The cost of clothing in your closet

An argument for upcycled fashion

I paid $265 for a pair of denim jeans and a white T-shirt at Rouge Collective in downtown Los Angeles. The hip store, in the Arts District, sells lifestyle brands that support different sustainability practices.

How do I rationalize spending well over $200 on two items?

They were upcycled. Upcycled clothing also known as vintage clothing or second-hand is becoming more popular.

While I was at Rouge Collective, I met Jillian Clark, the creator of MeWeClothing. Her one-woman business takes hand-me-downs and redesigns them. MeWe’s mission is to get people to change the way they look at their clothes. She wants to inspire consumers to take action and remedy their clothes if they tear or need a facelift by patching holes, putting two shirts together, or by embroidering them. By promoting and designing upcycled clothing she hopes to reduce the 13 billion tons of textile waste that end up in the landfills every year.

Clark was there selling her one-of-a-kind denim jackets with hand- sewed Sashiko-style embroidery on the backs full of desert dreams, cactuses and elephants. She and another guest designer had their clothes on display. Clark also had her sewing machine just in case any customers wanted to learn how to patch holes in their clothes.

Clark’s one-of-a-kind denim jacket with hand- sewed Sashiko-style embroidery

 

But the stitched jackets are not socioeconomically sustainable for all. They range from $85 to $350. I would not usually spend that kind of money on pants or a T-shirt, but often when I am looking at sustainable brands they are more expensive than fast fashion brands. I have to think of every purchase as an investment. I have to be in love with each item.

I had to know why upcycled jacket were worth $350. Clark concedes some people simply cannot afford upcycled clothing: “A large portion of the country has to prioritize: Do I buy this quality garment and support local manufacturing, or do I feed my kid? You can’t really argue with that.”

But then there are people like me. From pursuing a higher education and getting an advanced degree, I’m in debt over $100,000 Purchasing sustainable clothes may seem unreasonable, but I look at the bigger impact they have on the planet and people. Each time I buy, I revisit this cost benefit analysis.

The jeans I bought were made from organic cotton and vegetable dyes were used to color them. One of the benefits of using organic cotton is they take less water to make the jeans and no GMO’s (Genetically Modified Organisms), pesticides, insecticides, herbicides were used on the cotton. Using vegetable dye to color the jeans reaps many benefits. They are biodegradable. Disposing of them is easier and they cause little to no pollution because the dyes come from nature.

It’s not easy to incorporate into all aspects of your shopping experience when upcycled gets pegged as a trend in itself and it’s a genuine investment to make. But each time that I do, I come the conclusion that human rights is worth it.

Global fashion retailer Zara is a great example of a fast-fashion retailer who got caught in human rights controversy in November of 2017. The Spanish brand’s consumers found hand-sewn messages  in the garments that read, “I made this item you’re going to buy, but I didn’t get paid for it.” The employees making the clothes say that Zara wasn’t addressing issues spanning unfair working hours, treacherous working conditions and little to no pay. Zara released a statement saying that it is looking for ways to improve conditions.

Clothing is a human rights issue. While clothing from a fast fashion-retailer may be cheaper, in supporting upcycled clothing brands, such as Clark’s MeWeClothing, we are supporting human rights. Many of the companies left the United States or set up operations overseas to avoid regulations put in place to protect the planet and employees. These companies pay lower wages and exploit workers. In 2013, a garment factory collapsed outside of Dhaka in Bangladesh, killing more than 1,000 workers. Another 2,600 were injured. The monthly wage for employees in Bangladesh is $65 American Dollars or Tk 5,300. Workers in India are fighting for a higher minimum wage.

“A large portion of the country has to prioritize: Do I buy this quality garment and support local manufacturing, or do I feed my kid? You can’t really argue with that.”

Clark explained that when you continue to purchase from large, retail brands that use overseas factories, you don’t know how they are treating their employees and when you continue to support brands like Zara and H&M, “you’re not saying I support that human treatment but you are saying that I don’t like it enough not to support this company.

Another big issue is the amount of clothing that goes to waste. Clark took me to American Recycled Clothing in Gardena, where she gets the clothing she uses for her company. There were mountains of clothing separated by color and fabric. The scene opened my eyes to the shocking amount of clothing waste.

As I watched Clark pick clothing that she would use for MeWeclothing, I wondered, if people could see the piles of clothes that we throw away, would they buy clothing with more intention and care? According to SMART, The Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association, the average American will toss out 81 pounds of clothes every year,

As Clark begins her journey into the ocean of denim blue, she says, “The inspiration came from my day job. I work as a costume designer. I moved to L.A. from Boston to do movies and TV. I have noticed over the four years that I had gotten into it, the waste on set, the food that just gets thrown away, the scripts that are printed every single day. In wardrobe, you buy multiples that are never used or you return a lot.”In an active effort to fight this waste, The Producers Guild of America has teamed up on a Green Production Guide to cut carbon emissions.

Clark has been overwhelmed by the initial response to her business: “I launched in April. Wow! Now it’s October. The response I’ve gotten has been overwhelmingly positive and unexpected. Where I’m at right now is where I expected to be at in a year or two.”

NPD Group a market research group who study consumer trends found that, sustainable fashion has grown to the point that the average person is now willing to spend 10 to 15 percent more on ethically produced clothing.

It is our job as consumers to purchase products that support our values. As we become informed about the issues behind our clothing, we can make well-informed decisions that propel human rights and environmentally friendly policies.

Anna Bobadilla
Anna is a graduate student in the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. She is a documentary filmmaker and journalist and is a Southern California native.