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

by Katy on September 8, 2016 · 25 comments

The following is a reprint of a previously published post. 

I am 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?


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?


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.”

Click HERE to follow The Non-Consumer Advocate on Twitter.
Click HERE to join The Non-Consumer Advocate Facebook group.
Click HERE to follow The Non-Consumer Advocate on Pinterest.

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Suzanne September 8, 2016 at 11:16 am

Amen! Have you heard of poshmark? It’s a great website for used clothing, jewelry, makeup, etc.


Bee September 8, 2016 at 12:57 pm

Every day I make choices regarding how I spend my money. I don’t always make the cheapest choice, but I try to make the best choice. I shop at stores that are known to treat their employees well. I eat produce from local oragnic farmers whenever possible. I buy used if I can, and I try to make earth friendly decisions. It’s hard to know the origin of every item I purchase, but I try to buy ethically. I figure there is a lot of power in my pocketbook.


Bee September 9, 2016 at 5:00 am

After reading this article, I tried to find a list of companies that manufacture clothing in the USA only. What I found was a very complex issue. Although most clothing companies use manufacturing facilities here and abroad, some seem to take their social and environmental responsibility more seriously than others. The human and environmental cost of “stuff” is more than many Americans realize. Thank you for bringing this to the forefront again, Katy. It is another reason to be mindful and embrace non-consumerism


Mand01 September 8, 2016 at 12:58 pm

For Australian readers, the online company Tuffets makes underwear for the whole family including bras – all in Australia, no sweat. We buy all our family undies from them. VIP members get 10% off every order, plus they often have 40% off sales for big holidays. And we are supporting Aussie manufacturing jobs.
The quality is excellent.
For almost everything else we buy secondhand.


Gail September 8, 2016 at 3:06 pm

Deplorable work conditions is why I try my level best not to buy new products from those type of manufacturing countries. How can I enjoy a pretty scarf draped around my neck or a lovely home dec item if all I see is the slave like labor that went into the making of the item? Sincere thanks to you for this important post.


Lindsey September 8, 2016 at 3:47 pm

I was sitting in a room waiting for a meeting to start and the women were comparing notes on how cheap they could buy t-shirts. This was a faith based group and more than half of them were wearing the What Would Jesus Do wrist bands. I finally asked if they thought Jesus would buy from stores that have the cheapest prices because they source their goods from countries that have the lowest wages and worst working conditions on the planet while American workers go jobless because they demand livable wages and safe conditions. I have not been invited back to their meetings. I usually keep my mouth shut about things like that but the idea that you would preach loving your neighbors out of one side of your mouth and on the other not care that these cheap items come at a high human cost was too much. These were not impoverished women who might have to buy the absolute cheapest stuff for their kids and pray it holds together for a few months, they were all from the fancy part of town, with the latest cars and lots of gold jewelry on their fingers and wrists…There are issues I don’t care about sounding judgmental about.


Trish September 8, 2016 at 5:39 pm

Good for you! I have been opening my mouth a little too often myself. I have accidentally insulted a few friends and relatives in the process, unfortunately. One of my very favorite relatives, a much-loved aunt is a huge “bargain shopper.” She gets great deals in enormous volume, but with no regard for the sourcing of the items, the companies she is supporting, or the environmental impact. Well, my comments much have sunken in, because she has begun to change her ways and told me the other day that she is starting to really think about whether she needs an item before shopping.


JD September 9, 2016 at 6:36 am

Lindsey, that’s appalling. My church is so much the opposite; they sponsor and provide missions that provide self-employment and education to the poor overseas and in the US, and always have fair-trade, responsibly sourced items from South America, Africa, etc., in their yearly fair on the church grounds. I think ignorance of what’s going on out there in the poorest countries and with the slave trade is a huge problem with so many Americans, and some simply could but don’t want to know about it, as it’s too uncomfortable for them to think about.


Vickie September 9, 2016 at 7:04 am

The truth is a hard pill to swallow, sometimes. I’ve made a lot of people mad by bringing up harsh realities. Good for you sticking up for your values!


Madeline September 8, 2016 at 4:43 pm

Which brands are made in the USA? I am retired, I could probably go the rest of my life with the clothes in my closet, but I do enjoy a good thrift store run. But I don’t want to buy USED clothing that was made in these factories,either.

I am appalled at these stories..I heard them before but it just didn’t hit home till this reading.. I don’t want to support any company that devalues the mostly women and children in the countries that offer cheap labor.

My Mom in law used to make most of her family’s clothes.. and they were BOYS! Yes, she made tailored shirts, suits,you name it.When she matured, she made her own evening gowns to go to the local ballroom dancing venue with my Dad in law.

Times sure have changed.


Susan September 8, 2016 at 4:48 pm



MB September 8, 2016 at 5:24 pm

I was a volunteer board member for several years for a Fair Trade organization. (I worked with, which online markets Mayan artisan woven items. Please look!!!). You can always Google “Fair Trade” and then the type of item or clothing you are looking for.. and it is usually there. There is a saying, “Get 5$ a week into the pocket of a poor woman in a poor nation… and she will lift her own children up.” Thanks for this posting, Katy.


JY September 8, 2016 at 7:37 pm

Amen. Slavery was never truly abolished. We just realized it was no longer necessary to bring slaves over here, feed them, cloth them, and house them.


Susan September 9, 2016 at 2:05 am

JY, that is the clearest way I’ve ever heard this explained! You are so right. Katy, do you have a list of American, ethically made clothing? Maybe that would be an excellent future post. I’m sure many would be interested.


Denise September 9, 2016 at 3:20 am

I think that there is one aspect that everyone is rather simplistically overlooking in this debate, but one that must be factored in.

If everyone withdraws their money, but fails to lobby those companies very actively to pursue and maintain higher working standards etc., then yep, those factories may very well fail. Well, guess what? The result of such a blunt instrument approach is that families sell some of their children into sex slavery (mainly but not solely the girls) and the boys get sold into “bonded labour” – slavery by any other name. That is not scare-mongering, it is fact.

This is a monstrously complex issue, and one which I have very deep knowledge about through my work. Some of the companies named, especially US ones (and I do mean “especially US ones”) do not take their responsibilities seriously at all. But some of the companies, especially in the EU, are doing huge amounts of work with Non-Governmental organisations in these countries, with governments and also a great deal of work with employers themselves to audit and identify problems, to put in place rectification and improvement plans, to co-fund those costs of improvement, all with the threat of moving (and acting upon such threats) lucrative contracts to well-run competitors. Is there more to do? Always. But please drop the simplistic “sweat shop” language. Are there still those places? Yes. They will be found worldwide, including in the US and EU, wherever there are desperate and vulnerable people (particularly immigrant communities).

I have walked through well- built, well-ventilated factories with good health and safety training, procedures and excellent conditions. They have been located in Germany, in the UK and in Dhakar, capital of Bangladesh, in Vietnam and in China. No one is naive enough to think that a spot-check is proof of compliance all the time, so much more covert and thorough methods are also used.

But get real: many of these companies are doing a lot more than their consumers demand – as Lindsey witnessed with rich shoppers, let alone cash-strapped teenagers – because it is the right thing to do, regardless. And the vast majority of consumers won’t or can’t pay the prices which on-shoring of these jobs to high-cost economies in the West. So work with reality and work to make the issue of ethical trading a huge priority for everyone.

And by the way, if you want to really look into this, then remember that Ralph Lauren, Hugo Boss and other designer names are using the exact same factories, with higher quality fabrics, but still: where the hell does that cost equation come from?? Search the Wall Street Journal for its article on this issue a few years ago.

Anyway – my main point is that this is complex and that knee-jerk reactions often cause many unintended consequences. Consumer activism in lobbying companies, on social media etc, will be a more powerful tool in changing opinions of other consumers to demand better ethical trading practices.

Buy thrifted because it is good sense frugally and environmentally. Those are great, hard-core values. But keeping a kid out of sex slavery? Find the (nonUS) retailers who are slogging away at these issues at the coal-face, so to speak, and be willing to support them too, when you do buy new. Look at which companies win the prizes and plaudits (not just are members of) from the likes of the Ethical Trading Initiative.

Phew. Rant over.


Susan September 9, 2016 at 5:12 am

Thank you, Denise, for your insight.


Vickie September 9, 2016 at 7:10 am

The International Justice Mission is working to combat these issues too:


Beth September 9, 2016 at 7:48 am

This is an interesting point. There are many facets to this subject, for sure.


Mrs. Picky Pincher September 9, 2016 at 4:32 am

I completely agree. I try to buy my clothes exclusively from consignment shops like Clothes Mentor or Goodwill. There’s such a big social cost to cheap clothing. that I don’t think many of us are aware of. Frugality isn’t about finding the cheapest clothes you can–it’s about consuming consciously in a way that empowers other people, reduces waste, and promotes quality products.


JD September 9, 2016 at 6:28 am

My own grandmother, who was 60 when I was born, worked in a factory here in the US, sewing gloves, usually the pretty dress gloves made out of soft, fine leathers, and she was paid by the piece. She sewed the most challenging portions, attaching the thumbs and the pieces between the fingers. My dad kept a copy of her last paycheck that came with a pink slip attached — she was deemed too old (she was 71) and had been laid off. She had made $28.50 that week working nearly 40 hours. This was in the mid-1960’s, not 1900. My dad wrote to both the company’s headquarters and his local congressman to complain, but it went nowhere. The company ended up closing the factory a few years later — it out-sourced its labor to another country, so my grandparents had to get by on my grandfather’s small Social Security check without that extra bit of money that she had been earning. About 100 people lost their jobs when the factory closed. There are lots of stories like this out there. I agree that working to end such conditions while keeping the job opportunities open to the employees is vital, as is supporting the efforts of companies which already do so. I try to buy ethically, but finding out how and where has been challenging. Thanks to those with suggestions on how to find places that give that information.


Vickie September 9, 2016 at 6:54 am



Rachel H September 9, 2016 at 7:46 am

A lot to think about. My father was union, so is my husband. But that doesn’t mean much these days. I’ve often wondered, how do I support American workers and those workers in poor countries, who have the most need of all?


janine September 9, 2016 at 8:10 am

Thank you Katy for this thought provoking post. AND – thank you responders for good information and insights.

Count me into the ‘used is best’ preference group. Not always happening, but always worth looking into. There is the question of finding goods manufactured in the USA – not always easy. I am delighted with the current attention paid to the buy local movement which has put a spotlight on these issues. Buying goods from overseas isn’t inherently always a bad thing to do as long as we have some knowledge of conditions under which the goods were manufactured. However, adding in the environmental and cost saving benefits from buying used, most of us will opt for that choice if at all possible.


Laura September 9, 2016 at 9:55 am

For Australian readers, here is a link to where you can get a handy free booklet/download on who has an ethical supply chain –


marieann September 9, 2016 at 10:33 am

Somewhere along the line we were turned into consumers, and we never questioned that our lot in life is to buy….stuff.
I look upon buying new stuff as bad for my planet so I try to buy less, and I try to buy used, then I try to buy local or at least made in Canada
I know that this is not good for the workers who make all the stuff, whether they be in Canada or overseas, and I know if everyone shopped like I do there would be a collapse of the system.
Is a system based on shopping sustainable or even ethical, I don’t think so.

I don’t know where this will take us, I imagine that people will suffer and the planet will suffer.


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: