

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Mand01 November 21, 2017 at 5:51 pm

Thanks for the post Katy.
Australian readers can buy Australian made underwear, leggings, tees and singlets from Tuffetts, a Queensland company – retails about $10 for underwear and $30 AUD for bras but they often have big sales around the holidays and that’s when I buy.
Socks made in Melbourne from Otto and Spike – socks retail for about $17 AUD a pair but they do last for ages and are gorgeous. And you know that the labour practices of both these companies ar high standard.
Most other things I try to buy used. In fact right now my entire outfit is thrifted down to my shoes…
If I buy my other clothes used then I can afford $17 socks.

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Marie-Josée November 22, 2017 at 4:33 am

Amen! And spot on before the Black Friday Dementia.

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susanna d November 22, 2017 at 6:25 am

Because I don’t buy a lot of my clothes used – I’ve long given up on finding the small but tall sizes I need in resale shops up here – I’ve made it priority to do two things:

1. I’ve found places that sell clothes that actually fit me that are made in USA. Sometimes they are more expensive, but not always. I’ve seen plenty of high price, name brand clothing that’s imported but costs as much as (or more than) some of the made in USA clothing.
2. I wear the heck out of my clothes. For example, I replaced 3 t-shirts last year that were 12 years old. The other 4 t-shirts I’d bought at the same time are still going strong after 13 years and I hope to get several more years worth of wear out of them. I’ll never be a fashion trendsetter, but I’m okay with that. I don’t buy “trendy” in the first place.

And we buy local on items whenever we can.

Thank you for reprinting this very important – and, as others have said, timely – post.

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Linda November 23, 2017 at 4:15 am

Just wondering…what is/are the name of the shop/shops/websites where you purchase your clothing. Sounds like they have the kind of quality clothing I would be interested in.

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susanna d November 25, 2017 at 1:33 pm

I’m sorry, I was out of town and just saw your comment, Linda. Regarding made in USA, jeans I buy online from All American Clothing. While some of them are very expensive, there is one style that’s half the price of the others, and I can get them in my crazy-strange size. I’ve bought a few sweaters from Pendleton, also online. Expensive but they last forever. I live in a very cold climate and love warm sweaters.

The t-shirts I mentioned were from Eddie Bauer. Those are not made in USA, but fell into the “I wear the heck out of my clothes” category.

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Linda November 26, 2017 at 2:19 am

Thanks for the info.
I checked out the jeans, when I need jeans again I will try these.
I have gotten several things from LLBean over the years, & even though their clothes are not made in the USA, it lasts forever for me.
I too, wear my clothes forever.

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ouvickie November 22, 2017 at 10:17 am

I agree, which is why I prefer to by my clothing from thrift shops. I’d rather recycle than buy new, but I’m also a label checker. I try not to be part of the problem.
It’s not just clothes, anymore either – the electronics industry is horrible when it comes to abuse, both in mining and assembling; And they purposely create products with a lifespan of 3 years or less. Any product that has to mined – lithium , gold, diamonds, etc. – they are all guilty of human abuse and slavery.
Pawn shops have allowed me to buy electronic and jewelry gifts that can live on another day. I’m not perfect when it comes to how I spend my money, but I am much more thoughtful than I was in my younger years.

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Chris November 22, 2017 at 1:59 pm

I recently read (on another blog) that the average person buys one new item of clothing per week and clothing is usually worn only seven times! Whaat? Not in this household!

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Marcia November 23, 2017 at 7:12 pm

7 times?? I cannot believe it. I noticed this summer that a couple of my favorite shirts needed mending and probably will be retired to wear- at-home shirts soon. Both of those are at least 15 years old–and since they are my favorites, are worn frequently!!

When cleaning my desk last winter, I found the receipt for my most often worn winter jacket, proving it was my 12th year on that, and it still looks new.

My husband and I were having a “who gives in first” contest this summer–he had some underwear that was literally too thin to bother mending a slight tear in a seam. He kept wearing them and I kept NOT mending them. So he decided to go through the entire drawer and wear all his oldest underwear all summer–cooler as the fabric is so lightweight! I’m all for it–he can wear them out and then his drawer will have more space in it!!

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Ruby November 24, 2017 at 2:53 pm

That is really funny about the underwear. My husband also has a couple of pairs that are practically see-thru at this point. He likes to wear them when he’s working in the yard (coupled with his ‘yardwork’ jeans) because they’re cooler.

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Chris November 25, 2017 at 8:51 am

I have three coats which have been with me for over 20 years. On one, I removed the shoulder pads several years ago!

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Cynthia Huntington November 22, 2017 at 2:23 pm

I appreciate this post Katy. Yesterday as I was walking my dog I took a quick inventory of all I was wearing (Vermont, so lots of layers) and I was chagrined to realize I was wearing only three thrifted items to seven purchased retail. (OK, the seven include socks, underpants and bra…) But I took another mental run through and realized my jeans (retail) are three years old and I very much consider them “new.” My hat is over fifteen years old, and my down coat–wait for it–just turned thirty-nine! My gloves are a year old and I still feel like a spendthrift for buying them last minute before a trip last year.

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Reva November 25, 2017 at 7:07 am

Just saw in our local paper in Maine an AP article about Rhode Island’s “Buy Nothing Day” by Jennifer McDermott. Thought this might interest you and didn’t want you to miss it. Enjoy all your posts. XXOO

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Mary Beth November 25, 2017 at 9:10 am

I was thinking about this yesterday while out with friends who were discussing their Black Friday shopping hauls. I only bought one thing: a blouse from a fair trade company that works with artisans in India. Even with a coupon code, it was the most I’ve ever spent on a top, but it should last me for years!

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prairie chuck November 25, 2017 at 10:38 am

I agree 100% with the principle of shopping morally and ethically. But let’s not give unions more credit than they deserve.
http://tomwoods.com/ep-1019-labor-unions-myths-and-facts/

Part 2:
http://tomwoods.com/ep-1023-labor-history-the-real-story/

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Lisa December 8, 2017 at 4:26 pm

Buying used saves more than your pocketbook! I just returned from CA visiting family over the holidays and filled two vintage suitcases with finds from second hand shopping. The BEST clothes in my closet come from thrift shopping. I only buy retail when I am absolutely desperate. Just curious, what does everyone think about second hand fur jackets? I found a beautiful one in a thrift shop. I am adamantly against animal cruelty BUT it does seem a waste not to use such a sacrifice, provided I didn’t supply the initial demand.

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