My friend bemoaned the fact that his daughter has grown larger than his niece, thus ending the run of hand-me-downs that have been going on since he started a family.
“We’ve never had to buy clothes before,” he said. “It’s scary how expensive they are.”
His daughter is 9. Mine was also 9 when our best source of hand-me-downs dried up: My friend in Montreal moved to Sweden with her family, which included a daughter slightly larger than mine, (and one smaller, to complete the clothes cycle.) There was a gap of a few years before my daughter got big enough to start getting used clothes from her older cousins.
Now that she’s a teen, she has developed a circle of clothes-sharing friends. She comes home from her Sunday night youth group with bags of clothes from other girls, clothes that either no longer fit them or that they were given and didn’t like, or that they just don’t need any more. When one of the teens went to college last year, she cleaned out her dressers and my daughter, and several other kids, suddenly had entire new wardrobes.
The same thing has started happening in her dance classes: On Saturdays, one of the older girls has started bringing in clothing she doesn’t want or need anymore. The other girls pick through the bags and take home what they want. It’s instant recycling.
Any parent knows what money-savers hand-me-downs are. When I was a kid, my brother and I got my neighbor’s old clothes, which I loved because it was the only way I could get real boy jeans. As the middle of five kids and the third daughter, I also got all my sisters’ clothes, and with my mother’s habit of buying adorable matching dresses for her three girls, I had to wear the same dress three times. And I hated dresses. But I digress.
At work, people tend to bring in clothes their kids have outgrown for colleagues’ kids. And there’s a progression: If my son’s clothes are too small for the assignment editor’s son they’ll be handed off to a certain editorial assistant’s son. And the woman downstairs who’s pregnant doesn’t know yet how lucky she is to work here.
When we can’t share clothes, we share tips on where else to get good, cheap second-hand items: our favorite thrift stores, school and church fundraisers, some really good yard sales. Thrift store shopping also supports local causes, from food pantries to hospital guilds to rehab programs for the homeless.
Sharing clothing or buying second-hand is more than just a way to save money. You can buy cheap, new clothes from the big-box stores, and if your children happen to wear shoes, you might not be able to do anything else. But if you want to avoid buying clothing that was made far, far away, under questionable labor practices, you’re going to spend a fortune.
Sara Bongiorni, who wrote “A Year Without ‘Made In China’ ” about her family’s experiment in avoiding products from that country, found that cheap clothing — especially shoes — was nearly impossible to come by.
If you try to keep the money you spend feeding the local economy — or even the national economy — you’re going to be hard-pressed to clothe your family. And if you start reading what WorldWatch Institute has to say about clothes, you might decide to wrap your kids in old bed sheets instead.
“Most of the world’s clothing is manufactured in sweatshops in poorer countries, where workers earn less than they need to live, face cramped or unsanitary conditions, and are often subjected to physical, sexual, and verbal abuse,” according to WorldWatch Institute. “Sweatshop workers in Mexico earn 85 cents an hour for their labor, while in Indonesia the pay is only 15 cents an hour.
Even in the United States, a worker may earn less than $5 for making a garment that will sell for $100.”
That’s not all: “The conventional way of growing cotton, the most common fabric material, relies on heavy inputs of insecticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers, many of which are known or probable carcinogens. Dyes used in clothing can contain toxic chemicals, while permanent press treatment can release formaldehyde gas, also a likely carcinogen,” the WorldWatch Institute says.
Polyester is worse. Organic cotton is prohibitively expensive. And we all need clothes.
At least if we’re sharing, or buying used clothing, we’re getting full use out of it. No additional dyes, chemicals, virgin materials or energy is used to produce a second-hand item. It’s just there. And hopefully, it’s already outgassed all its formaldehyde.
And you don’t have to be a kid to share clothing. In my circle of friends and family, we’ve all learned a lesson from my daughter. Our Sunday dinner friend started bringing us bags of clothes she’s ready to get rid of, after seeing my daughter walk in the house Sunday nights with clothes from her friends. And after years of bringing her daughters’ clothes to my daughter, my sister started bringing me her old clothes too. They’re not even adorable matching dresses anymore.
It’s saved me a lot of money, and saved my conscience some too. And it makes for fun breakfast conversations with my daughter.
“Where did you get that shirt,” I asked her one morning last week.
“Nicole,” she answered. “Whose shirt are you wearing?”
“Kristen’s,” I said. “And these are Jenny’s pants.”
“Well, you look nice,” said my daughter, and as the only family member with any fashion sense, she might be right. Certainly the price was right.
Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.
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