Saturday, September 22, 2012

Ethics and Secondhand Shopping

My new career has brought on a rather immediate need to update my wardrobe. I have some things to say about that--thinking through a college teacher's wardrobe is more complicated than I thought--but that's not the point today. The point today is that this need for an update took me on one of my least favorite tasks: shopping.

Closet #2
What my mind sees when I try to get dressed in the morning.

Having been inspired by posts (like this one at from two to one) that detail the sustainability considerations that should go into clothes purchases and the way that shopping consciously can be ethically driven both environmentally and as it relates to working conditions, I've been trying to be a little more conscious of how and where I buy.

So I went to visit a second-hand shop today.

I used to wear a lot of second-hand clothes. In fact, growing up I wore almost exclusively used clothing. I shopped at Goodwill and my mother was an avid (really, the better word might be rabid) garage saler. And I still like the idea of buying my clothes second-hand, it's just that the practice of it hasn't been working out so well. It's hard to find clothes that fit well that are also professional. And the places that do provide clothes that fit well and are also professional are usually prohibitively expensive. It's a challenge.

I didn't have much luck today. There were a ton of clothes that I would wear at this store, but it was all casual stuff: t-shirts, funky skirts, and jeans. I was shopping for professional wear. I did find a couple of dresses and a skirt to try on and headed for the dressing room.

The first dress didn't fit well. The skirt was too big. The second dress fit great and looked cute. It was a simple black dress with a flattering cut and a deep v-neck that had the potential to be worn over a myriad of colorful tops I already own, so it was versatile. The problem? As I was pulling it off, I noticed the label: American Apparel.

Let me be clear. I am under no impression that everything I purchase is of the utmost ethical caliber. I do my best to buy meat that's raised humanely, clothing that's created in acceptable working conditions, and products that are economically sustainable. But I don't research every single purchase I make, I am operating on something of a tight budget, and I know that making ethical purchasing decisions is a game of give-and-take and a process that happens over time. 

But I hate American Apparel.

Hate. I hate them. They have hands-down the most sexist, exploitative, and downright disturbing advertising strategy of any mainstream marketer I have ever seen. Here, let me illustrate:


American Apparel consistently portrays women as dissected body parts in a type of visual synecdoche that reduces them into something less than human. They also constantly portray women as sexual objects, and--while I have no problem with women's sexuality--I don't think there's anything "sexy" about being turned into a glorified blow-up doll. These women are not portrayed as human beings experiencing sexuality; they are portrayed as pieces of flesh for others to sexually use. (You can see more of their most disturbing ads here. You can read some commentary on them here or here.)

I hate them.

So, I put the dress back.

I was thinking about it as I left. Purchasing the dress wouldn't have actually benefited American Apparel because it was second-hand. But I still felt like I would be promoting them as something of a walking billboard for their product. Clothing is somewhat uniquely problematic in that we wear it with the intention of being seen, and when we make decisions about what we display on our bodies, we have to be a little more aware of what messages we're sending. I couldn't be comfortable sending a message that a company who profits from that kind of advertising is okay.

Photo: lonecellotheory


  1. American Apparel is abhorrent. I've spent so much money on clothes in the last two months, it's unreal!

  2. Ahhh I'm so conflicted when it comes to American Apparel. Their fair treatment of employees and ethical business model (when it comes to making their clothes) is virtually unparalleled, especially for a company their size. And I do feel they have toned down their ads quite a bit recently. But I know it is not ideal and I also know their CEO has had problematic behavior in the past. Why can't they just get it together so I can feel 100% not guilty about shopping there?? Sigh.

    And I get that same reaction when I see clothes from Forever 21 at thrift stores. I don't want any of their clothes on my body, no matter what store I buy it from.

    1. I hear you. They do have a great record of employee treatment and ethical production. Why don't the principles in play behind those decisions translate to their marketing?

      And, admittedly, as a rhetoric scholar I tend to privilege the ethics of marketing because it's the one that I see the most readily.

      I don't know about how toned down their most recent ads are, though. I see their ads on websites all the time, and most of them just look like porn. It seems like half of them don't even show any clothes that they could possibly be selling.

    2. I have never seen ads that look like the most disturbing ones that were posted in the link you provided. The ones that I've seen pretty much look like all other advertising in my opinion (not that they're good...there is a problem as a whole with women in advertising). So I guess I've just never seen their most extreme (and seriously horrifying!) advertising until I clicked on the link.

      Being a conscious consumer is tough. Again -- The reaction you get from American Apparel is the same reaction I get from Forever 21 whose sweatshops I have actually been to in Los Angeles or the GAP, Ambercrombie, American Eagle, etc etc etc who have had people die from their terrible conditions and have countless human rights and child labor violations.

      I'm not saying one is better or one is worse. Some people wear clothes form Forever 21 and even though I can't personally understand it, I guess that's how some people feel if I wear American Apparel.

      I wait for the day when buying clothes ethically and with a clean conscience is the easy thing to do.

    3. Me too! Hopefully we're moving in the right direction. At the very least, I think social media makes it easier to be aware of different issues. That can be maddening for us as consumers, but hopefully it puts the pressure on companies to do the right things.

  3. From Two to One linked to this post, and I appreciate it. As someone who knows that I really should think more about ethical clothing purchases yet don't often take the time to do so, these posts are a kick in the pants. As a thrifter, I feel relieved because I feel like I'm making choices that don't pad an organization's pockets (good or bad, but more often bad). And honestly, since I rarely get to shop without a toddler in tow and have very little money to spend on clothing, if I find something I like at a thrift store....I don't usually put it back.

    Since I have limited time and resources, I feel like thrifting in general is the lesser of two evils, and I don't think much about what brands I'm buying. I totally understand where you're coming from, and think AA's ads are (an intentional) disgrace. However, I doubt that anyone will even know where a particular item of clothing came from, so I guess that's why brands don't stop me...or maybe I just want to defend myself. I don't know. :)

    1. I completely understand, and I hope I don't come across as smug. I know that I make choices (for many of the same reasons you stated: shopping while wrangling a toddler, shopping on a budget, etc.) that other people would think aren't as ethical as they should be. I just try to do the best I can at any given moment and accept that sometimes it's not going to be as good as I'd like and it's probably never going to be perfect.

      American Apparel is just a particular trigger for me, so I'm running a little biased. :)

    2. Nope, not smug. :) I'll definitely think more about this the next time I'm thrifting. Thought provoking post.

  4. Hi friends -- I'm glad I could connect you two! As you know, I'm also an avid thrifter and am trying to be more intentional about my consumption, even while thrifting. In the case of AA, I agree with Balancing Jane in that it's a trigger for me. Their advertisements are so degrading and the allegations against their owner for sexual harassment and other misconduct are appalling. Since I try to buy vintage mostly, I don't really come into contact with the sexually objectifying companies, but then again, I'm sure those clothes were worn in situations where there was similar sexual harassment (Mad Men style). Sigh.

  5. bravo for putting it back, and then writing about it. because even if your actions didn't directly affect the company (since you were buying secondhand), you've reached out to a bunch of readers who now will think twice about buying from them. (It doesn't hurt to mention your objections to the thrift store owner too). It's so interesting how a company can make efforts at ethical production on some fronts (employees and production), but then turn around and treat women so ignorantly. thanks for highlighting it!

  6. I'd had similar reaction picking up stuff at thrift stores, only with Tommy Hilfiger.. still cant' bring myself to buy that stuff even if I know he's not getting the profits.

  7. A bigger question may be which thrift store you are purchasing it from. Are they christian ? Christian with an anti-gay stance ? A pseudo thrift store that only donates a small portion of its revenue to a registered charity (I'm looking at you, Value Village)?

    What if it is a christian thrift store, but they employ people who are otherwise considered "unemployable", and have a loyal staff of long standing employment ? What if they actually do charitable work in your community, but with strings-attached christian agendas? It gets really complicated. I wish there were some athiest thrift stores I could shop at instead.

    Re: American Apparel. Again -- a mixed bag. Allegedly ethical employment standards with goods made in the USA/super problematic advertising and owner/management.

    But -- what about the ethics of purchasing other goods made for pennies in Asia by large companies that have problematic employment standards ?

    My $ 0.02: I am very, very poor right now, and can only afford to shop at thrift stores. I choose to shop at the ones that treat their staff and shoppers well. If I am embarrassed by the brand/label I just carefully remove it. Objectionable manufacturers/retailers are getting 0% of my money for this item. I also have no way of knowing whether the clothing was previously owned by someone morally/ethically/politically abhorrent.

    One local thrift store makes a point of slashing through/removing labels so that the items for sale are not valued based on the cachet of the label v.s. the item itself.

    1. Absolutely. "Ethical" buying is such a combination of so many factors that I seriously doubt there are many products (and certainly not many that are readily available to most people) that would fit in every category. I think the best you can do is choose what matters most to you and make your decisions the best you can.

      I've had the same problem with anti-gay organizations asking for donations. I see them do good in my community (they built a much-needed community center, for instance), but I just can't support hate and bigotry. (This particular thrift shop, though, was more of a second-hand, buy, sell, swap place, so they weren't affiliated with any of those places).

      The store that removes the labels sounds really interesting. Do you think that hurts their overall sales? Or do you think people appreciate it?

  8. The store that has the slashed or removed labels is a christian based store. Not all of the goods have slashed labels, so the slashed/removed label goods may actually be donated from a pricier consignment type store. This store is well lit, organized and clean. However -- the dressing rooms are always locked, so staff must open a change room. Prices also vary greatly. Some items are priced delusionally (ie poor quality leather coat from 1996 is $ 70.00 while a hand tailored suit from a very pricey store is $ 25.00). I find the demeanor of the staff to be suspicious bordering on paranoid. Remember -- all their items for sale are donated to them ! They also have a "boutique" where the things that a (not very well educated/not very tasteful)staff member figures are more collectable are for sale at a higher price, with an even more suspicious vibe by the staff that work in this area. This store is close to where I live, but finding donated goods for sale that are unaffordable just feels sort of...hateful ? On one hand this charity is active in the community, and helps many recent immigrants who are not christian, and they have other programs to assist some of the cross section of poor people in the area. On the other hand, having to ask permission to try on a $6.00 skirt, and being unable to afford things that were given to them to help poor people just makes it feel like a humiliating shopping experience.

    But yes -- I have often surprised myself at my own label/brand prejudice when I have scrutinized a potential thrift store purchase. An ugly thing with a designer name becomes more insidiously desirable v.s. a better looking thing that is constructed as well, fits better, from a nicer fabric.

  9. I spent a lot of time in the thrift shop this summer, because I was unemployed. We have two near my house, Goodwill and Boomerangs. (I will not shop at a Salvation Army thrift shop because I don't support SA's anti-gay, anti-women positions.)

    Goodwill is a great organization that provides job training and positive assistance to people in need. Boomerangs is a local chain run by the Boston AIDS Action Committee, and the proceeds help fund AIDS research as well as supporting medical treatment to those who can't afford it. So I feel pretty good about buying from both places. Additionally, I live in a gentrified neighborhood, so what's been donated is often of high quality (you can find the occasional Armani piece at Boomerangs).

    I usually do look at labels when I shop for clothes there, but generally I'm looking for quality. For example, I found a great pair of EMS hiking shorts this summer, and the brand name made me think that they were going to last a long time. When I shop for new, I avoid American Apparel (despite their great labor practices) and Urban Outfitters (because they openly steal designs from small artists and designers), among others. I live in a fairly socially-conscious neighborhood, so I wonder if I were to go through all the racks if I'd even find donations from brands like that.

  10. Awful ads

  11. Good Will is horrible no one who has any ethical standards should ever shop there. They treat their employees mostly handicapped people like slaves!! Some of them make 4.25 per hour and their wages are being cut. But their CEO keeps getting his fat bonuses. WTF Good Will I thought you were a charity. Google it this is really going on here in the US disabled people are being treated like slaves and due to a loop hole are making no where near minimum wage. the whole thing just sickens me. I need cheap clothes as much as the next person but now I shop Thread Up and occasionally Ebay. Salvation Army is garbage too.