I nodded politely while quietly massaging my slightly bruised ego. She didn’t seem to notice her faux pas and carried on describing her altruistic offspring. I let her ramble while my thoughts drifted to other places.
It’s not that I don’t find sympathy with her son’s viewpoint, I am fully aware that frivolous consumerism and waste are the by-products of the clothing industry. In fact, American clothing designer, Eileen Fisher, states that the fashion industry is the world’s second largest polluter between excessive water needs (for crops and dyeing); carbon emissions from transportation (most clothing is made in the far east and makes its way to the far west); waste by-products in the production of synthetic materials and dyeing, the use of oil to make the ubiquitous nylon, polyester and rayon; and poorly made or “disposable” clothes (it is estimated that Millennials are consuming five times the number of apparel products as the generation before them and then discarding much of it). This does not even take into account the exploited workers behind the manufacturing process made worse by today’s unquenchable thirst for fast fashion.
While I am fortunate to work for a company that uses, for the most part, natural fibres, and takes their environmental stewardship seriously, I am still part of the retail industry and hence part of the problem: I encourage people to buy more, probably much more than what they need.
So, yes, the retail industry has negative, even dire consequences to life as we know it. But clerks, business owners and suppliers, are only part of the problem. Consumers are the backbone of retail sales. They have the power to make businesses change: if consumers demand more environmentally safe products, stop buying disposal clothing and refuse to buy clothes made by unfair and unsafe labour practices, retailers will have to adapt.
I thought about this as the woman left the store. I knew she would be back again, buying more clothes for herself and her family. I also knew she was making a fairly decent choice in shopping at our store, but still, our clothes are not locally made, are dyed, and are made with a small percentage of synthetic material. Does she really need to buy so much? Do I really need to encourage her to buy more?
As I write this I am torn between critique and gratitude. Her purchases earn me a living. Who am I to judge when I benefit from this women's eagerness to buy. So, let’s take her out of the picture and focus on one of my purchasing decisions. Although I am not a big consumer of clothes I make other questionable choices. For example, I tend to buy organic produce—regardless of how far it has to travel to get to my table—over locally produced conventional produce. My reasoning is that I want to promote farmers who use earth friendly farming practices. However, my choice is contributing to greenhouse emissions. Its a conscious choice I make but one I question with every purchase.Responsible consumerism takes into account all aspects of the manufacturing/growing process. Unless the purchase is made from locally sourced items (with no harmful waste by-products), with fair-trade labour and within a short distance from home, every item we buy—clothes, food, entertainment, gas—affects our environment. Every purchase we make is a political statement.
As consumers we hold the power. As consumers, the choice is ours. The question is, are we conscious of this choice?
Check out the newest excerpt from my book, Notes from the Bottom of the Box, at The Modern-Day Renaissance Woman blog for another take on this issue.
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