I am often reminded how big of a hypocrite I am.   With absolute certainty I can say that all the clothes, including lady garments, I’m wearing today were made in deplorable human-rights violating factories and child labor was probably used at one point during the manufacturing process.  And while my words speak against such facilities, my actions say that I condone the violation of fundamental human rights.

Ugh, doesn’t sit too well.

So what options are there to buy socially and ethically responsible clothing?

First, there are always second hand stores like SalVal, Goodwill, and the numerous independent thrift stores, in which the despicable origin of the clothing is redeemed through the act of recycling.  I try and try again to shop at these stores but I just can’t do it.  I don’t like the clothes, I hate how disorganized everything is, and I usually don’t have the patience or creativity to sort through racks and racks to find cool stuff.  (Hey, that’s a business idea – personal thrift store shopper.)

Then, there are the “social enterprise” companies that slap an Ed Hardy-esque graphic on a t-shirt and give the proceeds to charity.  Sure, they use American Apparel t-shirts so everything is OK, but American Apparel is not picture perfect with sexual harassment lawsuits and sexist advertisements. Wherever you stand on the issue, clothing companies that give proceeds to charities without regard to their vendors are simply band-aids and are not fundamentally changing anything; not to mention the business model is less than exciting.

There’s also the vertically integrated companies that buy their materials through direct trade, pay living wages, and are deeply invested in their community of operation.  Companies like Oliberté and People Tree are doing great things and producing high-quality clothing. However, the trade off is a price point that is out of reach for the vast majority of people.  As much as I want to support these types of companies, my budget can’t support a wardrobe of cotton dresses and shirts at 70 bucks a piece.

I know I’m not alone.  The dilemma between upholding values and personal finances is extremely challenging.  The counter argument, of course, concerns consumerism and the frivolity of the fashion industry but we’re not going there today because at the end of the day everyone needs clothes.  So how can fashion companies make socially and ethically responsible clothing at a price point that the masses can afford? Or, more specifically, how can a social enterprise make humanely-made underwear at a price that competes with Hanes? Not, is it possible, but HOW can it be done.

This question is slowly becoming a deep-seated obsession of mine and is a critical question to answer in order to achieve fundamental change in manufacturing.  In order for a social enterprise of this impact, cross-sector collaboration is a core catalyst in order to share business risk and raise the funds needed to support such a venture.  Sounds like a task not for the faint of heart.

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