Greed or Dignity?

Written by: Rachel Ross

I went to Mexico City for the first time three weeks ago and I fell in love. The size, culture and beauty of this incredible city had me walking around in a daze, wanting to take everything in at once. Mexico City is almost four times the size of New York City, so needless to say, it's huge. I barely scratched the surface of exploring each colonia (neighborhood). When I had a day to explore solo, I decided to visit Colonia Polanco, mostly because it was walking distance from our hotel and I was intrigued by the reputation of swanky elegance. Sometimes it's nice to have a little luxury in your life!

During the summer of 2011 I lived in the The Hague, Holland with close family friends. That summer was wonderful for so many reasons, but mostly because it was the first time that I travelled and spent many days exploring alone. Shopping was my way of becoming acquainted with Den Haag, because if nothing else- I knew how to shop. A couple times a week, I would take the bus downtown and explore the various shops along the gorgeous cobblestone streets. I found comfort in the routine of trying on clothes, visiting familiar spots like H&M and Zara, and feeling a part of the downtown scene.

But as I became H&M's biggest customer that summer, I realized the ridiculous amount of clothes I was buying was not going to solve the emotional battles that were happening in my heart. Treating clothes as a band-aid to my emotional pains was not only personally damaging, but I had no grasp on the consequences my mindless shopping was having on the planet. 

Once I moved to Guatemala in the fall of 2015, the veil of my 'over-consumption' was pulled back and I was able to see the way I dealt with difficult things: clothes, food, alcohol, noise... It was easy to come to grips with my over-consumptive ways when my American 'comforts' were stripped away, I saw what was happening in my heart and it wasn't something new clothes could fix.

I also came to Guatemala to work with a non-profit that focused on ethical fashion and employing women; needless to say, it was the perfect storm for life-changing realizations. Once I grasped that constantly 'reviving' my wardrobe was not going to fix me, I could be affected by the tragedies happening worldwide within the garment industry. It is a lot easier to act like these tragedies aren't happening. Trust me, I had done that for a long time. For example, I had put off watching, The True Cost because I didn't want that mirror held up to my face. But when I finally did watch the film, I was struck by the environmental and humanitarian impacts my shopping sprees were having on this planet.

Living in Guatemala, has given me the perspective and the distance to see my own hand in this industry and stir up the passion to actually make a change.

I've been ruined in all the right ways.  

Flash forward. After a year of living in Guatemala, the launch of an ethical fashion brand, and many humbling life lessons later- I find myself walking down Avenida Presidente Masaryk in Colonia Polanco breezing past gorgeous stores, Hermes, Max Mara, Gucci. I saw Zara in the distance and thought, “Hey old friend, haven't seen you in a while.”

As I sorted through the expansive sale section, I walked into the dressing room with 6 items in my hand. I felt this small internal voice telling me to look at the tags and see where the garments were made. I thought, "I am starting a fashion brand in Guatemala based on ethical production and giving dignity back to the makers, I should look at the tags...right?"
But I waited. 

After I tried on all of the pieces, I finally read where the garments were produced.

Made in China
Made in India
Made in Portugal
Made in Spain
Made in Thailand

and the last one read:
Made in Bangladesh

My mind immediately went to footage of the Rana Plaza collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2013 and the devastating loss that happened that day, in the name of cheap and fast fashion.

Rana Plaza collapse, 2013. Photo cred: USA TODAY

Rana Plaza collapse, 2013. Photo cred: USA TODAY

I walked around the store for 30 more minutes, desperately holding the one top that looked semi-decent on me as contradicting thoughts swirled around my head,

"You deserve this, you never shop anymore."
"What if this was made in a sweat shop... What if a young girl made this...What is her life like?"
"This will make you feel good, this will make you feel attractive, trendy, you need this.

That last thought stopped me in my tracks and eventually led me to place the top back on the rack and walk out of Zara feeling free

As I walked out of the store, I had a deeper grasp that no piece of clothing will determine my worthiness, my joy or my peace. I have bought into that lie for so long: that buying more and more will solve something in me; that I shouldn't care where or how my clothes were made.

It's fascinating that the textile industry treats their workers like slaves and creates slaves out of their consumers. 

Knowing all of this, I find myself thinking- "OK, I'll just never shop again. I won't care about fashion, wear baggy hideous clothes and buck the entire system..."

But the truth is: Fashion can be a gift.

Being able to express yourself through what you wear is an amazing outlet of creativity but also a huge responsibility. I've always been driven by emotion and empathy more so than facts and data. I can read about the conditions of sweatshops until I'm blue in the face, but until I empathize with a story, I see no change in my behavior. 

So I choose to look at this complicated industry and my relationship to clothes like this: When you put on your clothes, you are wearing someone's handy-work, someone's story. Knowing that when I get dressed, I'm engaging in a bigger story- I have to ask myself what narrative do I want to be a part of?

A story of abuse and greed? Or a story of dignity?

It's that straight-forward.
Even though it's freaking hard, I choose dignity.

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