Consumership and style: Buying US-made clothing and doing my best

I've been thinking a lot about consumership. I make money. I spend money. I stress out about who that money supports and where it goes. I feel like an asshole. I like having nice things.

In the past year, mostly through the mentorship of some awesome friends, I've been trying to change the way that I buy things.  In particular, I've tried to focus on keeping my spending within the US economy for three reasons:

  • US-made goods look more rad and last longer
  • I can be sure that US-made goods are not made by children (whether the workers earn an actual living wage is another story).
  • Buying things from small producers means that more of the money goes to the people doing the work, and less goes to large corporations. Happy to talk more later about why I dislike corporations in general.

Did I mention that US-made goods are also very rad? Let's do some comparison shopping.  I've put together two pinboards, each featuring six pieces of clothing that I like to wear during the summer: t-shirt, leather sandals, denim shorts, canvas tote, sundress, and a chambray button down. Hipster alert. Sorry about it.

The first pinboard is comprised of mall clothes-- specifically J. Crew and Madewell, whose goods I tend to love, and who manufacture the lion's share of their products outside of the US, often in developing countries with relaxed labor laws.

Mall-Store Summer Favorites

The second pinboard is comprised of small American brands-- that means that both the design and the manufacture of the items happens in the US, under the purview of US labor laws which are kind of good sometimes.

US-Made Summer Classics

Jungmaven Women's Short Sleeve $29, Everlane Women's Summer Sandal $105, Bridge and Burn Audrey Shorts $88
Joshu+Vela Essential Tote $130, Bridge and Burn April Dress $99, O'Harrow Clothiers Classic Chambray Shirt $95

I'm actually kind of startled by how much I prefer the American-made pinboard. The textiles look richer, the cuts look more flattering, the colors more subtle. I want all of it. At present, I can afford none of it. That's cool I guess.

The only item that I own from either pinboard is the Bridge and Burn April Dress, purchased with birthday money at Dearhearts in Durham. It it the perfect, perfect sundress. What's more, the women who own the shop spent 15 minutes with me comparing fabrics, re-tying the straps, checking the way it fit my butt (MOST IMPORTANT), etc. I left with a different size than I thought I would thanks to their  close attention, and I feel great about how I look in it. (Plus they popped a bottle of prosecco and poured glasses all around, including for all the people in the shop browsing who bought nothing, so, bonus).

Ok. So. What if I were to buy everything on both pinboards? I mean, I could never, but what if?

The difference in total between the mall-store group and american-made group is $22. That's it. I would pay a twenty-two dollar premium for more-ethical manufacturing AND better quality. Especially if those items lasted longer and fit more my sense of style more closely.

BUT! Here's the rub: by the end of the summer, almost every item on the mall-store pinboard will go on sale, in some cases for as much as fifty percent off. The prices of the US-made pinboard are unlikely to budge (although I have seen online sales on the Bridge and Burn site, and through other online boutiques that carry US-made brands). These markdown makes a huge price difference-- especially for those of us who are used to buying all of our clothing on sale at the end of the season. All told, if you shop sales, the US-made goods cost closer to 1.5x the price of the mall goods.

So-- what to do? Right now I've settled on this strategy: 
  • Buy fewer things, less frequently.
  • Keep things nice longer (that means learning how to care for my belongings, which is honestly new to me). This is easiest to do when I really love something in the first place, and don't want to part with it.
  • Only buy items for which I've identified a specific need/ use. No duplicates. A lot of times I'll try to wait to buy something until I've found myself in several prior situations where I would have used/worn it if I had it.
  • Be cool with making compromises. Case in point: in May I had a last-minute job interview and no interview clothes. You better believe I hauled ass to J. Crew and bought what I needed. Hopefully I'll be able to wear that outfit to job interviews for years to come. It makes my butt look really great.

Listen. There's no way to talk about this without getting on a soapbox. I'm ok with that. I'm doing my best and I'm a nice person. I'm especially interested to see how these priorities will change as my life changes-- having kids, for example, tends to really alter the way a person thinks about consumership/their priorities in general.

It's important to note that these are lucky problems to have, in a lot of ways. It is a HUGE privilege to be able to "shop" for clothing-- not just to buy whatever is  cheapest.  I exist in that place of privilege.

Choice is part of my experience, and it's a choice shaped not just by visual aesthetics, but by a complex web of ethical-identity-group/not group considerations that is very difficult to parse. The things I buy, for better or for worse, help shape my identity via how I look, how I view myself and how I participate in various economies. Understanding this is a big part of doing my best. I hope I'm on my way.

1 comment:

  1. What about the thrift store? Hard to beat it on price, and the ethics seem good. Now, if you want quality, you have to take the time to look for it and be willing to strike out a bunch. On the other hand, I classify thrift store shopping as entertainment and sometimes you find something unusual and striking that the real stores aren't selling this season. And then fit is always an issue, but with a little more time and skill many pieces can be altered to fit even better than readymade clothes. I got one of my favorite shirts at the Goodwill in Arlington, with little silver threads woven into the pinstripes.