This afternoon, to reward myself for a morning of hard writing work and because I couldn’t stand using my brain for one minute more, I went looking online for a new winter coat. Online shopping is fun where real-life shopping is stressful: I don’t have to get all sweaty and frustrated in a fitting room, and I don’t feel driven to buy something to justify the time I’ve spent negotiating crowded stores. I can just look.
But on this occasion, actually, I wanted to buy. I had seen an ad on some fashion blog for these gorgeous cloaks made by designer Lindsey Thornburg. That’s what I want!, I thought. Not a dorky old coat like I’ve worn every year, all fastened into it like a Stay-Puft straight-jacket. I want to swoosh around in soft fabrics that sort of wrap around and hang off me, all cool and chic. Visions of Denise Huxtable danced in my head. But talk about getting sweaty: The cloaks cost between $600 and $1200, and as beautiful as they are I couldn’t justify spending that much money on one piece of clothing.
Maybe other people make nice cloaks / capes / cape-coats, I thought. I toggled the terms and did some Google searching and to my surprise etsy shops kept popping up. I like etsy, which is an online craft marketplace where makers of all kinds of things can sell them. I’ve had my own etsy shop for quite a few years now; I use it to sell my zines and other paper crafts. But to my total dismay I soon understood that many of the stores that were offering the—trendy, cute, and inexpensive—coats I liked were being sold by overseas clothing manufacturers posing as craftspeople. The vast majority of these were located in China. The same thing has happened on ebay, if you’ve noticed, though this doesn’t have quite the same meaning since that site has no requirement that the things sold there be “handmade.”
Today, and for the last twenty years or so now, most of the clothes we Americans buy have not been made in the U.S., but in poorer countries where the legal hourly wage is much lower. I know that you know this. But did you know that Americans now buy an average of 64 pieces of new clothing a year? That one reason we’re able to get clothing as cheaply as we now can is that huge “fast fashion” retailers like H&M and Target can order clothes in previously unheard-of quantities, a production rate that is devastating for the environment? Or that more than 40 percent of the clothing now produced worldwide is made of plastic in the form of polyester and other synthetic fabrics?
I didn’t, not really, until I read Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, by Elizabeth Cline. Cline, a journalist and first-time author, talks about sweatshop labor in the tradition of books like The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy. But she goes beyond this and looks at something else: Our hunger for excessively cheap clothes and trends that cycle in and out every week or two, and the massive machine that keeps it all moving.
This is a serious problem. Unfortunately—very unfortunately—it’s a problem that’s hard to feel. Cheap clothes are everywhere, looking bright and cheerful, and few of us Americans have actually seen, firsthand, the environmental desolation caused by all the unsustainable factory production in other parts of the world. (Cline writes that after visiting China's Guangdong Province, where polyester plants and electronics factories are clustered, her throat ached, her eyes burned, and she got a sinus infection that lingered for months.) It’s not the 90s anymore, and people who talk about conspicuous consumption and petroleum products don’t get invited back to parties. Furthermore, our economy sucks right now—ironically, in large part because we’ve outsourced almost all of our factory work to other countries—and a lot of us are out of work or working jobs where we can’t get enough hours, enough pay, or any health insurance. If things aren’t really cheap we might not be able to buy them at all. We’ve come to expect cute clothing—and electronics, and other entertainment and luxury goods—to be about as inexpensive as we want it to be, and where there’s a demand, there will always, always be a supply, even when the toll is human lives.
I found Cline’s book fascinating and distressing. It would have moved me to make some serious life changes if I’d read it ten years ago, when I was a frequent lunchtime H&M shopper. But I don’t go into malls or other stores that sell new clothing very often anymore. This isn’t because I’m not vain about how I look (!!! trust me), or because I’m so morally superior that I always make the unselfish choice. It’s because at this point I buy almost all the things I need and want secondhand, and I do so because it’s frugal, interesting, and fun. I know this isn’t terribly unusual of me, and also that it is not revolutionary. Except that it is, in a small way—a way I can feel.
I have a million thrift shop victory stories. Let me tell you one. A few weeks ago I discovered a junk store in an outer suburb of Philadelphia, a sweet and down-to-earth town with a thriving main street filled with small local businesses and a commuter train that goes right through its center. And this store, it’s incredible. It’s dank in there—they said something about the front half of the store being heated with electricity and the back with oil, and they were still waiting for the month’s oil delivery, yeesh—and its darkness and clutter would probably repel a more casual shopper. This is how I knew it would be good. This place has more records than some small record stores I’ve been to and, pinned to big bolts of fabric hanging on the walls over the crates of records, some woman’s enormous collection of band buttons from the ‘70s-’90s. (The place sells on consignment, and the owner told me about the person who brought those in.) I found a Fad Gadget button and a Human League one, and ones with Bobby Brown with a hi-top fade! I also found a stack of papers in the magazine section that were some kind of survey about nuclear energy taken by college students in the 1940s. Point is, all the clothing, including shoes, cost $1.50 apiece. I bought a beautiful light blue sweater that’s embellished with beads and ribbon and has gathered sleeves and shoulder pads, a pair of black ankle boots, and a terrible teal pants suit (which I wanted for the pants only) that I don’t think I’ll be able to keep because, oh gosh, it really looks bad. I plan to wear the sweater on New Year’s Eve, though I may have to have it laundered first. It was such a fun way to spend a blank Saturday afternoon.
Cline writes that one of the ways we have tended to give ourselves permission to buy trendy clothing that we don’t need is the idea that there is always a “poor African” who will be grateful for our donation when we’re through with it. She says this is pretty much a fantasy at this point, and this dangerous thinking—besides being arrogant and insidiously racist—is instead helping to fill landfills with fabrics that won’t break down for like a hundred years, and leak poisons into our soil and water supply as they do. But if you buy the stuff used in the first place, it’s got to be an improvement, right? When I’m tired of a piece of clothing or it no longer fits me, I give it away to a thrift store again, sometimes the same one I bought it from.
Having bought mostly secondhand things for several years now has changed my attitude toward objects and ownership in an interesting way. I do have things I’d hate to lose, but for the most part it feels like I have an apartment full of knick-knacks and books and shoes on loan, like I’m lucky to get to look at and wear all these neat things and it’s extra special and sort of poignant too because I know they’re not really mine. This is a more light-hearted and also more emotionally engaged attitude than the shackled sense of fretful responsibility I have felt toward things I paid a lot of money for. Like, go ahead and steal it, it was practically free. Knowing that something once belonged to someone else—coupled with the fact that I paid only a dollar or maybe ten for it—makes my ownership of that thing feel less real, temporary, like the universe is my big sister and I’m borrowing stuff from her closet. I’ll give it back soon, I promise.
It happens that Cline’s book came out the same month as my first book, White Elephants, a small memoir which is, in a nutshell, about going to yard sales with my mom. It ends up also being about my relationship with her and my deceased father, and whatnot, but it really is honestly also a book about stuff. About the piggy banks, teacups, clip-on earrings, picture frames, typewriters, paperbacks and, yes, heaps of clothing I’ve bought for next to nothing in church basements and on people’s front lawns, and about the pleasure I get from imagining these objects’ history or even meeting the people who own them and want to tell me about them.
In her book, Cline addresses the problem of true “vintage” clothing (anything older than 20 years) being picked over by resellers and given a high price tag at hip boutiques, and she talks in a doomy way about how everything at the Salvation Army these days is just some tired-looking thing from Target or Old Navy. (Indeed, because to the rapid production of “fast fashion” clothes, even thrift stores can’t keep up with all the donations they receive. They end up having to throw many of these new clothes away.) But this was the one part of the book I couldn’t fully relate to. I go to a thrift store or yard sale once a week on average, and I’m always able to find legit old clothing that is weird and wonderful and much better made than most things you find new these days. That said, I’ll wear the crappy sparkly fast-fashion top, too, if I can get it secondhand. Is this immoral or hypocritical of me in some way? Or is buying the thing new what keeps the big bad machine in gear? I’m not sure I know the answer to that. These are confusing problems, and I love glitter.
Cline writes that the lesson she’d like people to take away from her book is not that they can never again buy something new, or that they should go off the grid and start making all their own clothes (though she found, by taking sewing lessons, that knowing how to make and alter things is deeply satisfying and far from impossible). She wasn’t interested in making us feel ashamed or guilty. She placed the blame where it belongs: On the big, greedy companies who have created a marketplace where, depending on where you live, it can be basically impossible to buy new clothing that wasn’t produced by people working in dangerous conditions or in a way, and at a rate, that is ruinous to our environment. What she wants, she says, is for people to be mindful when they buy new things. To not let clothing be an impulse purchase, just because it’s cheap. For us to treat our belongings with respect because they were made by a human being, and only a spoiled brat throws her nice things all over the floor.
That’s one of the things I like most about secondhand shopping—that thoughtfulness. I like having to dig for my treasure, to not know what I’ll find, and to fill my home with things that vibrate with other people’s energy. It’s neat to think that mine will be the life someone else imagines when I pass my stuff along to them.
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' hit music video, "Thrift Shop feat. Wanz"