Growing up, my family didn’t have a lot of money. When the new school year rolled around, clothes shopping more often involved sifting through hand-me-downs than trips to the mall. In high school, I discovered the thrill of hunting for clothes at thrift stores. The items I loved most weren’t discarded graphic tees from popular stores but quirky, unique pieces without recognizable brand names, like the oversized, suede fringe vest that I imagined once belonged to a rodeo cowboy. Or the floor-length skirt printed with pocket watches that looked like something a high school art teacher might wear. I gave background stories to these clothes—where they came from and who owned them before me.
In college, I earned enough at my jobs to start buying things new—a revelation! But I wanted my precious dollars to get the most items they could and for the best price, which usually meant T-shirts from Target, dresses from Forever 21 and jeans from Old Navy. I still went to thrift stores occasionally, but I started to like the thrill of that “something new.” It didn’t take long for me to accumulate a closet full of cute, dirt-cheap clothes. But it never occurred to me that these clothes had background stories, as well.
Until about a year ago, I never thought about who made my clothing. I didn’t think about where my clothes would end up after just a few months of wear or if my buying was wasteful (it was). Many Americans do the same. We buy clothes and then dispose of them. And, as we continue to buy more and more, our “throwaways” pile up in landfills, biodegrading for decades.
According to the book Overdressed, Americans’ spending over time has changed drastically in regard to clothes. In 1900, the average family’s annual income was $750, with over 15% spent on clothing. Today, consumers spend less than 3% of their annual income on apparel. It’s the lowest amount we’ve ever spent on dressing ourselves but it’s never bought more, thanks to how cheaply made clothes are today. When I would pick up new sandals on a whim, I would never wonder about their “story,” like I had my thrift finds. In my mind, they didn’t have unique tales to tell—especially when I walked around campus and saw them on five other girls.
Why Clothes are Cheap
The truth is that all clothes have a story to tell: what they’re made of, where they came from, who made them—a garment can tell you all these things. For the American consumer’s garment, the typical answers to those questions are: polyester, China and an underpaid factory worker.
American clothing companies outsource the majority of production because labor is much cheaper overseas. Overdressed notes that the United States currently makes only 2% of the clothing its consumers purchase, compared to about 50% in 1990. China makes nearly half of our clothing, followed by countries like Vietnam, Bangladesh and Indonesia.
Google any country’s minimum wage, and you’ll know how much a garment worker makes. China doesn’t have a set minimum wage, but most workers make $1-$2.50 per hour. In Bangladesh, it’s less than $1. While cost of living is lower in those countries, that amount isn’t near a “living wage,” what's needed to provide basic necessities like food and shelter. The bottom line is bleak: Cheap clothes equal cheap labor.
But wages aren’t the only problem. In factories, working and living conditions are often unclean and unsafe. In 2013, the Rana Plaza building, which housed several garment factories, collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Despite warning signs of structural safety, more than 1,000 people were killed due to its hasty, substandard construction.
Imago Dei and the Role of Stewardship
The workers getting paid next-to-nothing to make our clothes in dangerous environments are human beings. They are made in the image of God, and that image is often being mistreated and abused.
As Christians, we are supposed to protect the vulnerable in society, to be a voice for the voiceless. James 1:27 calls us to care for orphans and widows—those most often affected by the garment industry’s abuses. Sweatshops use child labor in order to meet the demands of production. Women work more than 10 hours a day just to provide necessities for their families, never earning enough to save for the future.
This issue isn’t primarily about clothing—it’s about people. And it’s absolutely complex. We’ll only scratch the surface of the conversation here. But James 5:1-6 reveals that how we treat the poor is of vital importance to God. The Lord hears the cries of the oppressed and is displeased with their oppressors. When our clothing choices are shaped only by our own needs or preferences, something in our hearts is askew. We are laying up treasure in the wrong place.
In the church, we often talk about the importance of stewarding our resources. In regard to finances, not many would argue against the importance of giving to the local church, supporting missions or tackling college debt. But we don’t often talk about how we might steward our discretionary spending as if it, too, matters. It does. So how can we better steward our resources in the area of clothing? Where do we even begin?
The Smallest Step Counts
If you’re thinking about how you can’t afford ethically made clothing—reconsider. While it does often come with a higher price tag, “ethical” isn’t always about spending more—it’s about buying more thoughtfully. Whether you’re making decisions for yourself or a family of five, here are six suggestions of how you might begin to shift your clothing consumption patterns.
1. Don’t always buy new.
It’s easy to get addicted to the allure of “something new.” But constant buying stimulates the demand for production and cheap labor. Instead, see if you can find whatever you’re looking for at a thrift store, garage sale or on eBay. Rather than creating that demand for new products, shopping resale allows you to recycle and repurpose what’s already out there.
2. Do your research.
If you do decide to buy clothes new, dig a little deeper into the company’s values. Who makes their clothing? Where are their factories? Do they have a policy on labor and fair wages? What are the working conditions of their workers? Transparency is key, and brands that emphasize ethical standards will often make the answers to those questions clear on their website.
3. Buy local.
When at all possible, buy clothes from a maker or boutique that creates their products locally. Not only will you give the economy a boost, but you can meet the creator of your garment, or at least trace the chain of how it was made. Social media and Etsy are great resources for finding nearby clothing and accessory designers.
4. Make and mend your clothes.
Just a few generations ago, people often made their own clothing. If a shirt got a tear or hole from wear, they mended it. They didn’t throw it away and buy a whole new shirt. We may not all have the time and ability to sew our entire wardrobe. My last sewing project was trying to make a purse when I was 11 (it wasn’t pretty). Since then, I’ve felt too intimidated to even reattach a button. But learning a few basic sewing skills can extend the life of our clothes.
5. Reuse and reduce.
Before you throw clothing out, consider how you might reuse the materials. Create something new or collect scraps for washcloths or bibs. If you decide to donate, first consider where your clothing is truly needed. Thrift stores are a wonderful option, but often they receive more than they can realistically sell.
6. Buy less.
Invest slowly in fewer, quality pieces and don’t buy duplicates. Most of us end up wearing a few favorite items week in and week out anyway. You can go a step further by wearing those clothes multiple times before washing them. Doing so extends the life of your clothes and is environmentally friendly, as well. Pare down your wardrobe to what you truly need and love—and have the time and energy to take care of.
Making an Impact
The point here isn’t to make you feel guilty but to make you more aware. You probably can’t make all these changes at once; it takes time. But you can start—even if it’s just one small step. I no longer own most of my thrift store finds from high school (I grew out of my fringe vest phase). But whether I keep my clothing for decades or pass it on to someone else, I want to be part of the story.
By stewarding what God has given us and directing our dollars toward what’s good and honorable and noble and pure, we can begin to reshape the market toward more ethical practices. Our choices affect the wellbeing of others. Caring for image bearers of God who are most vulnerable to the abuses of the garment industry—often widows and orphans—is kingdom work. Those are the stories we should think about when we look at a store’s racks and stacks of clothing. What’s the story behind that shirt you want to buy? More importantly, who is the story behind it?