Brace yourselves clothes-wearers: Cheap clothes have deep costs to human life and the environment. The fashion industry is the world’s second largest polluter, right behind the oil industry. There’s a global consumption of 80 billion pieces of clothing a year, up a whopping 400 percent from two decades ago, made by mostly women who survive on less than $3 a day.
If you love fashion, the stats behind the industry are heartbreaking. But they don’t have to be. You don’t have to consume on-trend clothes 52 micro-seasons of the year. Shopping secondhand at vintage stores or through handmade creators and upcyclers is a way to blend your style lust and ethical standards.
DGO talked to Heather Narwid of Sideshow Emporium (208 County Road 250), Tom and Carrie Dragt of Old Colorado Vintage (1020 Main Ave.), and handmade artist Vanessa Bohaty of No-Wow (862 Main Ave., Suite 219), about what fast fashion is, what it means when people shop on the cheap, and how purchasing handmade or vintage can give folks the deeper style and stories they’re looking for.
What does the term fast fashion mean to you?
Narwid: Trendy, cheaply made, really only addressing the next three to six months. It’s cheaply designed and meant to fall apart.
Tom Dragt: Cheap, discardable, made overseas. It doesn’t last. It’s not made to last generations, like what we have in here.
Bohaty: It’s the fashion industry’s response to the demands of consumers. People want trendy, affordable apparel that can be purchased conveniently in any size city in any box store, or even more conveniently on the internet. However, fast fashion to me signifies waste … Manufacturers outsource to dodge labor costs and expedite the process. It’s an unsustainable, destructive cycle to both the environment and local economy, and presents an array of ethical dilemmas regarding human rights/treatment.
What might people not know about fast fashion?
Narwid: Usually, the clothing is made in super poor conditions. In 2013, over 1,000 people were killed in the (Rana Plaza) Bangladesh factory collapse.
There are poor conditions in fast fashion factories (as well as) child labor. Companies are worried about the bottom line and money spent and they aren’t overly concerned (with) buying fabric that’s been made with slave labor or dyed with violently pollutive substances.
Tom Dragt: Money goes to U.S. companies from fast fashion but not to American workers. The American garment industry is virtually gone … Big box store clothes, I can understand why people receive them as a gift and then it goes straight to the thrift store and no one wants it at the thrift store either so it goes into the baler and into the rag mills and then overseas.
Bohaty: It starts with a fiber. Cotton is a good one. Where did those seeds come from? Organic or not? Were the farming practices sustainable? How much water, chemicals, and poisons were used to grow the crop and how much of that runoff reached the water sources of the area? Were the workers on the farm treated well? Did they receive fair wage? How was the crop harvested? How was the crop transported to a production facility? What were the practices used to weave or knit the yarn? How were those employees treated? How many units of greenhouse gases were released when chemically treating and manufacturing the yarn into fabric? How were the bolts of fabric dyed? How was the fabric transported to the clothing assemblage factory? Did the seamstresses receive a fair wage? Did they have reliable machines to work on? Was the building up to code? How many hours did they work per day? Now the product is shipped. What are the environmental costs of packaging and transporting finished product overseas?
What’s the difference in big box store shopping versus shopping handmade and vintage?
Narwid: The service is more personal in a vintage shop. A real person is gauging what you’re down for, but it requires more time to find something in a one-of-a-kind store. A lot of people are down for that because it’s an adventure, but if you bust in for five minutes to find a dress, it won’t work as well.
In a locally owned business, it is going to be the owner working or someone they trust. I think it’s better to shop at locally owned or owner-operated places because we care. We don’t eat if we aren’t helpful to you and you don’t love our place.
Bohaty: Any type of shopping you do in a locally owned or operated place will give you more of a one-on-one experience. I personally think it is a ton of fun when you get to meet the people who dig through the racks and get great scores. It’s all unique, one-of-a-kind clothing that you can’t get anywhere else.
With handmade, you may not always be able to track the sustainable-versus-unsustainable environmental practices used to create the fabric itself, but you certainly get to omit the concerns about ethical treatment of workers. Handmade businesses, locally or even internationally, typically stand by their mission to promote fair wages, ethical treatment of employees, and small- batch production that limits excess waste.
Carrie Dragt: We try to transcend what people think of as a vintage store. We have a very large men’s collection. We try to go beyond what people expect to see and bring in utilitarian men’s workwear that isn’t garish. Jean jackets, WWII bomber jackets, denim, flannels, we have classic American looks that will never go out of style.
Tom Dragt: And, we’re totally hands-on helping people trying to get things to fit and make sure that they’re not buying something they don’t need. We’re always giving an honest opinion of, “This looks good on you,” or “This doesn’t.” Total customer service.
How do ethics come into your business considerations?
Narwid: I didn’t start the business because of recycling. It was more that I wanted a clothing store and the clothing I liked was old. [Laughs] I’m a vaguely intermittent fist-shaker and complainer.
Now, I keep learning things and realizing why secondhand and vintage is important. After those (garment factory) tragedies happened and people got hurt and killed, it makes you think about your clothing and what you’re selling more.
Tom Dragt: Sustainable is a Millennial buzz word, but that’s what we’re doing. We’re rescuing all this stuff from the landfill … You oughtta see our totes full of clothing that’s beat and unwearable, but the fabric is so great you can’t throw it away. This business doesn’t really get any greener. People will buy our clothing and wear it till they die and then it will go on to the next picker who sees their closet, because it was made to last.
Bohaty: I think we’re all blinded by society’s norms and how we’ve adapted to technology. Truthfully, we’re dismantling the environment with unethical, unsustainable fashion and we’re not having human rights conversations.
I try to source a good portion of my fabric from secondhand outlets. Don’t get me wrong! I still end up making purchases from fabric stores occasionally. Yet, I aim to create products made partially or completely of secondhand fabric so I don’t have to support unsustainable practices. Plus, I enjoy giving a second life to something that was of no use to its previous owner.
Does shopping vintage or handmade automatically mean expensive?
Tom Dragt: We’re flexible on our pricing. If people are buying a bunch of stuff, we’ll discount it. We’re not firm on everything, but we try to price items to move … There are things in here that a serious Japanese buyer will say, “I’ll take that, that, and that,” whereas a Fort Lewis kid might be like, “Whoa. No way.” There’s a range, a lot of different levels, and you can always change the paradigm with people and let them know that this is cool and not necessarily expensive.
Narwid: On the surface, to someone who doesn’t know about it, it might appear that way. There’s reasons behind a price. If you’re shopping at a good store, the person behind the counter will be able to tell you 10 different reasons why an item is priced the way it is. I have shirts in here that are $200 and I have shirts in here that are $16.
Bohaty: I think that people need to ask, “Is the price worth it to have something that stays in my closet as a permanent fixture?” Handmade and vintage fall under the realm of lasting longer and being more unique and that doesn’t always have to be expensive. Some, but not all, handmade and vintage items will cost more upfront. But are they expensive? Not necessarily. The quality of the products far outlast the temporary nature of cheaply made fast fashion.
With so much disposable fast fashion being made, is there a future for vintage and handmade upcycling stores?
Narwid: I don’t know. Certainly some will remain, but you won’t see a vintage store 35 years from now with a bunch of shit from Forever 21 in it.
Just when you think all the true vintage is gone, you see more. There’s really a lot of vintage circulating out there. People will resell. Everything will keep cycling through. I think what might happen is that things will get more expensive because of rarity.
A trend in vintage that has been happening for a while is reworking garments that are already made. I think redesigned vintage will be the next thing. What will be left of vintage may be the frumpy stuff, so upcycling and redoing necklines and hemlines and changing sizes, will become more popular.
Also, reproduced vintage is becoming a thing. There are a lot of companies, mostly in Japan, who are reproducing vintage by using the old machines and traditional methods of making garments.
Bohaty: I believe there will always be like-minded individuals who not only want to preserve the environment and recognize fair trade but who genuinely appreciate craft in its many forms.
Carrie Dragt: Vintage stores are a connection to American history and a quality that people do not get to experience anymore. People will always want that.
Tom Dragt: People who buy in a vintage store, they tend to take care of their clothes. I have items in here from the 1880s that are still wearable. We also try to write on all the tags what era a piece is from and its history, if we know it. I think there will always be a demand for vintage and its stories, even if supply is dwindling.
Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.Patty Templeton