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The meaning of a five dollar dress

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.

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