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The meaning of a five dollar dress

Posted by Amy Gutman  September 21, 2013 03:28 PM

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March 5 outfit 1

The price of the bar­gain dress is not paid by Tilda or Ray who wears it. The real cost is borne by the work­ers in the sweat­shops that are spring­ing up in hard-pressed com­mu­ni­ties.”

In the after­math of the Bangladesh build­ing col­lapse that killed more than 1,000 gar­ment fac­tory work­ers last April, these words have a timely ring. But in fact, they are drawn from U.S. Labor Sec­re­tary Frances Perkins’ 1933 essay “The Cost of a Five-Dollar Dress.”

I couldn’t help but be struck by the many par­al­lels between now and then—including the reluc­tance of us cash-strapped shop­pers to pay more than nec­es­sary. “[I]n hard times it is per­haps ask­ing too much of the con­sumer to hope that he (or she) will refuse to pur­chase spe­cially priced’ cloth­ing as a protest against sweat­shop prod­ucts,” acknowl­edged the prag­matic Perkins (who was, inci­den­tally, the first woman to hold a U.S. cab­i­net post).

Even for con­sumers com­mit­ted to putting their dol­lars where their val­ues are, the sit­u­a­tion is far from sim­ple. “I really want to do the right thing but I don’t know how to do that on my income. I cer­tainly can’t make my own clothes for a host of rea­sons. I do buy many things at thrift shops, but does that solve the prob­lem if they were still made cheaply in the first place?” was one friend’s response to my recent essay on “The Hid­den Costs of Fast Fash­ion.”

There is also con­cern that even expen­sive clothes may have been man­u­fac­tured under bad conditions—so given that we don’t know for sure, why pay more? (For what it’s worth, here’s my take: It’s true that money is no guarantee—that a pricey item may have come from an over­seas sweat­shop. But that $15 skirt or pair of pants? You can be pretty sure of it.)

Moreover—and I hate to tell you this—factory con­di­tions are not the only poten­tial moral haz­ard here. Con­sider the fact, as I learned just this morn­ing from my law pro­fes­sor friend Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, that the tin in the zip­pers and buck­les we wear is often inex­tri­ca­bly linked to bloody armed con­flicts and human rights abuses. (For more on this issue, see Ciara’s dis­turb­ing Slate piece about how “con­flict min­er­als” are inte­gral to our cell phones—and that the com­pa­nies who make these prod­ucts are cur­rently engaged in a legal bat­tle to secure their right not to tell us.)

So what do we do?

For starters, I sug­gest we not sim­ply throw up our hands or turn away–and that we keep look­ing for infor­ma­tion and answers even as we acknowl­edge our own complicity.

In the mean­time, many of us can spend more but buy less—though some no doubt would ques­tion this. To wit, one reader of my pre­vi­ous piece was hor­ri­fied at the sug­ges­tion that eight or ten pairs of shoes are more than a teen girl strictly needs. “Eight or ten pairs of shoes is extrav­a­gant? Where did you grow up? Well-dressed women have, at a min­i­mum, a pair of work­out shoes, san­dals, boots, bad-weather boots, flats, and some dressier heels of vary­ing heights — and then they have some if not all of those in dif­fer­ent col­ors and styles, depend­ing on their lifestyle. I doubt there’s a woman above the poverty line in Amer­ica with two feet and fewer than ten pairs of shoes. The aver­age woman in the US has at least 19 pairs.”

I will also con­tinue to sound the thrift shop drum. Yes, the cloth­ing we buy there—like the $2.00 Gap t-shirt I’m now wearing—may have been man­u­fac­tured under bad con­di­tions, but the fact is, it’s already here. We are talk­ing sunk costs, both envi­ron­men­tal and human, and in buy­ing used cloth­ing, at least we keep it out of land­fills. As I see it, thrift shops are one place we can still feel good about that five dol­lar dress. Or that five dol­lar dress that’s not a dress—just ask this woman here.

© 2013, amy gut­man. All rights reserved.

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Originally published on the blog Plan B Nation.
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About the author

Amy Gutman is a writer and lawyer with eclectic interests and a resume to match. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Salon, Psychology Today, and the Chicago Tribune, among other venues, and she is the author of two suspense novels, both published by Little, Brown. Currently a lecturer in the Commonwealth Honors College at UMass Amherst, she lives and works in Plan B Nation. More »

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