Ethical Style: Don't Donate Clothes, Repurpose Them
Every Thursday, your Ethical Style questions, answered.
Most residents of the developed world are completely removed from the clothing production process, with no time or ability to sew. This represents a dramatic shift from most of world history, as Susan Strasser argues in her book Waste and Want: “Mid-nineteenth-century housekeeping manuals had preached frugality even to women who wore silk dresses, teaching them to rip out and reverse sleeves thinning at the elbows and to lengthen the lives of old sheets by tearing them down the middle and sewing the outer edges together," Strasser writes. "Well into the twentieth century, most American women were close enough to production to have both an appreciation of their clothes as the product of labor and the skills to fix them.”
Today, we want an ever-changing array of cheap clothes, and we rarely think about sustainability or quality. That means that in order to consume clothes more ethically, we must change the way we think about them.
Last week, we confronted the problems with donating or selling old clothes. Garments can sit unsold at for-profit consignment shops for months. "Dumping" items in developing countries lines middlemen's pockets and may not do much good for the recipients. So what choice do we have? The solution is to increase demand for second-hand clothing in the United States through repurposing.
Repurposing is the reuse of a garment, whether with minor alterations, a complete overhaul, or something in between. This shouldn't be a surprising concept—before the Industrial Revolution, rags were so highly prized that they were used as a sort of currency—but the practice has been cast aside. Ethical fashion, though, requires making new styles out of metaphorical rags (even if they're just last season's jeggings), whether from your closet, thrift stores, consignment shops, or online outlets.
"Thrift artist" Sonya Darrow offers an inspirational model for embracing repurposing as a way of life in the service of both personal style and a career. Her blog Ladyfits showcases clothing creations and art made from goods found at thrift stores and flea markets. Darrow works as Goodwill’s thrift artist in residence, creating art inside Goodwill stores in an open studio format. The goal is to raise "the awareness of resources within Thrift Stores through an artist's process to collaborate and communicate into an art form," she writes.
Darrow reminds us that consuming ethically means rethinking the buying process entirely. “In a thrift store, you’re not going to find everything right away,” she says. "You always have to go back. You have to go with a feeling of exploration.” Look closely at details of a garment and focus on the fabric: Does it feel good? Are there stains or tears? Feel and inspect the material. Maybe you weren’t shopping for a skirt, but if the material is of a high-quality it'll be worth it whether you wear it as a skirt or turn it into something new.
Decent fabric provides the basis of any future garment—from that starting point, a great new item is just a matter of changing the cut and fit. That’s where a return to sewing skills comes in. The past few years have brought a resurgence in the number of sewing classes offered in every city in the country. Or if another commitment is too much for your weekly routine, YouTube has thousands of instructional videos to get you on your way to DIY glory.
Start small: Move a seam, take in the waistline. Don’t destroy a garment at first—if you’re hemming a pant leg, leave some extra fabric just in case you want to lengthen it five years down the road. Once you master the basics, you can expand your skills to include taking apart and rebuilding individual garments from scratch.
Of course, not everyone with a taste for upcycled fashion has the skills or ability to do it themselves. Fortunately, repurposing has been translated into a modern business concept. London-based Junky Styling, founded in 1997, is the pioneer of a now-trendy slate of businesses mixing sustainability and fashion-forwardness. Everything the company sells is made from high-quality second-hand clothes that have been deconstructed and redesigned from raw materials into new, repurposed garments. The company also offers custom services to turn your own clothes into pieces you like better than the originals. The “Wardrobe Surgery” service will leave you with custom-tailored, self-designed new old clothes.
Stateside, salvage and repurposing of old clothes is the specialty of The Reformation, a company with stores in New York, Los Angeles, and online. The design collective buys vintage and overstock clothes, tweaks or reworks them, then sells the fashion-forward results. And because all of the pieces are made in the United States, the company eliminates environmental and financial costs associated with overseas shipping.
Ideally, a higher demand for second-hand clothing will go hand-in-hand with an renewed commitment to prioritizing quality over quantity. After all, quality clothing means better fabric, and good fabric can be reworked again and again to make sure it never goes out of style.