“Slow Fashion” is Ethical Fashion

Reader Contribution by Mary Ekstrand
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I was a new mom with not enough hours in the day to think about my wardrobe and not enough money to buy new. A charity re-sale shop was my destination shopping spot. So when my mother invited the family for lunch with a distant relative visiting from Sweden, I can remember puzzling—no, agonizing—over what to wear. The woman worked in fashion design! I loved my mother and didn’t want to embarrass her. I finally went to my closet and grabbed a blue and white striped cotton long-sleeved shirt I’d  found in a thrift shop and put it under a white pullover sweatshirt. And jeans—part of my daily uniform. Simple was the best I could pull off in this situation.

The Swedish fashion designer was elegant, of course—beautiful, and not at all over-dressed for our very casual family. Over lunch my sister asked the inevitable question, “So what is the ‘in-fashion’ in Sweden now?”

She thought for a moment and then pointed to me, “Much like what Mary is wearing—simple, layered….” I don’t remember the rest of her comments, but she made my day!  I still have that striped cotton shirt, some 35 years later, even though the cotton has worn quite thin.

That experience was part of what made me into the re-sale shop junkie I am today. Apparently, many of you are, too. High-end consignment shops and big box thrift stores are popping up faster than tattoo parlors next to taverns.

I’ve been chasing down re-sale shops for almost 40 years. I’ve gloated over finding an almost new Ralph Lauren black sweater for a few dollars, and I’ve cried over a beautiful knit turquoise throw I bought for the sofa. Somewhere between the washing machine and the living room, it turned into 50,000 cute little spider-sized shawls.

This was one of my first finds in a thrift shop over 50 years ago. A coat of varnish on the wood, and a dark green paint on the body brought it back to life. It’s been a terrific storage unit since then.

Having babies was my introduction to bargain hunting. Babies grow way faster than weeds. Mine never had a chance to wear out clothing, even when they were crawling, and their pudgy little knees were red by bedtime. Every three months I was moving them into a whole new set of clothing.  We were living on a tight budget, so by the time they began to wear out clothing faster, I was ready for those thrift shop runs. Kids’ clothing was expensive—but not where I was shopping.

I learned to think of this as a lending library situation. I kept a bag or two handy for clothing and household items we weren’t using and dropped it at the charity re-sale shop whenever I made a stop there to hunt for treasures.

Then I started browsing adult clothing. I have a difficult time buying an item and knowing whether I like it until I’ve worn it a few times. Is it comfortable? Do I really like that color on me? What was I thinking when I bought this?  Donating barely worn new clothing wasn’t an option for my budget. Besides that, I noticed that my thrift shop finds were unique—I never ran into anyone wearing the same outfit I was.

I had a few friends doing the same thing, but not many. Today “slow fashion,” like “slow food” is the new name of the game, and I’m gratified to finally, after all these years, be a member of the “in” crowd.

Elizabeth Cline in her book, The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, claims that when we fall into the trap of buying cheap, trendy, poor quality clothing, we’re not only wasteful. Only a tiny percentage of this clothing is produced here in this country. Most comes from polluted textile factories with poor working conditions in other countries.

“Ethical fashion,” she suggests, is “make, alter and mend” The other option she suggests is buying recycled, organic and locally made items.

You’re probably familiar with most of the cautions if you buy at consignment or thrift shops. Find some good light to examine your item in detail. Buttons? Working zipper? Seams intact? Rips? And my favorite—be sure to check the care label. Does it need hand washing or dry-cleaning? If you have a sewing machine, resurrect it. A quick, easy adjustment or repair on a quality item could give it a happy new life with you.

Some people advise a “sniff test.” Probably a good idea, although I don’t always remember, and I’ve never been stung. I recently saw a complaint in an advice column about a housemate. No, they got along great, but the housemate had one flaw—she was a second-hand clothing store junkie, which the complainer felt was “disgusting.” She worried about bedbugs. Bedbugs? She’s got to be crazy! I’ve yet to see bugs of any kind in these shops. However, if I was buying an upholstered piece, I’d be a little more cautious. I’d sniff, search, and scrutinize, even before I’d dare to sit on it to test the “feel.”

Buy seasonal clothing at the beginning of the season. The racks will be full. As the months pass, they become more and more picked over. By late August you’re looking at garish, multi-colored, striped shirts and tacky t-shirts with messages like, “Sometimes something amazing comes along and here I am.”

Buying re-sale is not for the faint of heart. Sometimes you must plow through a lot of duds before you find a jewel, something like kissing frogs to find the prince. And you meet some interesting characters when you’re not running into friends. I was in a big re-sale store recently and turned my back on my cart that held several items. When I turned around, a woman had picked a shirt out of my cart, was holding it up and inspecting it. I fought the urge to grab it back. What to do? Finally, I smiled at her and said, “Isn’t that a great shirt I found? I really like it!” She didn’t say anything (and she didn’t smile), but she put it back down, left, and avoided a confrontation. I loved that top and wasn’t about to give it away.

And sometimes it just makes sense to ignore all the rules. I saw an article once that warned readers to never buy used rain gear. However, several years ago I bought a white three-quarter length raincoat with a hood and a white fake-fur lining for $12. I didn’t recognize the label name and it didn’t have a care label. It has seen me through an elegant (but wet!) barn wedding and many damp, grubby walks in my neighborhood.

Don’t underestimate the entertainment and fun in these shops! It’s treasure hunting at its finest. I remember the time when a friend’s niece and her husband went to the city for a quick visit. They’d brought only casual clothing, so when they scored some opera tickets, they had no dressy clothes to wear. They promptly headed to the closest Goodwill and bought appropriate clothing—including a frilly summer hat for her. They emailed a photo of themselves in their finery to friends.

I’m to a time in my life when those babies have grown and gone. I’m trying to pare down and simplify, preparing for the time when I’ll need to move out of my big house into something smaller. Last summer, with friends, I hosted a giant garage sale. Everything that was left went to a charity shop that came and collected it. I’m still going through my house, deciding what items really “give me joy.” I continue to “thin.”

My last visit to my favorite thrift shop, however, just about undid all my good efforts. I noticed the most wonderful rattan elephant—about the size of a kitchen table. It was so beautiful that I paused to check the price tag. $25! I could afford that! As I stood and admired this elegant creature, I thought about everything I had just moved out of my house. Where would I put this gorgeous animal? Only then was I able to move on.

But I still think about that elephant. I think it could have given me an elephant-sized amount of joy….