Sunday, October 30, 2016

Negotiating Ethics-- Slow Fashion October Week 4

This month has felt very slow indeed as I have taken more time than ever before to think and write about what I wear, what I make, and why it matters. These posts have not come easily, but through patience and sometimes force of will I have managed to write my way into a kind of understanding of where I stand with my wardrobe-- and I have been getting dressed slowly and thoughtfully, and I feel less hurried to add new things. But still so many more thoughts remain and questions that have no easy answers. Karen's prompt for this week is Known Sources:

Good (especially good and affordable) sources of yarn and fabric with traceable origins. And for the things we buy, favorite sources: from small-batch designer-producers to fashion companies trying to do the right thing in a transparent way.

I have been having a harder time with this topic than any of the others. Maybe it's that fatigue has set in a bit, or maybe it just feels like there is way too much to say when we bring up ethics, about doing the right thing. I have written about failures and guilt, overbuying and under-wearing my clothes, because it feels honest and transparent to me at this moment, and I do want to make better choices, ones that I can feel good about. But I keep stumbling over this notion of "feeling good." My mind has been occupied in particular by this post by Suze, and this one by Simone, as well as this essay with its cheerful title: Being moral means you can never do enough.  Does feeling good-- or less guilty-- about our personal choices mean that we have done "enough"? What if we never can do enough with good intentions-- and enough money to opt out of buying cheap clothes? What then? 

The ability to buy your way out of an ethical dilemma is a privilege that few have. If we're going to talk about transparency and ethics, I think we need to address this. And please understand that I am speaking as someone with the means to spend a bit more on my clothes-- I include myself in my own scrutiny, in fact I'm usually first in line. 

A lot of what I read about Slow Fashion is tinged with nostalgia for the way things were-- before Fast Fashion, before the garment industry relocated to low-income countries without labor or environmental regulations. Clothes cost more and for that reason most people had fewer of them. Having a closet full of nice things was a sign of wealth and privilege-- still is, for that matter-- or else a lifetime of smart shopping, but I suspect that most people made do with what they could afford and made those things last because they had to, not because they were necessarily satisfied with what they had. Now many of us can afford closets that are stuffed full, clothes can be worn or not worn, kept or discarded, based on our preferences rather than need-- and I think that many people are satisfied with this. Before, we were accidentally, or incidentally, ethical in our clothing habits, for the most part-- I would rather not complicate things further by bringing up the realities of garment work and the lax environmental protections of the good old days. Today, the default mode of garment manufacturing and consumption is an unqualified human rights and environmental disaster (see The True Cost or read Overdressed) and making ethical choices is so much harder than being accidentally ethical because we can have what the majority of us wanted all along-- cheap, abundant, stylish (or at least trendy) clothes. It's soothing to imagine an idealized past when getting dressed, when just buying underwear for Heaven's sake didn't feel like such a moral quagmire, but do we really want to trade places with our great-grandmothers who had one dress for everyday and one for Sunday best? Maybe feeling good about our choices is what we sacrifice to have so many of them?

When I wrote my first post on this topic, I thought of Slow Fashion as a way to reconcile my desire to dress well with my ideals and ethics. Now I'm not sure that those things can be reconciled, especially if leading a moral life really is a never-ending journey-- and I think it probably is. Negotiation might be a better way to describe it-- making small sacrifices of desire and promising to do better. That is why I have trouble recommending sources based on transparency and ethics, because "better" choices are inevitably a compromise-- one that not everyone can afford to make, at that. 

I like Everlane, their clothes are simple and easy to wear in a lot of different ways and the price-to-quality ratio is high. They claim to work with factories that have high standards for human rights and they have plans to push this further in their supply chain as they grow and have more clout. I love Dieppa Restrepo shoes for their quality and comfort and the way they effortlessly work with almost everything I wear-- I have one pair that I have worn at least three times a week for almost two years and I hope to make them last a long, long time. They are also pricy and hard to find-- and I can't find much info about their sourcing, other than that the shoes are hand-made in Mexico. I can imagine saving my pennies and buying a few things from Elizabeth Suzann-- I could wear the heck out of these pants or this dress. But I need to make it clear that these are all things I like-- I'm not making any huge sacrifice in choosing them and I don't need a pat on the back. And having a smaller, more functional wardrobe is also not a sacrifice-- it's actually easier and more rewarding, or so I've heard. 

These questions have me tied in so many knots I can't even figure out what I'm arguing anymore. Sometimes I try to account for every possible point of view on an issue and I lose track of where I stand. Morality and ethics are not easy or comfortable, that's why so few of us actually live up to the standards we claim to have. But that isn't a reason to stop trying-- buying fewer clothes, wearing them longer, choosing handmade, second-hand, and responsible brands, mending and refashioning, even though it might not be enough to save the world. Maybe I just want to acknowledge that it might not be enough, that I'm not sure what "enough" looks like. Maybe I want to make sure that I'm not putting too positive a spin on my choices, because I continue to see this as a negotiation between desire and ethics. I will continue to make compromises because there is a certain baseline of enjoying my clothes and enjoying style that I am not ready to give up. 

Then again, I don't think I have to-- I keep finding, to my surprise, more enjoyment in having less. Maybe someday I will have two dresses and that will be amazing. 

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