Cheap, trendy clothing may not be worth the hidden costs

By in Opinions


As a student who lives on her own and works full time hoping to escape from university without student loans, I can basically only afford cheap clothing.

Stores like Forever 21 (my favourite place to buy cheap clothing online), Sirens, Urban Planet, and the like offer trendy clothes that I can afford, but there’s a hidden cost.

Naomi Wolf’s article “The high cost of cheap fashion,” which ran in the Globe and Mail recently, reminded me of the truth I already know about cheap clothing.

“We all know that cheap clothing is usually made in sweatshop conditions ”“ and usually by women,” writes Wolf. “And we know ”“ or should know ”“ that women in sweatshops around the world report being locked in and forbidden to use bathrooms for long periods, as well as sexual harassment, violent union-busting, and other forms of coercion.”

But all of that is so far removed from me. I don’t see those women suffering; instead I see the words “sale” and low prices in the window.

It doesn’t help that I love to shop. I periodically go through fits of craving shopping. To quell the craving, I sometimes spend hours window shopping online; filling digital shopping carts with everything I’d love to buy, then sadly closing the web browser.

But window shopping online is never enough, and eventually that time of year rolls around when a new season starts, and it seems all of my sweaters from last year are pilling and have lost their shape. Not to mention it seems all of the other women have gone fall shopping and are parading around in shiny new clothes and the latest trends.

When I’m being truthful with myself, I know that no one else will notice or care if I wear last year’s cardigan again this winter, but the urge to shop stays with me.

What’s a poor student who needs a new pair of jeans to do?

Wolf suggests Western women “support a fair-trade economy, and refuse to shop at outlets targeted by activists for unfair employment practices.”

I like the sentiment that consumers are capable of changing the marketplace through our purchases, but finding affordable fair-trade clothing stores is difficult.

Since I’m utterly inept at sewing, for my fall shopping this year, I decided to shop second-hand.

Second-hand shopping is not a new concept for me. Only a few years ago, my cravings for shopping would have been better qualified as an addiction, and minimum wage jobs don’t cover shopping sprees well. As my budget expanded in recent years, I started shopping at cheap clothing stores, preferring the ease of not having to look through mountains of clothing to only take home a handful of items.

Despite the screeching hangers and trying on 15 items to find one that works, this fall, I’m going to find what I need at local second-hand stores. Not only will I be able to feel good about my purchases because I won’t be supporting unfair labour practices, but I will also have the satisfaction of knowing that I’m participating in the environmentally friendly practice of reusing.

My impact on the cheap clothing economy is small, even negligible, but Wolf’s article has reminded me that what I do matters. I should do what’s right because I can. Unlike many of the women who work to make the cheap, trendy clothing we’re so eager to consume, I have a choice.

And, of course, second-hand shopping will go easy on my budget, too.

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image: Flickr