A year ago, I made a promise to myself and to anyone who reads this blog that I would buy no clothing that was not consignment, recycled, or free-trade for 365 days. That mark came yesterday, on the 4th September 2012.
Yesterday, six thousand miles away from the basement of my parents’ house where I first made the vow in my tiny apartment in Suwon I tried to assess the success of the experiment. I pulled all of my clothing out of the wardrobe, all the drawers, all the hidden places that I found a t-shirt stuffed into (behind the washing machine? Really?). I separated the clothing into two piles, Experiment Safe and Fail.
To my dismay, the Fail pile grew larger than I had hoped. Twenty-two pieces of fail staring at me in the face, next to an even larger pile of pre-promise, gift, and promise-compliant clothing. And worse…most of those pieces come from the big human rights and environmental offenders of the textile industry in the 21st century. H&M. ZARA. There’s no Forever 21 or Gap, thank the sweatshop gods.
In a year of (attempting) conscious shopping, I still managed to accrue a sizeable Fail pile. It’s a bit depressing. If I cannot tame myself and buy only the products that have a reasonable (albeit far from iron-clad) stamp of approval in terms of human rights, free trade, and general nondestructive practices…then what?
“Even those who benefit from a system steeped in inequality are trapped by the system,” a professor whose name and face I’ve misplaced and whose university course I only remember for this moment said around four years ago. “They can escape and change the bondage of the system no more than anyone caught in the lowest rungs of the hierarchy.”
I think that she (he?) was referring to male privilege, but it works just as well here. I’m fortunate enough to be able to buy twenty-two (+) pieces of clothing a year. I can try as much as I want to be conscious and use my dollars, euros, pesos, and won to buy only the clothing that is not made by exploitation…but I can no more escape the global system than any of the people in the sweatshops. It’s definitely a reality check for how tiny I am in the face of the global system, so much of which is based on the suffering of others. It’s certainly not pointless to try to lessen their burdens and slowly change demand, but I could not fully escape it.
My Fail pile was not without contributing factors. Those twenty-two pieces of clothing were all purchased abroad, and the large majority of them were purchased here in Korea. I may have an excuse in the fact that most non-Western stores here do not carry my size, and in my rapid weight loss since arriving in February. The jeans that I invested in from Patagonia (organic cotton, environmentally-friendly, fair wage, and 3x as expensive) have sat in my pants drawer since March because if I try to wear them out of the house I run the risk of having them fall off. Completely. Even with a belt. I’ve lost about five inches (FIVE) off my hips and waist on the All Kimchi, All The Time diet.
Due to my apparent lack of linguistic skill when it comes to Korean, the language barrier has proved to be a major block to finding consignment and recycled clothing in Korea. The culture here is even more consumerist than that of the United States, and the very idea of wearing recycled clothing is anathema to most of my students. It took me six months to find even one secondhand clothing store in Suwon, and I’ve yet to venture in to see if they carry anything but ajumma sparkle vests. In Colorado, I have my pick of a wealth of amazing consignment stores available all the time. I can even make money selling my clothing to Buffalo Exchange or Rags.
If I hadn’t moved abroad (again) I probably would have achieved my promise.
Adaptation is the theme of the traveling life. I have to adjust, change, and make a new effort both in the short term and the long term. What is it that drove me to buy those twenty-two pieces of clothing? Why do I need new clothing anyway?
Vanity. I now know why this was considered a chief sin for centuries. I want to look good, and I want to fit in with those around me. Living in a big and fashionable city like Seoul has exacerbated the problem. I was willing to compromise principle for comfort and fleeting moments of appearing fashionable. I suck.
But did I learn? Hell yes.
Shopping (somewhat) consciously for the last year gave me skill in finding my true size, not one based on what the number on a tag says. I gained the patience necessary to try on as many pieces as necessary to find one that truly fit my body and my budget. I found a new stylistic direction and I may have even matured in the meantime. The experiment was not a complete wash.
I hereby renew my promise to reduce my impact on the world through my choices of clothing. I am trying to save as much money as possible over the next few months anyway, and the chill dancing just-perceptibly under the heat of the sunlight tells me that I will soon no longer be in need of summer clothing. I have more than enough to get me through the winter, and conveniently I have six months left on my contract in Korea. But this time, the drastic measure has to go one step further.
I will not buy any new clothing in Korea for the next six months.
I will wear the clothing I currently have into the absolute ground (which is going to be easy because two of my five pairs of shoes already have holes in them!). I will be going home in November for a week, and during that time I am allowed to buy consignment or fair-trade clothing only. My budget will be spared, my promise will be kept, and I will be able to focus on more important things like getting into graduate programs and saving for travel.
From today, the 5th of September 2012, I buy no new clothing.