What a tumultuous whirlwind  it has been since I last sat down a month ago to write this column.

A month ago I announced my pledge to buy #nonewclothes for a year. Over 500 of you have since taken the pledge with me. Over 125,000 of you have also signed to petition to get big brands like H&M to #PAYUP for their unfulfilled orders that have left millions of garment workers without wages and a means to feed their families.

In the last month we have also seen worldwide protests against the violence committed against black and brown bodies. Not just in America, but cities in Europe and Australia also marched with the same purpose: to call out and dismantle the systemic racism that oppresses black, brown and indigenous people of color.

These are rapidly changing and tumultuous times, but in the upheaval and the discomfort, I am sensing an awakening happening in our collective consciousness. A realization that our luxuries and privileges, afforded to us by virtue of where we live and/or the color of our skin are built on the systems of exploitation. As I take stock of my own privileged existence I am learning that someone, somewhere, is always paying the price for my entitled way of life.

Nat Kelley Buys No New Clothes for an Entire Year

And nowhere was this more evident than when I did a stocktake of my closet. Buying no new clothes for a year forced me to reckon with the items that I already owned. Clothes, shoes, bags, accessories bursting out of every hidden closet in my house. Piles of clothes ready to be sold or swapped or rented. I forced myself to take stock of each and every piece, asking myself whether or not I wanted to keep it. And in the 80% of cases when I didn’t want to keep an item, I would try to remember the state of mind I was in when I bought it.  My intention being to not make those purchasing mistakes again.

I assessed each item in terms of Fashion Revolution‘s 3 Cs: Consumption, Conditions, and Composition. My consumption problem was clear. But really allowing myself to learn about the conditions my clothes were made in and the composition made me realize that even though I had stopped eating meat and was considering taking my Ahimsa, or Vow of Non-Violence, violence and oppression were woven into the fabric of most of the pieces I owned. I have most likely been adorning myself clothes born out of cruel and violent conditions for my whole life. Talk about being a hypocrite.

Even my higher end pieces bore tell-tales signs of exploitation. Intricate beading or embroidery, most likely outsourced to a third-party sweatshop in India.

The fact is whether it’s fast fashion or luxury brands, most of the clothes we wear are made in countries that do not uphold workers rights. The average garment maker works 14 to 16 hour days, seven days a week, for a sum of money that amounts to sometimes less than a fifth of a living wage. Imagine working 96 hours a week to only earn a fifth of what you need to provide for your rent, food, healthcare and education?

In many developing countries, the legal working age is 15 years old, but without diligent enforcement of this law, many clothing factories employ girls as young as 12.

The thought that I had probably worn something made by a child, forced to work in miserable conditions as the only way out of poverty, made my heart sink.

And I cant even begin to describe the violence that the composition of my clothes has done to the earth. The amount of rivers that have been poisoned from tanneries chemically processing all the leather I have purchased in my life. All the toxic dyes, micro plastics, and synthetic fibers that I owned made from fossil fuels.

Somewhere in the world there are children with chronic diseases from Iiving next to a river that has been polluted to make a purse that I wore a few times before discarding.

It’s very dense and heavy information to take on. I know. It’s easier to look away and pretend you don’t know. I did that for years too. After all, this violence — both to humans and to the earth — is embedded into the entire fashion system. It feels too big and powerful to dismantle.

Except that we are living in times that suddenly make it seem possible. If you ever had a doubt about your ability to take a stand and make an impact in the world, the events of the last month have shown us the power of concerned individuals coming together to fight injustices that we are no longer able accept. So which side of history do you want to be on?

Nat Kelley Buys No New Clothes for an Entire Year

If our species survives the impending climate catastrophes that are coming, and we are still around to look back on the age of the Anthropocene and reflect, we will no doubt be ashamed of the modern day slavery taking place right now. Exploited humans, working in inhumane conditions to make clothes for us to wear once and throw away. Enslaved animals being bred, tortured, and killed for our leather bags, shoes, and iPad covers.

These are just the facts. You can do what you want with them. I know that I, for one, don’t want to support any more violence with my influence, money, or purchasing power. I will leave you with one of my new favorite quotes to meditate on until next month.

“There is no beauty in the finest cloth if it makes hunger & unhappiness.” — Mahatma Gandhi

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  1. Hi Nathalie,
    I admire your commitment to this cause. Exploitation of foreign workers is something I’ve thought a lot about. My one question is where will some of the workers in these poor communities earn any wage at all of there jobs are no longer available. How do we teach people to get along and build solid economies in their poor countries? There are resourceful peoples throughout the world who have done this in the past. However, the majority of the world’s population is run by dictators and despots who have no interest in anything but their own power and wealth or by religious idealists who refuse to realize that without separation of church and state, there can never be true freedom and prosperity. To change this would require military intervention at the lease, something we definitely don’t want.
    I am not in any way diminishing what your are doing. I think it’s great. But I do worry about the lost jobs and expect that in many of these countries if they don’t use these folks to make clothes they will exploit them some other way. Wouldn’t it be better if we pressured existing multi-national companies to insist that the manufacturers they use in these poor countries offer a living wage (and good working conditions) to these workers based on that country’s standard of living? That seems to me a better way to improve the lives of those exploited workers. If I’m way off base please let me know. I’d appreciate any feedback.

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