In Bulgaria a few years ago my NGO, People Help, partnered with another nonprofit in a campaign to collect second hand and used clothes and give them to children, individuals, and families in need. I saw that people primarily wanted to donate not because they wanted to help others, but because they simply wanted an easy way to get rid of their unnecessary clothes.
I’ve recently been pondering global behaviors around consumption, particularly in the clothing industry. What I’ve seen here and in many other countries is that we buy clothes, use them once or twice, and throw them in the trash or donate them to charity. The United States is definitely in the lead when it comes to the importing and consumption of clothes, as are other countries with advanced economies.
Americans may not realize how much people in other countries look to their behavior as an example. I wonder why people in other countries, like my home country of Bulgaria, can’t see that these are negative practices and try to avoid making the same mistakes.
People must reach a certain level of affluence to have sufficient resources to buy more and easily throw goods away and develop a market pushing out a variety of cheap or affordable goods at all times. The big fast fashion retailers allow us to do this, and that is also why fast fashion ensures that there are fewer, larger companies rather than more small and medium businesses. Interestingly, in other industries the word fast is not associated with responsible behavior towards people and environment. Some medium and small enterprises are not able to provide such low prices or reach the fast cycle of production, and have practically lost a local market for production.
Local production and consumption is at the core of sustainable development, and consequently I believe we should use locally available resources as much as possible.
The business model is easily apparent to me: rich companies and countries get all of the benefits of wealth and low prices. How is this process beneficial for all countries involved in production?
It will be this way as long as the market demands more products. However, we as consumers are the market, so we have the power to create the change we seek.
It’s simple - buy only what you need, love your clothes, buy clothes that make you feel comfortable, and use them as much as you can. Try buying locally from socially conscious companies; the more you buy locally the more these businesses can scale.
I am not saying to never buy from big, international brands. Just don’t buy without being an educated consumer. Read and become informed on why these clothes are cheap and be smart in using the resources. I would love to see hundreds or even thousands of small and medium-sized companies offering clothing rather than seeing us all purchase from just a few companies that are some of the richest in the world.
And social consciousness aside, I’d rather have a unique purse than one hundreds of thousands of other people have.
We say in Bulgaria: the knife and the bread are in your hands, meaning you have the power to make decision and act. Let’s think twice, be wise, and buy only what we need.
In light of this, here are a few thoughts I suggest we all consider when we go shopping:
Let’s strengthen our local economy. For me, buying locally when possible makes more sense. When we buy we support small and medium businesses, invest in the local economy and help our own community, which also helps ensure transparency and high quality.
Let’s use the available resources. Although it is not easy, we can try to buy local produced products as much as possible which not only supports local producers but also cuts the levels of supply chain thus minimizes many of the harmful impacts. Another aspect of using the available resources is re-use or buying second hand clothing which is another wise and green choice.
Let’s think about protecting workers and their rights. Workers around the world are often subject to poor working conditions, are underpaid, are unable to protect their own rights as employees, and are often subject to violence.
Let’s think about our future and our health. What about the environment, including both the land and water? By focusing on local production and consuming less, we can help reduce the harmful environmental footprint caused by fast fashion retailers. People in the US and around the world give away tons of old clothes, which go to poor, disadvantaged people or people from developing countries. A lot of these clothes can’t be used … and become trash. If our aim is offer charity and support those in need let’s first ask them what they need and not give them our trash. Billions around the globe are already all too familiar with the damaging impact of waste, are you?
Maya Guevska is an Atlas Corps Fellow from Bulgaria who has been living in the United States for the past year.