Thoughts on ethical consumption of work clothing, and some of my mother’s enduring wisdom.
When I went home for the holidays this year, my mother and grandmother joined forces to buy me my first suit for Christmas. In addition to helping me deal with this major startup cost, the shopping trip came with some pearls of wisdom from my mother that I want to share.
I want to preface this by saying that while we found the suit, I failed to make ethical consumption choices, or rather, I made unethical choices. You can see my last post on the idea of ethical consumption (an inspiring fairytale), and I wanted to be upfront with the drastic difference between my ideals and my practices, at least for now. What my mother taught me on this little adventure will help me make better choices in the future, but there is still more work to be done.
After about 20 hours, two dozen stores, and countless pieces of clothing tried on, squinted at, and cast aside, here are the little gems of wisdom from my mother, through me, to you.
1) Be patient.
This should be a no-brainer, but it is incredibly frustrating to find clothing that you like, that fits you as it should. Furthermore, shopping for pieces of quality that will hopefully last the test of time is increasingly difficult – selecting a brand because of it’s reputation may have worked 15 years ago, but those days are over and done with. It means saving up for what you really want, it means going to as many stores as necessary or doing as much research as you need to find the best kind of clothing for you, your body, and your budget.
2) You’re in charge of your money, so act like it.
Brands use their clothing to compete for your business, and while the idea of wearing a particular name because of its signal value may be fun, if the clothing fails to compete, you don’t buy it. Again, another simple rule, but it’s one that I still needed to hear.
I’m still young enough to be seduced by the idea of a J. Crew sweater or a Brooks Brothers shirt, but the fact is that when I tried on their clothing, the J. Crew proportion were nightmarish, and not a single store representative in Brooks Brothers came up to us greet us or assist us in any way with the selection of one of their products.
If a brand can’t compete with its clothing, it’s not a brand worth buying. This idea extends itself into ethical consumption – even if something fits well and feels good, if it wasn’t made ethically, it can’t compete. That’s a harder kind of item to turn away from, and I definitely failed this time around.
3) Respect your body: dress for your reality, not for your ego.
Another hard truth for me, from mom, with love. We are short women, and with vanity sizing be what it is, I clothing sized from small to large, and depending on who you ask I wear anything from a 6 to a 10. Considering this current state of affairs, sizing feels like a useless as an indicator for what flatters my body.
Recent trends that favour loose, square cuts, and loads of draping are decidedly unhelpful – they’re almost impressively unflattering. With my hair being as long as it is right now, these trends leave me with a style that falls somewhere between “rumpled Biblical realness” and “shrunken cult member.”
So sure, I have to remember to keep searching until I find something that flatters my body, but what does this mean in practice? It means endurance (see point 1) that flows from the idea that I can’t settle for something that will have me turning up to work like I nearly drank the kool-aid over the weekend. It means keeping track of what works, who makes it, and what I know I like to wear. I don’t have to reject trends outright, but I do have to embrace the idea that what flatters me may be decidedly off-trend.
My mother approaches the fit and feel of clothing with a French kind of disdain; if the clothing doesn’t flatter you, it has failed, not the other way around. She reminded me over and over that if this cut or that style of suit pant was unflattering, I didn’t need to try and force myself to look decent in it. I needed to move on and try something different. That attitude is an especially important thing to take with me into dressing rooms when I’m by myself and feeling laid low by yet another pair of low-rise, wide-leg pants.
4) Think through my purchases ahead of time, and know where to look first.
Part of point 3 is keeping track of who makes clothing with cuts and proportions that are flattering, which helps in the practice of point 4. If I do my research well in advance – what kind of piece am I searching for, in which colours, fabrics, or cuts, which brands offer these kinds of clothing and how many of those brands are ethically producing their goods – then I’m much less likely to get overwhelmed at the shops and make a poor choice.
Like half of the planet, I use Pinterest boards to keep track of the colours that I wear most frequently, and to try and keep a general picture of what I like in mind when doing my online research. I use www.ethicalconsumer.org to search brands that come on my radar, and I have a running Google Sheet of a few possibilities that are available in brick-and-mortar shops in Paris. People Tree stockists are at the top of my list for future purchases, as well as Veja for sneakers. I’ll visit these stores first, because part of actually making it from start to purchase is resisting the urge to give up and buy something just to be done with it.
Even if you do wind up fatigued and staring wild-eyed into a dressing room mirror, having a little checklist in your head or on your phone of what you are looking for is important. This makes it easier to say, “I’m not finding what I’m looking for and so I’m going to leave” even when you’re feeling overwhelmed and vulnerable to making a purchase as a means to put yourself out of your misery.
By the time we made it through the suit-shopping wormhole and out the other side, I had reflected on these four pieces of wisdom and practiced them over and over. I eventually settled on a suit from Banana Republic. It was the only thing that fit me well without requiring a heroic tailoring effort (although I still intend to shorten the sleeves) and I feel confident every time I put it on.
My main regret is that Banana Republic’s production practices are very likely unethical, considering that they’re owned by Gap and likely use the same slave labor and unsafe water practices. Gap has apparently improved its practices in the last 5 years, but I’m not convinced…
We bought a shell by Calvin Klein, which holds an unfortunate D on the “rankabrand” sustainability scale. Finally, we bought a sky blue cashmere sweater from Premise Cashmere, and despite being carried by several large brands, Premise has a worryingly limited web presence, leading me to believe that they’re not likely to be an ethical brand.
In addition to the ethical guidelines I laid out for myself in earlier posts, I’m taking these four pieces of wisdom with me in the hopes of guiding myself to more ethical, sustainable, and timeless choices once I am able to shop more frequently.