Unpopular opinions & a few honest thoughts
Last year, I spent substantial amount of money buying high quality clothes, shoes and other apparel items (secondhand and new) in an attempt to build my first serious, work wardrobe. I have spent enough time with my purchases to realize that about 30% of them were bad choices. Now that my taxes are filed away, my first quarter deadlines met and shopping ban in full swing, I am in spring cleaning mode. I am donating, giving away or selling most of the things that did not work out me. I am hanging on to a few bad choices that I can still alter and use. I will not be replacing or buying anything new for a while.
All of this got me thinking about quite a few topics and I decided to be brutally honest for my own sake – about Consignment Shopping, Cost Per Wear, Ethical Fashion and Ethical Choices. This post spent quite some time in the drafts section. I debated about actually publishing it. My only request to anyone who takes the time to read it is to be frank and put me in my place if I got this wrong.
#1 Thoughts on Shopping Consignment and Pre-owned:
At the end of last year, I ordered 3 dresses from The Real Real. I badly needed a few work dresses for 2017 and a ‘going out’ / party dress for a few events that I needed to attend. I decided to take advantage of the year-end reductions on TRR. All the 3 dresses I ordered were from well known brands and designers known for good clothes. None of them worked out. 2 out of 3 had the wrong measurements listed on the website. For instance, while the bust of one dress was listed as 35″ on the website, it was actually 31″ in real life. Except for losing money for to-and-fro shipping, nothing came out of it. This is not the first time this has happened. There are a few purchases that I made on Ebay over the last two years that did not work out either. As we all know most Ebay sellers don’t offer returns.
Also, just take a look at the opinions on Purse Blog. Buyers received counterfeit items from The Real Real despite the ‘Authenticity Guaranteed’ tag. I feel buying pre-owned items online is too much of a gamble. Instead of losing money in shipping costs or ending up with clothes in the wrong size that I cannot return, I’d rather buy something new with a return policy that I can actually afford. But then, I find a gem of shoe like this on Ebay, at 1/3rd the retail price.
This is the reality of shopping for pre-owned apparel online. Some hits, some misses. In my experience until now, the net “savings” more or less even out with the net losses incurred due to bad purchases. I feel like this reality is not acknowledged by most websites and bloggers who tout ‘breathing new life’ into pre-owned clothes or talk about consignment shopping. Yes, buying secondhand is definitely better for the environment and thus better for me. I see that. But, at what cost? At the cost of ending up with clothes that are uncomfortable, ill-fitting and a waste of money because they will end up not getting worn more than 5 times.
#2 On the question of what is really worth one’s money:
Quality, Price, Satisfaction (of wearing something you love) are not simple Yes or No answers. There is a lot of gray area and varying degrees of happiness.
Consider these 3 possibilities:
- A fast fashion purchase that is surprisingly well made (Uniqlo, H&M, Zara – take your pick) bought for less than $50 and worn over 25 times. Let us say, I really loved wearing it, and never had to ‘baby it’, and could just toss it in the wash without much hassle. Then I dropped it in the donation bin or recycle bin (For all I know, they could end up in a landfill. I am aware of this). I am pretty sure this pair of trousers was made in a sweatshop in China or Bangladesh or Vietnam. Some of the fast retailers have signed the Bangladesh Factory Safety Accord, but I am still skeptical about how safe their factories really are.
- A mid-tier brand purchase (Theory, DVF, Rebecca Taylor, Zady, Cuyana, Everlane), bought for at least $180, worn 40 times and then discarded because it got worn out. Believe me, this happens more frequently than expected, despite of the sharp hike in cost when compared to fast fashion. Many times, the quality is just slightly better than Option #1. I have made enough purchases to substantiate this and I have a feeling that I might not be alone here. Some of these brands’ business practices are a little more transparent. But many of them cannot trace their entire supply chain for even one product type.
- A high-end brand purchase (Akris Punto, Stella McCartney) bought at at least $400 (consignment for sure) that makes me feel awesome. Most of the products produced by this brand are ethically made, eco-friendly and fair trade, though not completely. Let us say I wear it 50 times, then put on weight or changed jobs (different work environment) or simply got bored of it. For the sake of this discussion, let us assume I sold it and recovered a quarter of the cost.
From a purely financial standpoint, which one of these options is the better choice? In other words, which one is easier on my wallet?
Which option is ‘low risk’? (Let us say I am out of luck and all 3 choices turn out to be bad in terms of quality, which one hurts my pocket the least?)
Which option makes me feel my best?
Which option has less hassles? (Example: With which one, I don’t need to wear it a 100 times to justify its price? Which purchase doesn’t need me to dry wash and be precious with it?)
Let’s not forget that my own answers for these questions could be wildly different from my sister’s.
A sales associate at a retail store making less than $50K, a nurse in training, a stay at home mom, a single parent making $80K, a partner at a law firm making upwards of 250K, a senior Hospitality professional making $100K could all answer these questions very differently. One person’s ‘reasonable’ cost per wear could be unimaginable for another. For some, dry cleaning / professional laundry is a way of life. For some, having no-nonsense clothes that they don’t need to ‘baby’ could be the most important requirement. For a few ‘Power Dressing’ is a ‘default’ in traditional offices. A few others might be losing or gaining weight this year and may have to ‘adjust’ their purchases and budgets accordingly.
#3 Thoughts on ‘the ethical choice’ or ‘the obviously, right choice’
The ethical fashion brigade will tell me that the one with ‘most transparent practices’ among the three choices is the painfully obvious choice. They tell me that it will last me a lifetime. But when you look closely, that ‘Made in Tunisia’ tag on Option #2 could mean anything. To believe that the labor conditions are somehow better because it was Made in Africa, or Mid-Europe is fooling ourselves. The textile manufacturing factory in China has never been audited by anyone from the radically transparent brand. I feel it is uphill battle. I still cannot figure out the entire supply chain journey. So, the sub-contractor who manufactured the fabric used child labor? How do I really feel about illegal immigrants who are paid less than a dollar an hour being used in the factories despite the ‘Hand Made in Made in Italy’ tag? Conflicted. Ultimately, I choose the lesser of all the evils and move on.
I am sure ethical fashionistas will most definitely find another brand or another dress that is more transparent through out its Supply Chain journey than the three options we considered. Never mind the fact that dress looks like a burlap on me and wrinkles so much that it looks like I rolled out of bed. Then I wash it and it shrinks!! The chase never ends.
Let us just forget about the obvious ethical choice for a minute and re-examine Option #1 and #2 mentioned above. They have $130 difference between them. Wanting to buy ethically manufactured clothes vs being able to afford them is completely different. What if I cannot afford to have 4 work outfits each at $180-$200 price limit?
What if I really need those $130 for my pet insurance or medical bills or even better I actually donate the $130 to Doctors Without Borders or LA LGBT Center because I believe in their causes. Actually scratch that! Let us not even bring altruistic motives into the discussion. Let us just say I want to save more money to afford to travel more because traveling would make me infinitely happier than any silk dress or vegan leather bag. Another possibility – What if I am trying to save more to buy a home with a garden or a small piece of land that I plan to grow my own vegetables on? Last one while we are at it – I just want to save more and would love to see more money in my bank account. Simple as that, no better reason.
Everyone’s life story is different. Everyone’s needs are different. In real life, choices ought to be examined through the lens of the person’s current lifestyle, financial responsibilities and priorities. So, don’t tell me that the so called ‘ethical fashion choice’, ‘fair trade alternative’, ‘high quality, long lasting option’ is some how the only morally allowable or obvious choice available for ALL of us
#4 More thoughts on Choices
Consider this possibility – What if I DON’T have the privilege of a choice. I can only afford the cheapest option out of the three mentioned above. We have become a culture that some how makes it seem like if you ‘invest’ the money up front, you will definitely end up reaping the benefits. Two problems with this:
#1 The above statement may be true about your retirement plan, your education and a few other things. It is not ALWAYS true about Clothes.
#2 It also operates on the premise that everyone has ample, discretionary income to blow on high quality, high expense purchases, upfront. For most people, it is a work in progress. For some, these things are just clothes to cover the body. Just that!
I recently came to know what one my my friends makes as salary (No, I did not ask. She shared). She is a single mom of 2 children. It put a lot of things in perceptive. I felt very thankful for the reality check. I also felt relieved that even when I was not aware of some of her financial details, I did not lecture her on her unethical fashion choices or retail purchase choices. Her wardrobe could be completely from Zara or some other fast fashion giant. But does it really matter? I know she is not buying anymore than she needs. She buys the best food she can, every single time. She prioritizes the kids educations and family vacations and savings before anything else.
Turning up my nose, lecturing friends about how their fashion choices are really bad for the environment, and yapping about sustainable fashion from my moral high ground is not going to get me anywhere. Having strong opinions, doing what I can for the planet, having a honest, balanced and calm conversation about slow fashion and ethics with a person that is actually interested is completely different from becoming a sad snob that insists that we should all be investigating and researching everything we buy. Wouldn’t that be a full time job?
I think there are quite a few wonderful style bloggers who buy way less than the ‘glam squad’ we cannot escape on the internet. They have tightly edited wardrobes without compromising their personal style. What I find common among them is that they aim to have boundaries and a clear vision. They try to choose the ethical option whenever they can. But, they don’t make it a unbreakable rule.
Yes, I understand that we have become a culture that buys and discards stuff at a very fast rate. But, after much thought, I think the only rule in the book is buy less and wear more – not “buy better”, not “buy the more expensive option”, not “choose the ethically produced option”, not “buy secondhand”. All of these rules come later. So let people take what works for them and leave out whatever doesn’t. Surprise, Surprise! It is okay to think about our own financial priorities before making a purchase. Mother of all Surprises? We don’t need to make ethical shopping a contest and start judging everyone’s life, choices, clothes and styles.
Despite all the world screaming about minimalism, eco-friendly, sustainable fashion, fair trade, ethical fashion and transparent manufacturing methods in quite flowery language, all of those choices only exist for only a few us. Many of us seem to forget how lucky we are.
If we really want to help save the planet:
Let us be kind to the person sitting next to us, despite of how they look, talk and dress. People’s external appearances are not a reflection of their intelligence, depth and kindness.
Cook at home when possible. Eat fresh and grow something. This will most definitely help the planet – Just look up food & produce transportation costs.
Let us just buy one less pair of shoes and dresses – whether it is fast fashion or ethical fashion, whether it is new or pre-owned is secondary. Make those choices if and when you can. I am allowed to wear that Ann Taylor dress that I already own as long as I can and use those ‘extra’ $100 for a child’s back to school needs.
Use what we already have. One of my 2017 goals to make my wardrobe as ethical and eco-friendly as possible, within my financial limits. But before even buying, I am going to continue to wear what I’ve already have. No shame in that.
Give and gift when we can. That beautiful dress that no longer fits me is going to my sister.
Question: Am I alone in feeling this way? Is buying secondhand online as marvelous as it is made to be? Is ethical fashion a choice that one can make every single time. Is it okay to NOT make Ethical Fashion the flavor of my life? Is it okay to NOT feel the need to ‘educate’ everyone around us?
I look forward to reading your thoughts on these topics – popular or otherwise, politically correct or wildly radical.