Mindfulness over Mindless Mass Consumption:
Learning to Shop with Intention and Purpose
By Dana Todd, Founder and CEO, Balodana
I hate to admit it, but as recently as five years ago I was not a conscious consumer when it came to clothing. I was a voracious label reader in the grocery aisle, diligent about avoiding endangered seafood and buying organic veggies. Of course I knew about sweatshops, and I tried to avoid the most egregious brands that I knew about, but honestly I didn’t really let ideas like sustainability and ethical production into the front of my mind when confronted with a 50% off holiday sale or a pile of markdowns in the clearance section.
I was like a lot of women, addicted to sales and shopping, and loving the thrill of the bargain hunt! My mom and I once came home from a shoe sale with 14 pairs of shoes between us, including 2 pairs that didn’t even fit us! But they were “such a good deal” we figured we’d find someone to take them. I was the definition of a binge shopper, I did it for sport and entertainment. It made me happy. I didn’t bat an eye when I counted up over 100 pairs of shoes in my closet. I deserved it, right?
And even when I started Balodana, a marketplace that represents tailors and custom-clothing makers, my purpose was originally just to help cut down on the frustration and waste of poorly fitting clothing. Sustainability seemed a low value benefit, given the market research I did when building the company – women I spoke with seemed aware of the general issues, but it didn’t drive their decision-making.
It wasn’t until I started reading and researching more about how clothes are made that I encountered horror after horror, and it forever changed me. I took an online course from Fashion Revolution that forced me to examine the complex pipeline behind even a single garment. I voraciously consumed stories in the news, and I started reading international trade journals about fabric suppliers and production factories. The images of people in the fabric mills, immersed in chemicals with no protective equipment. The miles of garments thrown into landfills. It was like slowly waking from a dream, and once you are awake you can’t go back – you can’t close your eyes anymore.
One of the statistics that stuck in my brain haunts me every time I try to buy something mass manufactured now: of the retail price tag you see, only about 10%-15% of the price went to the production factory. Of that, only a fraction went to the fabric and to the laborers who produced both the fabric and the garment. In a $15 shirt, perhaps only 50 cents went to the person who spent their time painstakingly sewing the seams and attaching the buttons, zippers and finishes.
It’s likely they made even less, depending on the country of origin and the brand that commissioned it (luxury brands are often the worst offenders). Suddenly that “great bargain” seemed to me a sickening insult to humanity. And while I recognize that those workers need jobs and income, the largesse from consumerism has not created lasting systemic value for people whose countries have failed them. If anything, we’ve created a never-ending cycle that moves from country to country seeking the poorest people in countries with the fewest regulations and protections. We’ve built economic empires on a system that celebrates the lowest cost-per-unit price, instead of the highest quality delivering low cost-per-wear for consumers. We’re not building schools and homes, we’re building labor camps and landfills.
Being “woke” in your understanding doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy shopping though, and it doesn’t even mean that you can’t buy new clothes. You just have to practice the same kind of mindfulness you apply in other areas of your life. You know not to go to the grocery store when you’re hungry, right? Otherwise you’ll end up with a shopping cart full of popcorn and chocolate. So here are a few tips to help you navigate clothing aisles and websites like a conscious consumer pro:
1. Know the difference between “want” and “need”. Wants are externally stimulated, from seeing a sexy pair of shoes on an influencer or excited by a big limited-time sale. Wants are like food cravings – they’re temporary, and purchases won’t usually sustain themselves in value after the emotional rush of buying. Don’t shop to fulfill an emotional need, when you’re bored or angry or depressed. Doing so just reinforces an addiction cycle.
2. Your real needs are what you encounter when you’re in your closet and your favorite jeans are too small. Or you have a job interview coming up and nothing you own quite gets you to that confidence level. Keep an actual list of your needs, on a sticky or on your phone. Refer to it when you hit the shopping sites or go to the store. Don’t let yourself deviate from needs to wants when it comes to shopping for new items. Cross things off so you can confirm for yourself that your needs are being met. Bonus points: take a moment to be grateful that you can fulfill your needs!
3. Do the math, and the homework. Know the brands who are providing ethical treatment of their workforce, transparent supply chain and sustainable methods of production. Calculate how much of the price tag went to the human who made it. If you couldn’t see the ingredients on a can of food, would you buy it? Of course not. If you don’t know the values in that garment and its brand, put it down.
4. Get to know the process. Try sewing something yourself, or make friends with someone who sews and ask them to help you make something. Commission a custom skirt from a local tailor. We’ve become very far removed from the garment making process, just as we’re removed from the farms that produce our food. Once you get a tangible understanding of the effort involved, and how to evaluate quality and really SEE the fabrication, you’ll never view that retail rack the same way again!
If you have other ideas for how to be more mindful, please share them! What works for you? What brands do you love and support? It’s taken America about 40 years to get to this point in our consumption patterns, and it won’t be an overnight change to fix it. But every choice you make is a step in the right direction, so start now to be the change.
Dana Todd is the founder and CEO of Balodana, a custom clothing online retailer.