The high price paid by others for our cheap clothes

I was at a party some time ago and the hosts brought out some photographs from a previous party and there was some amusement because I was wearing the same sweater on both occasions. This did not bother me because I like that sweater and wear it as often as I can. In fact, my policy concerning clothes is to buy a few that I like and wear them over and over until they get frayed and have holes in them, and then I wear them around the house. In fact, as I write this, my shirt has a hole in the right elbow that is hidden by a sweater.

But for some people wearing the same outfits repeatedly is considered a major fashion faux pas and thus changing their wardrobes frequently is important to them. Society puts women under much greater pressure, as was evidenced by a male TV news anchor who wore the same suit, shirt, and tie for a year to see if anyone would notice the way viewers would if his female co-host wore the same outfit even just twice within a short period. Of course, no one noticed.

This desire for clothes novelty has spawned a market for really cheap clothes that people can wear and discard and thus generate new wardrobes without much expense, a practice that seems terribly wasteful to me.

On his show Last Week Tonight, John Oliver looks at the scandal of how we get these cheap clothes and the way that brand-name companies who exploit child labor overseas also exploit our short memories of their abusive practices, perhaps because the appeal of low prices makes us want to look away from how we get them.

It struck me that it should be possible for some non-profit organization to certify that the supply chain of such clothing industries conform to good practices and pay fair wages, such as exists for things like coffee and wood products, so that people can, if they wish, buy only from reputable manufacturers


  1. John Horstman says

    I have the exact same approach to clothing, except that I travel in circles that allow me to wear clothes with holes out socially when it’s warm, so I also do that. My understanding as well is that women are under far more pressure than men (or people perceived as men) to have a variety of clothing and outfits that conform to rapidly-changing fashion trends.

  2. pinkpixel says

    I think that the kind of certification you are talking about is sort of what the “fair trade” label is supposed to do. However I’ve usually only seen “fair trade” on jewellery or accessories where I live, not usually on clothing. Also I think there is some concern that the label is going the way of “organic” and becoming more of a marketing thing and less helpful to the actual workers. I don’t know much about it personally, though.

  3. says

    One way to reduce purchasing clothes it is to buy durable items and wear them for years. I also own more clothes than some people, which means buying more short term, but less long term. Each gets worn less often and wear out less.

    Every time I buy something, I really have to wonder where it came from. The large and growing number of stories about enforced slave labour and toxic working conditions in Chinese prisons make buying anything from China morally questionable. Items made in various other countries (e.g. Pakistan, etc.) can be of dubious origin, of child and forced labour. And then there’s the deaths of 70+ people this week in a Philippine factory fire, caused by locked doors and iron bars on the windows, preventing their escape when a fire occurred.

    I was once shopping for a winter coat while I lived in Seoul, South Korea, and looked at the manufacturer’s label inside. It said North Korea. The two most obvious questions were, “How the hell did this store get these?”, and “What sort of forced labour made these?”

  4. mordred says

    There are several certificates and organizations, I think. The only one I can just recall is the Fair Wear Foundation.
    As pinkpixel remarked above, there is a trend to put fair trade labels on clothes for marketing purposes, and some organizations seem to have rather low standards.

  5. Callinectes says

    I was looking through my old university photos, and was startled to notice that I was wearing the same bright orange “Australia” t-shirt in every single goddamn one. It’s not like I wore it every day, I has other shirts, but it seems that the cameras only ever came out when I was wearing that one.

  6. Mano Singham says


    Maybe you looked so good in it that it was only when you wore it that you caught the photographer’s eye!

  7. Mano Singham says

    No, it has dark green and black checks. But most of my sweaters are either grey or blue.

  8. Seeker2 says

    Back in the early 1990s, I landed a job that both expected me to dress nicely, and paid me a salary that allowed me to buy nice clothes. By “nice”, I mean better-department-store and better-mail-order (before they had mortar-and-brick stores) companies. I’m still wearing a lot of those clothes because they are made well, fit well, and held up. What I’m finding now is many clothes in the department stores are made to bizarre measurements--as a woman, my bust is larger than my waist, and my waist is larger than my ankle, but you’d never know that from looking at the clothes. Additionally, my armpits do not start at the same level as my hipbones, the way the cut of the clothing suggests is the case. What’s surprised me the most, however, is that even the more-expensive clothes are now see-through, requiring multiple layers simply to get basic coverage.

    I found I can’t even order from the same companies I used to order from; there’s simply no way to tell how a particular item of clothing is actually sized. I’ve ordered my normal size from a catalog, only to find the clothes wouldn’t fit a grade schooler…or else hang like a tent.

  9. chigau (違う) says

    I still wear a Fosters Lager singlet that I bought when I was last in Australia.
    The decoration was those glued-on plastic things, so they are mostly gone
    but the shirt is still fine.

  10. Seeker2 says

    To get back to Mano’s point; I’m old enough to remember the commercials with the jingle to “Look for the Union label!” and I actually have a couple items of clothes made in the USA--one (a dressy jacket) just 10 years ago. As a USAian, I like the idea of buying clothes made in my own country, by people making a living wage (who then in turn pay taxes on the money they earn, and spend the money they earn in their communities, which then increases the money available in the system). I would like to own more clothes made in the USA, but my searches are turning up mostly jeans and t-shirts, and at my stage of life, I have all the jeans and t-shirts I need.

    Does anyone remember the story about the Polartec mill in Massachusetts? This was an interview on 60 Minutes some years back. Long story short; in a typical one-industry mill town, the mill burned down. The owner, himself an immigrant from Germany, *continued to pay his workers their salary while the mill was being rebuilt*. Why? Because he lived in the same town as his workers and knew his workers had no other means of supporting themselves in this one-industry area. Could you see “Joe CEO” of Random American Company paying the salaries of his workers in Bangladesh or India or Viet Nam or wherever if their factory burned down? No way.

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