Changing Our Clothes for Good

I blame my friend, Cassie. 

Last spring, she penned this post about buying quality instead of buying quantity, and it didn't sit well with me. Probably because I owned too many pairs of Target tops and Gap jeans, and sometimes the truth stings a little bit.

I blame the Europe trip.

We packed a carry-on each and suddenly I had 1 dress, 6 tops, and 3 bottoms at my disposal to create a month's worth of fashion. Oh, and a scarf. When we got back to the States, I took one look at my closet and thought, "I can live well on so much less."

I blame clothing swaps.

One of the more brilliant ideas on the campus where I live and work is The Common Exchange, a place for gently worn items from students' closets to collect and then find a new home. As I write this, I'm wearing a mint and navy striped long-sleeve tee from TCE. One student's trash, another Resident Director's treasure. Genius.

This is my closet on a good day.

This is my closet on a good day.

Changing my clothes for good is not just about owning nice stuff. It's a combination of two desires: 1. To pare down the unnecessary items that are more about momentary trend than elegant function. 2. To invest my shopping money in a way that aligns with my values. As consumers, our dollars have a power of which we're largely unconscious, and no more does that small dollar hold sway than in the clothing aisle.

Do me a favor. Check the tag on the back of your shirt. Ever been to that country where it was made? Yah, me neither. Ever wondered what sort of conditions it was made under? Or whether the worker who stitched that shirt earns a fair wage for her family? Or whether that worker is a child, forced into labor?

Those are tough questions, but they don't have to overwhelm us.

The answers can be as simple as the dollar in our back pockets, the stores where we spend our money, and what we think about when we think about buying new clothes.

Here's what I'm proposing:

-Give more than you get. When you're ready to add a new piece of clothing to your closet, take two items out. Eventually, you'll get to a point where the items you own are in regular rotation, not just lurking in the back of your closet, waiting to make an appearance at that 80's-themed costume party that no on is going to throw.

-When it's time for something new, take your time. I'm a big believer in the wait-a-week rule. If you're torn about purchasing a garment that you see online or on the rack, don't give it a good home it just yet. Wait a week, and if it's still on your mind, go back and buy it. I've heard this rule applied mostly in regards to the look of the garment, but I think the same rule can also be a good buffer against the materialistic, more-is-more tendencies that are so ingrained into our culture's consciousness. So take it easy. And while you're waiting, think about these questions: "Do I know wear this garment is made?" "Am I comfortable purchasing it without the assurance that it stands for humane treatment?" and, "Can I get a similar item from a store that is transparent about its manufacturing?" More on that last questions below...

Everlane's tote bag in Fig.

Everlane's tote bag in Fig.

-Find out where your stuff was made.  You may be a little skeptical of finding an answer to that third question I mentioned above. We consumers don't have a great track record with knowing the source of the stuff that fills our lives, whether it's frozen chicken breasts or crisp, collared Oxfords, and most companies don't make it any easier. But as factory explosions continue to make international headlines, companies that place transparency at the forefront of their businesses are gaining speed and getting noticed. Take Everlane for example, a small-scale company based in San Francisco that takes tours and photos of the factories where their products get made, then shares that information with their customers. Another company, JOYN, represents the sort of economic empowerment that is changing communities in the developing world by creating stylish accessories. That kind of mindful accountability and community-oriented fashion is the future of the clothing industry and that's a very bright prospect.

I haven't worn those wooden hoops in three years. Gulp.

I haven't worn those wooden hoops in three years. Gulp.

I drove into Boston yesterday to participate in a market research group for one of my favorite clothing companies. They asked us what we want to see from them that they don't already offer. It was a golden opportunity to preach my socially conscious gospel: Tell us where you made your stuff. Use your fashion capital to empower others. Be the kind of company that deserves a mindful customer's money.

My comment didn't change the clothing industry in an instant, but their interest was piqued, and I left feeling like even the small things, like the words we say and the way we spend our dollars, might actually matter in a pretty big way.

If you're the kind of person that thinks about your wardrobe, join me in making your closet more meaningful. Be generous with the stuff you now possess. Think critically about adding items to your closet. Use your dollar to empower those who deserve to earn a fair wage in healthy working conditions.

There's nothing more stylish than a customer who knows he's changing his clothes, and the world, for good.