One Small Change: The Story Sewn Into Every Seam

Danielle Vermeer is one of the most passionate advocates for social justice that I’ve met. The steps she’s taken to align her wardrobe and her heart both challenge and encourage me. Also, I wish I had her mad sewing skills. Her blog is a wealth of information about faith, feminism and justice, and her voice is so essential to this conversation, that I asked her to lead off this new series. Please welcome her here!

one small change series

The midday sun beamed through the cottage windows as the little girl’s nimble hands grasped the over-sized scissors and snipped the cotton skirt. A bead of sweat tickled my upper lip, and I wiped it away swiftly as I hovered over this young girl. Not yet seven years old, my fair-haired and crystal blue-eyed niece carefully cut along the dotted line I’d drawn on the cream-colored cotton, a strip of excess fabric now dangling off the wooden table. Her dainty hands fidgeting in the over-sized scissors, she gazed up at me as if to ask for affirmation. “That’s perfect, sweetie. Keep going,” I said gently, “All the way to the seam.”

There is a story sewn into every seam.

I feel the story in the woosh of the chiffon A-line skirt I bought at the thrift store, an intercepted memory of a cocktail party in the Mad Men days fleeting before my eyes. I sense it in the ruffle of the crinoline layers underneath the hand-sewn wedding gown. And I sense it in the black and white cotton dress from the Salvation Army, the one my niece had asked to help me with at the lake house.

Huddled over the deconstructed dress, the seams that bind up the threads of fabric and of my heart are ripped open wide, and I tell her the story behind the dress. I tell her that I’m not perfect, my dear. None of us is perfect. But I’m trying to learn how to sew because I want to know how to do this myself. I want to feel connected to the women and girls around the world who are bending over just like us, with afternoon heat dampening our browlines and the work of our hands determining whether we will eat or not.

The difference is that I can eat whether or not the work on my dress is finished, unlike my sisters in factories, not lake houses, around the world. And so I exercise my freedom in taking a break, grabbing a few chunks of ice to plop in my lemonade and gobbling down a leftover poppyseed muffin.

I am also exercising my freedom is in a different way, in choosing to not buy anything new. It’s been 18 months ago now that I’ve meandered through the sale section at Target and toted the yellow Forever 21 bags with John 3:16, ironically, printed on the bottom. What had started as a silly self-challenge to test how long I could last without purchasing new clothing quickly became a more serious commitment to overhaul my consumption habits, which had spiraled out of control by the time I was in college. It was so out of control that at one point, I had enough dresses to wear a different one every day for nearly three months.

If you’re doing the math, yes, that’s nearly 100 dresses, most of which were from “fast fashion” retailers like Forever 21, Gap, H&M, and Target — companies with less than stellar labor practices.

Month after month in this buying boycott (buycott?), I delved more deeply into the complex, opaque supply chains that weave together in either threads of compassion or shackles of injustice. From my time working in the anti-trafficking sector, I knew all about the children who harvested the cotton each fall in Uzbekistan and the women packed into garment factories in Bangladesh and the factory workers in China who tried to jump to their deaths but instead were caught by large nets installed by the factory owners. As with many other issues interconnected with modern slavery, I was educated beyond my level of obedience.

Danielle Vermeer - Ethical Shopping - Stories at the Seams

I knew that my fashion consumption habits were harming others, but I didn’t obey the call to justice until at last, enough was enough. Obedience in this situation looked like buying nothing new unless I could know for sure that it was produced, manufactured, and sold ethically.

I thought that meant no Forever 21, no Gap, no H&M, no Target, but rather only thrift and resale and consignment stores. I was wrong.

There is more to ethical fashion that buying only at thrift stores and boycotting major retailers. Buying nothing new not only penalized the mainstream companies whose unethical practices I wanted to avoid, but also the up-and-coming ethical fashion enterprises that were stylish and slave-free. It was time to follow the sage-like advice of Maya Angelou in my clothing shopping: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

By this Fourth of July, I knew better. I wanted to do better. That was the weekend I ripped apart the oversized dress from the thrift store with the black bodice and cream-colored skirt, a remnant from the days when clothing was still made in our country. Printed on the construction paper-like square sewn into the seam, “Made in the USA” tells a different story, one of American garment workers and unions and accidents like the factory collapse in Bangladesh this past spring that crushed over 1,100 workers.

On the day we celebrate independence, they say let freedom ring. We cross our hearts, beat our chests with our fists, and proudly affirm our independence, our inalienable rights, our determination for a better life.

Around the world, people of every nation and creed and color are doing the same. They are crossing their hearts, praying for their loved ones as they file away into farms that harvest our garments’ raw materials to the factories that sew up the seams to the cities that distribute and sell the final products.

And around the world, somewhere, there is another not yet seven year old girl, perhaps in Bangladesh with golden brown skin instead of my niece’s Dutch complexion, who is also cutting along a dotted line, all the way to the seam.

We must ask though, whether the dotted line is toward freedom — or toward slavery.

The answer to ethical fashion is in my hands, one wielding a seam ripper and the other a credit card. With every splayed-open seam in an upcycled dress comes a mending of my heart. With every swipe of the credit card for a new ethically-produced dress comes empowerment of women to support themselves and their families.

There is a story sewn into every seam, but it’s up to us, together, to fashion the right one — one that truly lets freedom ring.

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Some of the main excuses I hear (and give myself) in not buying ethical fashion are that it is often more expensive and/or less convenient. To encourage you in your journey toward ethical fashion, I’d like to pass along these four simple steps toward becoming a more conscious consumer of fashion.

  1. Investigate your closet. On average people wear only 20% of their closet 80% of the time. Take a look at what you have and begin to look at labels, brands, and materials. Then check the Free2Work app and recent industry report on apparel for how your brands rate.
  2. Calculate how many slaves are working for you. The first step in trading guilt for responsible spending is to understand the supply chains of what you buy. While not meant to be a scientific calculation, the Slavery Footprint app is a helpful, user-friendly tool that estimates how many slaves are working for you.
  3. Commit to buying less. Until we can know for sure whether our apparel is sourced and manufactured ethically, we need to contemplate buying less stuff. If buying less isn’t an option, considering buying nothing new and shopping only at resale and thrift stores.
  4. Compare price points for ethical and non-ethical fashion. While ethical fashion may often seem more expensive, understand that there are many “hidden costs” to purchasing fast fashion. Also, ethical fashion doesn’t necessarily have to be more expensive than that sundress you got at Target last week. See here for my guide for how to buy ethical fashion on a budget.

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danielle vermeerDanielle L. Vermeer is a social impact consultant by day and blogger on the intersections of marriage, faith, and feminism by night. A longtime advocate in the anti-trafficking sector, she is passionate about amplifying the voices of survivors and sharing stories of hope and healing. She and her husband are on a journey of two becoming one and are trying to consume more ethically in Chicagoland.

Connect with her at www.fromtwotoone.com or on Twitter at @fromtwotoone. If you have any specific questions about this topic, email her at danielle [at] fromtwotoone [dot] com or leave them in the comments below.

23 thoughts on “One Small Change: The Story Sewn Into Every Seam

  1. Thank you for sharing those resources, Danielle. Clothing has long been one of the most frustrating components of my life – because of the opaqueness of the industry, and not feeling I have a lot of buying options – it’s hard enough for a lanky guy like me to find enough dress shirts for work that actually fit. 🙂 For me, my big (small) change this year is coffee at work. No more cheap non-fair coffee. It means making my own at work, but that’s okay.

  2. Addie, I am so ridiculously excited about this series, and Danielle, I love this post. I’ve been wrestling with how to do this well, and I’m so grateful for your thoughtful words and practical tips. Thanks to both of you!

  3. Welcome, Danielle. Your writing is electric. Your image of helping your niece reminds me of sitting side by side with my daughter, being there as she concentrated all her efforts on learning something: it’s magic. And the business about the Chinese companies and the nets to catch jumping workers broke my heart. I almost never use the word “evil”–it’s simply too powerful a word to use lightly–but there’s no other word for depriving workers of even THAT way out. I buy few clothes but will be looking at labels from now on.

    1. John, thank you for your kind words! I hesitate to use the term “evil,” as well, but what does it say about our shared humanity, our consumerism, and our priorities if we tolerate companies that install nets outside of their factories instead of pay workers a living wage, and yes, maybe pay a couple extra dollars for that item. I think more people are becoming aware of labor issues, especially in supply chains, after tragedies like the collapse of the garment factory in Bangladesh, but there is still so, so much to do!

  4. This was really interesting Addie. I have a question for Danielle: I want to buy second hand, but I have a really hard time finding clothes that fit me properly. A. What is the best way to learn how to alter clothes? Classes? B. I’ve never really taken anything to a tailor. How much are they willing to alter, say, a dress? Thanks!

    1. Hi Anna, thanks for your question. It is sometimes harder to find clothes that fit properly from secondhand and thrift stores since sometimes you can’t try them on, but I’ve found that really getting to know your body, actual measurements (versus sizes since they’re quite different from brand to brand), and what looks good is really helpful. I can now look at a garment and see if (more or less) will fit right. But in cases it doesn’t, I’ve learned to make minor adjustments myself, or to bring it to a tailor for more significant adjustments. For instance, hemming pants takes me 2 hours or so, but if I needed to take in a a dress because it’s too big or fits not quite perfectly, then a tailor may charge $10-50 (depending on how complicated it is). Hope that answers your question!

  5. I’ve been so grateful for your insights these last several months, Danielle, as I’ve delved into shopping ethically. I’ve challenged my consumption habits over the years but not until reading Overdressed did I decide to cross certain stores off the list altogether. That was the first step. Your resources have helped me figure out the second step.

    1. Thanks, Leigh. Believe it or not, I haven’t yet read Overdressed because it’s been continuously checked out from the library! None of us is perfect in shopping ethically, especially for clothing, but I think taking one step at a time is having an impact.

  6. Danielle — This was perfect for me to read since next month I am kicking off my own year of buying nothing new. I used to be very committed to buying ethically or not supporting sweatshop labor but it became harder as I entered the workforce after college. Starting in August I am committing to buying nothing new for an entire year. I think that, besides not supporting companies who have harmful business practices, it will help me to realize that I don’t NEED all the stuff that I buy. I think once I remove the constant need to buy stuff for no reason, I will be in a better frame of mind to be more mindful about making ethical purchases. I know it’s not everything, but it’s something!

    1. So excited that you’ll also be committed to buying nothing new! Stay tuned to Addie’s series — I believe someone else is guest posting about their commitment to buy nothing new for a year. We should definitely swap tips along the way!

  7. Yes, thank you, Danielle! I eliminated most of the clothes in my closet when we moved abroad, and honestly, not only was it fine, but it was better. It’s freeing! Do you have any ideas for ethically sourcing shoes? I have found I can get almost everything used that I wear, but shoes are harder.

    1. Heather, I actually have not purchased shoes over the last 18 months of my buy-nothing-new commitment, so I have no idea where to get ethical shoes! I would check out places like the Ethical Fashion Forum, Good Guide, Free2Work (made by Not for Sale), Ecouterre, and Magnifeco for tips!

  8. Danielle,

    I have a question that is probably just going to show how ignorant I am. If we quit buying clothes that are made in sweatshops, doesn’t that mean less money for the workers there? Don’t those poor workers still need money?

    Just wondering what you know about this. Thanks!

    1. Great question, Jackie! It’s something I’ve written a bit about here (Is Buying Nothing New Bad for the Economy?), but I also actually have a post in the works about your specific question — what happens to the workers on the other side of the world? Do they just not have jobs at all then?

      In terms of economic theory, sweatshops are not universally condemned. While their conditions and policies are often deplorable, they *can* be a conduit toward greater, more sustainable economic development. While we shouldn’t necessarily go out and buycott anything made in X country, we do need to be more aware that it is NOT a false dichotomy: voting with our dollar for ethical companies doesn’t mean that workers are denied ANY work whatsoever. For instance, Eileen Fisher, a fashionable retailer of women’s clothing and fashion has pushed to make ALL of their supply chain ethically-sourced, produced, and eco-conscious. They also employ workers with fair wages and audit factories regularly to ensure working conditions are fair and safe. So someone who would normally buy at, say, Ann Taylor, could check out Eileen Fisher as an alternate that aligns more with their values as a person and consumer. And at the end of the day, workers are treated more fairly.

      The problem is that supply chains are incredibly, incredibly complex and it’s difficult to start with to understand exactly what the conditions are at every step of the chain.

      1. That makes sense … but then what about the workers who work for Ann Taylor? If they’re already being, well, screwed over, am I not just adding to that?

        I don’t mean to be stubborn. I really am curious– I know so little about this!

    2. That’s what I’m wondering too. It just seems so complex. The possible ramifications for buying ethically. It overwhelms me to think about. If I decide to pursue buying fair trade items, I want to do it because it will make a real difference, not to make myself feel better. I’m kind of on the fence. But I look forward to reading the article you linked.

  9. Your commitment to ethical consumption is really inspiring, and I sincerely appreciate your ability to point out (and remove) some of the most difficult, initial barriers. I particularly love how your philosophy around ethical consumption transformed over time: that you realized merely not buying anything new wasn’t the catch-all solution to unethical practices.

    A beautiful post Danielle; keep up the excellent work!

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