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October 15, 2012

Fashion Conscious: How to Be a Responsible Steward

The $20 sweater was a great buy—but was it ultimately the best for everyone involved in my purchase?


“I love your dress!”

“Thanks! I got it for $30—on sale!”

How many times have you had some variation on this conversation? I’ve been on both ends hundreds of times, and it almost always involves some proud disclosure of big savings.

When it comes to our consumption of clothing, we value thrift. We pride ourselves on using our resources wisely and getting the best deal possible. We want to share our triumph with our friends, our family, anyone who displays even a passing interest in what we are wearing.

As someone on a limited budget who also happens to enjoy fashion, I have spent a considerable amount of time honing my deal-finding abilities. But in all the hours spent browsing the clearance racks, signing up for any and every sample sale site, and promising myself that this time I really was only going to buy the two things on my shopping list at Target and not even look at the clothes—only to walk out with several new tanks tops I didn’t know I needed— I never questioned the idea that, when it came to shopping, thrift was the ultimate good (after style, of course).

That changed when I read Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth Kline. Many of the facts she shares about what makes a $20 pair of pants possible drove home the point that when it comes to clothes, we must consider more than just cost if we wish to honor God as stewards of our resources. She argues that we’re kidding ourselves if we believe the person who made those pants were paid a fair wage, or that it could be made of quality, sustainable fabric, or that it reflects a designer’s original, creative work.

Even beyond issues of ethical wages and environmental sustainability, cheap clothes perpetuate the cycle of consumption. We have come to view clothing as disposable, and we don’t think twice about dropping a seemingly insignificant amount of cash on an article of clothing we know won’t last and might not even fit us that well. When it rips, or when we just don’t like it anymore, we’ll buy another one. We have detached clothing from its sources and methods of production; this is not a healthy way to view our possessions.
I finished the book with the overwhelming question: what now? Sure, it would be great to be able to make my own clothes, or to buy garments only from designers committed to ethical production and quality fit and fabric. But I have limited time, and limited resources.
So I set myself a challenge: in the second half of 2012, I would not purchase any new clothing unless it was used or vintage, or if it was made from high-quality, sustainable fabrics, by a person who had been paid a living wage.

It didn’t take long to realize that my issues with consumption were far deeper than I initially realized. Barely a day went by that I wasn’t struck by an impulsive desire for an article of clothing I needed to complete an outfit, to wear to a specific event, or to replace another article of clothing showing light signs of wear. I had to talk myself down from lunchtime trips to Target, post-work stops at H&M, a swing by Nordstrom Rack. When I went home, I often realized I already owned something that would work just fine. And if I didn’t, I forced myself to wear something I had anyway.

Clothing consumption isn’t just about the ubiquitous availability and low cost of fashionable items. More often than not, it’s a reflection of our dissatisfaction, of our belief that an article of clothing or a pair of shoes will transform us into a different person—all for only $17.99! But this is, of course, far from the truth. Yet another new article of clothing, cheaply made and cheaply bought, only magnifies the deficiency when we just as quickly realize we are, in fact, no different from how we were before—though perhaps out $17.99.
When I forced myself to stop distracting myself from any and every emotional hole with something new, I had to do the hard, sometimes long, work of facing those insecurities instead.

Recently, the words of Revelations 21:5 have struck me: “Behold, I am making all things new.” Through fast fashion, I had been trying to make myself new, settling for the superficial, when God promises real, lasting, meaningful change. He wants to make me not just more like myself, but more like himself. And that is something no $20 sweater could ever hope to offer.

What do you think? How do your shopping choices reflect God’s stewardship and loving our neighbors all around the world?

Laura Leonard is associate editor of BuildingChurchLeaders.com and is also a contributing writer for the TCW Blog and Her.meneutics. Follow Laura on Twitter at @lmarieleonard.

Related Tags: shopping, stewardship


As the new watch on my arm signifies, men are equally susceptible to this. Perhaps the church can find a role in investing in Plato's Closet-but-non-profit stores that encourage quality over quantity while also providing long-term benefits for those who need real clothing? Just an idea.

Thanks for your GREAT online shopping tip, @LucyWilson! But everyone, please note that the website is actually http://www.dobbinclothing.com/ Have fun!

Funny, but the concern for "sustainable" always seems to come from those who are in the higher income brackets. As someone who makes less than $12K a year, that $20.00 pair of pants isn't just a bargain...it's a necessity. And I know a lot of under and unemployed women in the same boat. You suggest thrift and vintage shops and yard sales, but that only works if you are smaller than a size 16. Those of us over that size know how difficult it is to find clothes to begin with, so we wear them until there is nothing left. I should know, I have slacks that are 10 years old, a few sweaters that are 20 years old. Yes, I could sew my own, but oftentimes the fabric costs more than the bargain ready-made.


Where clothes and other articles in general are coming from is something that is increasingly on my mind too. It's hard to find something made in Canada/America - or rather, not made in China or Bangladesh these days and it certainly is frustrating.

Cathey King mentioned ETSY.com- I like that site too but it's a shame that I have to mail order things from thousands of miles away (which has it's own concerns too). Eric's comments are also important. There are plenty of used clothing stores in my city- the thing is they cater to women - men have very few options. Even then - you're buying a used item almost always made by someone not paid a living wage wo likely worked in conditions that we'd object to.

Does anyone have any links or information about good north american made clothing?

Dear Laura,

What an honest and selfless article! I can totally relate to it. But, do I adhere to it? The honest answer is No. Every time I visit my native Mexico, where I see that people prefer to visit one another, have social interaction, mend their clothes because there are other basic priorities, as opposed to shopping as a hobby, I come back with the resolution that I must fill my soul with things of the spirit and not material possessions. Popular culture and society have made us believe that we can be fulfilled with all the new trends and we fall in that trap, especially us ladies when we shop compulsevely/addictively and even encourage each other. Thank you for the call to continue searching for what is 'true and noble' and for inviting us to be more inquisitive about the way in which we use our resources and how that affects the world that surround us. We need more of this thinking to be widespread and constant, in order to counterbalance all the false idols that we humans have created. I will work on this starting with myself today.

I have struggled with this recently in a slightly different way. My family for several years had barely enough to keep a roof over our heads and being that I worked from home, I didn't purchase any clothing beyond tshirts and sweatpants. When I finally went back to an outside job, I spent what seemed to me like an extraordinary amount of time shopping on my lunch hour and evenings and weekends too. I rationalized that because I really didn't have much to wear, it was okay. I kept trying to bring myself equal to what others had who had been gathering for years. I did have to put a stop to it when one of my charge cards hit $900....at what point is enough, ... enough?

This is a great conversation. It is sometimes difficult to find affordable clothing in all sizes, either through etsy or consignment shops, but there are so many other ways that this issue can be worked against. There are simple, inexpensive gifts and items that can change the consumer demand for items made by slaves. Even purchasing one fair trade item (at something as low as $4.00) during the course of a year would significantly help lessen the demand for products created by slaves and would send a very strong message that decent wages and working conditions are important to us as consumers. When you start to lean toward fair trade, the purchase also becomes more about helping people than filling an emotional hole. It just changes your perspective when you know what all is involved.

Yes low cost clothing does come at price, be it low wages or poor quality material. I also think companies may take a loss on some sale items because they know you will probably purchase more clothing while in the store. I do make a lot of my own clothing but it does takes quite a bit of time, that may not be an option for everyone.

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