Posts filed under ‘A year without new clothes: Confessions of an op-shop addict’
One day last year this idea occurred to me: I should try to go for a whole year without buying any new clothes…
Since much of this blog is retrospective I’ve broken it up thematically rather than chronologically, though you will find there is something of a chronological flow if you read from top to bottom. If you don’t have a spare half hour, however, skip to the topic that interests you!
I love clothes. No two ways about it. As a little child – and in fact to this day when I have the opportunity – I preferred to change my outfit several times a day to suit my mood, the weather, the occasion. My wardrobes and drawers are overflowing. Why?
As a teenager, when my appetite for fashion was growing at an alarming rate, we didn’t have much money. Ever since having any kind of job at all, I’ve been making up for lost time. But it’s a bottomless pit. The more I buy, the more I want. That’s our consumption culture for you!
In a world where so many people don’t have the basic necessities of life, where many of the clothes that we buy in Australia are poorly made, not meant to last, produced under ethically questionable conditions out of environmentally unsustainable materials, then shipped half way around the world using up fossil fuels and contributing to climate change, just how could I justify my insatiable penchant for clothes?
The first answer is that, at that time (2009) I probably bought about half of my clothes from op-shops, which I feel fairly comfortable about, ethically speaking (see the ethics of op-shopping).
The second answer is: I just couldn’t – particularly given that the other half of my wardrobe was pretty much the worst kind. Cheap, mass-produced stuff from across the world, mostly bargain-hunted from factory outlets. (I didn’t let my obsession get in the way of my thriftiness. Just my ethics…hmmmm.)
So one day as I was pondering this conundrum, a thought popped into my head:
“Could I go for a whole year without buying any new clothes?”
My first thought was that if I was ever going to do it, now was the time. Firstly, I was about to go back to full-time study, so op-shop clothes would be about all I could afford. Secondly, it was going to be a big year for Transition Darebin, maybe I could write a blog about it!
My second thought was What does ‘no new clothes’ really mean??
So what did I mean by “no new clothes”? Sounds straight-forward but what I really meant was “no new and unsustainable clothes”. So I began to think: what clothes could I feel pretty-much guilt-free about buying? These are the things I came up with that are allowed according to my own conscience:
1. second-hand clothes (see the ethics of op-shopping)
2. new clothes that are made locally (for me locally pretty much means Melbourne, or at least Victorian, or if I’m travelling around, local to wherever I happen to be, but if I’m desperate I might extend this out to Australia)
3. gifts and freebies (but not if I’ve solicited them)
I originally also thought I might have to make an exception for socks and underwear, but then I realised that could come under rule 2 – that is, if I really needed new socks or underwear, make sure they are at least Australian-made.
What is The power of a pledge?
What is an op-shop? If you’re not from Australia, op-shops are those places where you can buy second-hand clothes and other items really cheaply. They are usually run by charities, who use the proceeds to fund their organisations. You might call them ‘thrift stores’ or ‘charity shops’.
Sounds like an ethical place to shop, right? But for David Holmgren (co-founder of permaculture), even op-shopping is not a guilt-free pleasure. I think that’s because it can give us a false sense of the value of clothes and allow us to buy heaps of clothes for little money rather than really curb our consumption. My personal feeling is that we are in a time of transition, and op-shops are going to be with us for some time. And in a culture where the new and shiny is prized, I reckon op-shops and other second-hand shops are a nice counter balance celebrating the ‘pre-loved’, reused, repaired etc. Most people don’t yet have the skills to make their own clothes, and a lot of the locally designed and produced clothes are beyond the budgets of most people, so I think second-hand is a good place to start.
Other people object to anyone but ‘the poor’ making use of op-shops. They believe it’s unfair for people who can shop elsewhere to shop at op-shops. I have some thoughts and questions on that.
1. Have these people actually ever been inside an op-shop? It’s not the boxing day sales. You don’t generally see ladies in twin-sets and pearls elbowing defenceless young single mothers out of the way to get to the bargain bin. In fact most op-shops seem to have an over-supply of stuff and there’s plenty for everyone. Most times I’ve been to op-shops, there’s been me, maybe an old lady or two, a couple of students, and the volunteers running the place.
2. Where do you draw the line? Who qualifies as an acceptable op-shop-goer? Do I qualify this year because I’m studying and only working one day a week? Or are we more talking about socio-economic class here? If so, again, where do you draw the line? (And as above, why do you need to draw the line when there seems to be plenty to go round?)
3. What about the benefits to the charities that run op-shops? Would they make any profits if they relied entirely on ‘the poor’ for custom? In fact don’t they make donated items available to the actually poor for free?
4. Or is the objection that if the well-off, fashion-savvy hordes descended on op-shops en masse, that they would take all the good stuff? Well, that is a point, but I think there are three key bits of information to consider. First, there seems to be an endless supply of stuff that people want to give away. Second, “the good stuff” really is in the eye of the beholder. My “good stuff” is entirely different from the old Greek woman’s “good stuff” which is different again from the “good stuff” for a young guy looking for something to wear to a job interview. Third, the early bird catches the worm. There are always new things coming into op-shops. You can find nothing on one day and a treasure trove the next. What you find depends a lot more on how much time you’re prepared to spend looking or coming back and checking than it does on how much money you have to spend.
So on balance, I’m pretty comfortable with shopping at op-shops as an ethical choice at this stage in time. But it’s true that as time goes on, hopefully people will stop buying the masses of imported clothes that they do and therefore the supply to op-shops will dwindle. I reckon that just means that we’ll see far fewer op-shops around, or they will be much smaller, and they might become more like other second-hand shops you see today – namely, more specialist and expensive. But hopefully our expectations of how many clothes we need will also become more realistic. Hey, I’m working on it, okay?
The funny thing is, I never said to myself “Yes, I’ll do that. I pledge not to buy new clothes for the next year.”
But something strange happened. Every time I even thought about buying something new, besides the usual guilt, I also thought “You’ll just have to reset your twelve months again, is it really worth it?
I reckon it was about August last year that I started thinking about a year without clothes.
It was about August 2009 that I first started thinking about a year without new clothes. I think the first time after that when I actually bought something was during September 2009 at High Vibes (that’s a festival in Darebin). I bought a top and a belt from some shops on High Street in Northcote. Now, at the time, I did actually think they were made in Melbourne, although I was pretty sure the fabric would have been manufactured overseas. I later realised the top had probably been sort of designed and modified in Melbourne, but the original garment manufactured overseas. So that was my first slip up.
Lesson 1. Check the labels carefully!! Don’t assume that every item in shops that have a vibe of everything being made and designed locally will actually be local.
My second lapse was in buying a sun-hat that was made overseas. I bought it from a cool little shop in my local strip (Station Street, Fairfield). I think at the time I just thought “finally, here is the hat for me! I’ll buy it no matter where it comes from!” In retrospect I’m sure I could have done more research and found a locally made hat that would have been as good, but I really wanted that hat right then as I didn’t have any really good sun-protecting hat. Yep, it was a compulsive relapse.
Lesson 2. Consider all purchases carefully! Don’t buy on impulse!
So I thought maybe I should consider September to the end of 2009 as my practice time, and start my year proper at the start of 2010. Then I remembered something else.
On New Year’s Day I went to see Andrew Bird. Now I had been coveting a T-shirt from his website for some time but thought I would wait till this gig and see if they were selling them, rather than having it shipped from the US. So that’s what I did. Now, if those T-shirts were made locally to the people who were selling them, and they were coming to Australia anyway and they brought with them their (for them) locally made T-shirts, maybe I could argue that didn’t contravene my pledge. But this is my conscience I’m arguing with here, and she’s a hard task-mistress! She’d probably say, just how sustainably were these T-shirts produced?
As it turns out, it’s not local even to the US! I just checked the label and it’s “made by our friends in Bangladesh”. Hmmm… I’ve seen this “made by our friends in ____” label before and I’m not quite sure if it’s ironic, or it’s actually claiming solidarity (which might be fair enough if it’s a fair-trade, social enterprise kind of situation) or if it’s trying to challenge the values of people who want to buy local.
Lesson 3. Sometimes what you want just isn’t available according to your exact ethical filter. You have to decide whether it’s okay to make exceptions, and if so under what circumstances, and where do you draw the line?
I have heard the argument made that we should support the economies of “developing” nations by buying the stuff they make. I get that, and I certainly get supporting fair trade but it is something of a tangled web I feel. I think Vandana Shiva says the best thing “developed countries” can do is stop consuming so much and exploiting the resources and workers of “undeveloped countries” and support them to create economic cycles that support their own countries. That’s me paraphrasing there, not very eloquently.
For me the bottom line is that everywhere in the world people are going to have to start meeting more of their needs locally – to make imports the “icing on the cake” instead of the cake itself, as Rob Hopkins puts it.
So I reckon I’ll keep buying local and preferably second-hand where I can, and I’ll probably still buy things from overseas that I think aren’t available here and that are supporting fair trade and sustainable practices.
Anyway in terms of how I’m going, I set my clock from 2nd of January 2010 so I’m more than six months in and doing fine. I did get a few freebie t-shirts from the Sustainable Living Festival in Feb, which I pretty much did solicit… but they would have just been put back in a storeroom if they hadn’t come to me… AAARGH. Pesky conscience. So I reset my clock and did the full 12 months.
Lesson 4. Think carefully about ‘borderline’ cases and how you will feel about them later on reflection.
Either way I reckon the ‘pledge’ such as it was probably curtailed my shopping habits even if I slipped up a few times.
Update: 2014. That year definitely changed my habits for good. I almost never buy new clothes any more (except for things like underwear, thermals and footwear… I do have a significant weakness for shoes which can’t be satisifed at the op shop) except in special circumstances, and if I do, I really think twice (or six times) about it. But I’m still an op-shop addict.
So I decided for my thirtieth birthday party the theme would be “everything old is new again”. Everyone came in second hand clothes of all kinds. Pictures from the party.
Thanks to Georgia, who forwarded on this link to a whole group of women in the US who have taken a similar pledge. Curse those slip-ups! Now I won’t be the first. Okay, so undoubtedly throughout history and today there have been lots of people who have never bought a new piece of clothing in their whole lives, but you know what I mean…
Want to go without new clothes for a year? Do it! I’d love to know about it but really it’s between you and your conscience.