Fashion vs An Extra Year of Life

During my recent move I opened box after box of clothes that I had forgotten about.  Somehow I had gone at least the last two years without wearing these items and still managed to dress myself every morning with something halfway-decent.  My first reaction with my newfound minimalistic tendencies was to toss them all in a bin destined to the local thrift store.  However, as I opened the boxes I realized that I still liked the garments within.  I could see myself wearing that dress shirt again, or those two sweaters, or those four old Halloween costumes could be re-used.  The clothes definitely had life left in them and I simply felt guilty about tossing them aside.  So I kept them.  In a box.  In the corner of my closet.  Where they’d likely sit until next time I pack up my house for another move.

I was reminded of those boxes today as I read Juliet Schor’s True Wealth, a book that discusses, among other topics, how our consumerist habits have skyrocketed in the last decades and the economic and environmental impacts are choking us.  She describes how previous generations only owned a few outfits, and therefore durability, utility, and interchangeability were the most important characteristics weighing into a clothing purchase. Furthermore, garments were worn until they simply couldn’t pass for clothing anymore, oftentimes valued and bartered in second-hand markets or passed down through families.  They were cared for like a tool and repaired when necessary to seek out every last minute of usefulness.  When they finally ended their useful life as garments they were usually utilized in quilts, rags, patches, or otherwise re-purposed. 

This stands in stark contrast to today’s clothing which to most people holds little value beyond being a fashion item.  The vast majority of people never “wear out” an outfit anymore; instead they toss it when it seems “old”—defined as when it’s no longer the “in” style.  Compounding this shift in mentality, consumers have grown accustomed to relatively cheap clothing as new low-wage labor markets have been tapped to cater to an insatiable demand from developed nations. With cheaper prices, it is easier than ever to wear an outfit only a few times before it’s deemed “old” and thrown away.  Consumers have also become accustomed to an industry that pushes new fashion trends every few months, constantly keeping consumers on their toes to expect and buy the next big thing before everyone else, and then when everyone else has it they can move onto the next fashion trend.  Those corporate marketing executives sure are doing their jobs well!

Schor argues the environmental impact of this habit (and others) is exhausting our natural resources in an unsustainable manner, and contributing towards us living beyond our means which she implies was a contributing factor in the 2008 financial recession.  Although I agree with the environmental impact, I’d like to focus a bit more on the monetary aspect of this clothing consumption.  According to Schor, the average person in 2007 purchased 67 items of clothing a year.  Since that could encompass anything from socks to shirts to jackets let’s just assume a conservative estimate of each item costing an average of $20.  That yearly clothing tab runs $1,340. 

Although this may not sound too high, let’s look at the comparison versus someone who treated their clothing more like a tool, as our ancestors did.  Let’s assume each year we buy only what was completely worn out from the previous year:  a few new pairs of socks and underwear, three shirts, two pairs of pants, some running shorts, an athletic shirt, a pair of running shoes, a pair of quality leather shoes, and a jacket for example.  Assuming we are buying mid-quality/brands, the total will run us about $300, but for math simplicity let’s just say it’s $340.  That means we are spending $1,000 each year on clothing we don’t actually need; simply purchases of fashionable things.  Over the course of a 70-year adult lifespan, that’s a $70K tab to pay.  Now do the math of how much time you need to work to pay for that fashion.  For the average American that’s more than a year of work simply to dress in the latest style!

Would you be willing to wear “old,” yet still useful clothes your whole life and get back an extra year to enjoy doing whatever it is you want to do in your free time?  I know I am!  

On a side note, I purposely used the clothing choices in the scenario above because they represent the clothing I fill up my suitcase with when I travel—which means this is truly all I need to dress with; all the other drawers (and hidden boxes) in my closet are simply filled with other items that I want but don’t need.    OK, speaking of hidden boxes, let’s go back to the start of this blog post.   Now what do I do with all those clothes I have tucked away?  Well, they are definitely not the latest fashion, but as I previously stated they are definitely still serviceable.  I’ve decided to hang onto them and as my clothing does get completely get worn out I’ll dip into the surplus inside the boxes.  This will save me purchases in the future while I slowly “wear out” my way into a true minimalist wardrobe where only the durable, useful, and interchangeable items will be replaced when they are truly reaching the end of their useful lives.

Bottom Line:  How important is dressing in the latest fashions to you?  By choosing to wear clothing until the end of its useful life, you can earn back an entire year of your working life.

Did you find this post interesting?  If so, check out our website at www.minmylife.org.  If the subject material of this blog post caught your attention, I recommend reading our post on the minimalist kitchen

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