In a world where shopping is a form of escape and a trip down brightly lit tile aisles turns into an endorphin-rich vacation of fabric and shoes, it’s easy to avoid thinking about where the garment hanging on your arm actually came from. Many of us, (particularly in our campus ecology course) are exposed to the idea that what we buy has effects beyond what we can see. We’ve heard about sweat shops and cheap labor and the corruption of companies like Nike. Despite this basic awareness however, most of us continue to shop. We acknowledge that we should probably buy less, we scoff at the number of items in our overflowing closets, and we talk about friends we’ve known who’ve made the commitment to stay away from the temptation of malls and department store deals. Yet, when the opportunity arises, we snap up that new pair of boots for $19.99. We make the excuse that they were marked down in price several times–that the bargain was just “too good to pass up.” I am a repeating committer of this crime.
Just this past weekend, I went with my Mom and two aunts to the famous chain stores TJ Maxx and Nordstrom Rack. Here, designer clothing is discounted to “basement” prices. We needed to get out of the house. We used shopping as a way to avoid our grief. “Power shopping” runs on my Mom’s side of the family. We know how to find a good deal, and we know how to do it fast. Usually, when we are all together in a store we are unstoppable. No one goes home empty handed. This weekend was a different story. We went through the motions of shopping–our triceps burning as we sorted through rack after rack. Quickly, our intense furrowed brows (always present in the hunt for the perfect dress) faded into frowns of distress. This time, we couldn’t escape reality with a shopping spree.
In so many cases, the art of shopping does not include reading labels. The only print scanned by darting eyes is the price tag. This weekend, as my eyes grew lazy and dark circles formed above my cheek bones, I took the time to notice where the shirts I was absentmindedly thumbing through actually came from. Devoid of the high that comes with the need to purchase something before leaving those double doors, I found several shirts boasting “organic” and “sustainable” labels. This trend is not unique. In an article written in the New York Times this morning, I learned about a group called the Sustainable Apparel Coalition–designed to create a database of every manufacturer in clothing production. This database would eventually be used to give every article of clothing a sustainability score that would become a part of each product’s label. This way, consumers could easily stay informed about where the articles of clothing they are buying actually come from, and what the true cost of their production is like. Though the process of creating such a database is sure to be long and complex, it is a step in the right direction when it comes to adjusting the standards for clothing. Reading about this coalition, I am reminded of the idealism of Jim Farrell’s chapter in The Nature of College centered upon clothing. Moving away from the concealed corruption of clothing and consumerism, this sort of a system forces citizens to be more aware of where they are putting their dollar. I hope that it works.