Decent Clothes: Shopping with a Conscience


You can still enjoy new things while contributing to a more sustainable global economy, writes Sya Taha.

Image: Photl
Image: Photl

After the disastrous collapse of the eight-storey Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh in April, which killed more than 1100 people, major retailers like Walmart, H&M, Primark, Benetton, Mango, Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger have been put in the spotlight. By outsourcing their production to low-income countries like Bangladesh, they implicitly encourage dangerous working conditions and environmental pollution through low wages and a lack of regulation for safe working conditions.

Cheap clothing comes with a price, often paid dearly by those who are the most marginalised in the global economy: women, the less educated, and those with limited working opportunities.

Starting on September 21, workers took matters into their own hands by blocking roads and setting fire to factories outside Dhaka. Their actions were aimed at demanding a minimum wage of 8000 taka (about US$100) per month. Previously, in 2010, similar demonstrations forced factory owners and the government to agree to a minimum monthly wage of 3000 taka (about US$38).

While some say that these jobs are better than no jobs at all, we should keep in mind that while people need to work, they also want to work with dignity. It’s easy to blame garment factory workers who are suffering for the predicament they are in, but it takes more effort to look at the wider structural problems that created such vulnerable conditions in the first place.

Here are some small steps that you can take if you want to make more socially conscious clothing choices:

1.     Educate yourself

You can start by looking at the labels of the clothing you buy. Most companies indicate the countries where the product was made. Use this as a starting point to read up about the supply chains of your favourite clothing companies.

2.     Take action

Write them emails to ask where their materials are from, the location of their factories, whether they have signed any agreements to ensure safe and decent working conditions, and if they’ve started making concrete efforts. Minimise your spending at retailers who are not making any efforts to promote sustainable or ethical production methods.

3.     Embrace pre-loved clothing

Those of us who grew up with several older siblings are no stranger to this. If you are the first child in your family, you may have enjoyed new clothes for most of your life. If you are the second or subsequent child, you would have worn hand-me-downs probably from the day you were born. As children grow rapidly, pre-loved clothing from their older siblings or cousins are often as good as new.

4.     Organise a clothing swap

Sometimes it’s just the novelty of buying a new piece that gets us excited about shopping. What if we could get the same high, without paying anything? Get together with your favourite group of friends, bring a few pieces of clothing that you don’t wear anymore (or have never worn for some reason), throw them in a pile and dig in!

5.     Support small business owners

Empower small business owners in your community by voting with your dollars. After your clothing swap, you might bring home a blouse with a print that you love, but it doesn’t fit you well. Bring your new piece to your local tailor and get it altered for a few dollars. It’s cheaper than a new top, and you’ve managed to recycle a pre-loved piece.

Comb through flea markets or small local shops, or try online shops like Etsy or Lilyshop that allow you to purchase directly from independent artisans. Alternatively, source out ethical companies in your country or region.


Each small step we take to support local clothing producers, minimise our spending at clothing corporations (at least until they significantly improve working conditions in their factories), and reduce the demand for brand-new cheap clothing, is a small step towards a more sustainable global economy and a clearer conscience.

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