I like clothes. This is a sad and materialistic reality, but I do. I also like compliments, good deals, Robin Hood, Chinese people, and not destroying the Earth too fast. All of these things come together to create Haidan’s ethics of buying clothing.
I’m going to give you the list first, because that’s what it all boils down to, and then I’ll go through each point on the list to explain how it got there.
My order of preference for buying clothes
- Can I make this?
- Second hand first
- Support small businesses
- Big retailers
The articles of clothing used as examples for this article were accumulated over the last decade, but I’ve made sure to only use examples that I currently still own.
Ok. Let’s go.
1. Can I make this?
When I see something I like, my first question is always whether I can make this myself. While this is partially ethical, it is also to make myself feel accomplished.
Obviously making your own clothing is better for the environment than buying it from retailers. But I don’t deceive myself into thinking I’m somehow saving the environment by doing this. I am still actively destroying the environment by contributing to the production of textiles, greenhouse gases for building sewing machines, eventual landfill waste, etc. So what I prefer here is that I destroy the Earth more slowly.
Same goes with the exploitation of garment workers. I’m still causing exploitation by purchasing materials made by underpaid workers in poor conditions, just ones in smaller industries than fashion.
What I get
If I succeed in making it, I get:
- A skills upgrade
- Sense of accomplishment
- Unique fashion that nobody else can wear
- Clothing that can’t be price tagged
- Showered with compliments
What can I make?
Contrary to popular belief, not much. Can you believe I have never made a shirt in my life? Of course you can’t believe it, because you think I’m a sewing wizard. I have only made skirts, a pair of pants, some accessories, and a hooded cloak. Everything else failed. I’m hoping to gradually expand my repertoire.
Things I made:
2. Second hand first
If I can tell that it’s too difficult to make, or the cost of making it is going to overshadow the cost of just buying it, I go thrift for it. Where do I do this?
I like to promote ThredUp because I’ve been having good experiences with them. They’re a giant online consignment store that sells second hand clothing. Because they’re so big, they have so much stuff. The best part is the filters, so you can narrow down your search to exactly what you’re looking for. Browsing their website is quite addictive.
I have a referral link if you want to sign up. You get savings, I get savings, everyone gets savings: Get $10 to spend
When the lockdown ends, I’m going to hit up my favourite local thrift stores, inluding Black Market Clothing and various other places downtown. If I’m outside of Toronto, I might look for a Talize too. I’m always down to explore new ones though, so let me know if you recommend a place.
Mostly I just delay some pieces from going to landfills, so again, I’m not saving the world, just slowing down its imminent destruction. I guess I also reduce the demand for new clothing by a little bit, which I suppose contributes to that too.
Exploited workers are still getting exploited, but the same amount of exploitation now clothes more than one person, so I suppose you could say you’re taking a bad situation and making the best out of it, but that’s all.
What I get
I get a good deal. And besides the obvious saving of money, I also get people to think I’m resourceful, like when I tell them I got a $70 UNIQLO blazer for $20 with the tag still on it. That feels pretty good.
Examples of second hand clothing I bought:
3. Support small businesses
Shopping at small businesses is not really a backup for the first two options. It’s more just for fun when I’m exploring. If I find a local boutique that is reasonably priced and has nice styles, I will buy from it. I keep in mind that “reasonably priced” for a small business will naturally be more expensive, but as long as they are still lower than high-end retailers, I’m good with it.
Covid sucks because it closed down a lot of them. I’m ok with everyone being closed down, big and small alike, but I definitely think if big retailers can open, then small businesses should be allowed to as well.
Aria: My favourite Toronto clothing store recently opened an online shop (although I like their in-store selection better). I used to go all the way to Christie Station to visit them. The nice Korean lady who runs the store is very kind and helpful.
Pacific Mall: This place is full of independent stores selling nice stuff you won’t find in other malls. If you don’t want to haggle for the price, find stores that have the price labelled.
Examples of clothes I bought from small Canadian business:
Here’s where we need to keep in mind that “local” for me doesn’t necessarily mean Canada.
Do I like clothing that is affordable, unique, and made by people who I feel a special affinity to? Of course I do.
I almost always go for style over brand, but I know that a lot of styles originated from brand name designs. So here’s where we come to the Chinese Garment Worker’s Robin Hood Effect.
The Chinese Garment Worker’s Robin Hood Effect
One of the main ethical issues of fast fashion is that it exploits garment workers by giving them sub-living wages and poor working conditions. I am pretty sure this happens in China too. Some big western company opens a factory and start to exploit some Chinese garment workers.
But Big West failed to foresee something very important.
You need to understand that people in China are smarter than you and I. They grew up in a society where they need to think 10 steps ahead. So naturally, they’re not going to let themselves just get exploited. That’s not how Chinese people work.
They’re going to make sure they get something out of it. They’re going to make sure they get a good deal.
Do you know where fake brand name goods come from? I don’t mean the super tacky, obviously-fake stuff. I mean 1) the stuff that looks and feels so real that 99% of people can’t tell it’s fake, and 2) unbranded goods that copy brand name designs.
They come from real brand name factories. Sometimes they are items that didn’t make it through quality control. Sometimes they never get to quality control. Sometimes they are made from the same raw materials or the same designs used to make the real deal. Often, they are sold without a brand name, in independently run booths in crowded city marketplaces.
If you exploit us, we will take your stuff. We will take your designs. We will take your secrets. And pretty soon, Big West is going to realize exploiting Chinese people was a bad idea.
In light of this, who do I buy from? Big West? Nope. When given the choice, I buy from my own people.
Do I condone theft? No. But when given a choice between two thieves, I side with the poorer one.
Who wins? The Chinese workers. The Chinese sellers. And my wallet.
Here are my favourite websites for getting clothes from China:
Aliexpress: This is a gamble, but you can increase your odds by looking at the reviews and certifications of a company. I got my wedding dress for $67.95 from here. It was made entirely of cheap polyester, and it looked amazing. Your package will take a long time to arrive though, so don’t get things you’re rushing to wear
If you use my referral link, you get a $30 coupon when you sign up: Get it here.
YesStyle: There are a lot of mini brands selling here, and the gamble is still there, but it’s a little safer and there is more English going on. It can still take a long time, and because of covid the minimum for free shipping went up, but overall I’ve had good experiences with them. They also have skincare products that I like. Right now I’m waiting for their free shipping minimum to go back down.
I also have a referral link for them: Get 5% off.
Examples of clothes I got from sellers in China:
5. Big retailers
Big retailers are last. I’m not disciplined enough to completely eliminate them from my fashion life, but I try to minimize my spending on new items with them (I can just buy their stuff second hand). One exception is when I travel abroad. In this case I will specifically buy from retailers that are not available back home.
Here are some big retailers that I have purchased from while abroad:
- Gina Tricot
- Sud Express
Examples of clothes I bought from overseas big retailers:
Choosing the hate you get
So what is the moral of all this? It’s that you should decide on the ethics of your spending habits instead of just listening to everyone else.
Some people will tell you to buy from certain brands and not others.
Some brands will tell you to buy from certain brands and not others.
You can’t just listen to everyone. Choose who you listen to and how you go about doing things based on your values. You will always upset people with your choices anyways—you cannot win—so do it in the way that you’d rather be known for. I’d rather be hated as the snake who helps Chinese garment thieves make a quick buck than the sheltered North American consumer who helps big brands exploit workers.
Haters will hate, but let them hate you on your own terms.
So decide on your own ethics of buying clothes and don’t just listen to Haidan and her blog articles.