The Perils of Eco-Chic (Brown is the New Black)

New Year’s Eve: I’m in front of the mirror running an approving eye over my outfit, which is “vintage” (or close enough) from head to toe: vintage cotton dress, lace-up vintage boots, second-hand necklace fashioned out of an 80s earring, and a skinny brown belt picked up at Good Sammy’s. My gaze stops though on the lacy headband holding back my hair that completes the outfit – an elastic-y synthetic-y thing that, I suddenly remember, I bought at a major chain store.

The headband made me think about some of the perils of trying to be “eco-chic”, and how easy it is to confuse one good motivation with another. When there are so many feel-good reasons informing your choices, it’s a little too easy to let one ethical consideration stand in for another.

Shopping at opportunity shops is great, a pastime in itself, one that’s more challenging but less exhausting than department store shopping. There’s so much more to sort through, but so much less you would actually pick up and try on. I often walk back out of my favourite “label” shops after completing one slow revolution, because I like everything, and how could I possibly choose? In the op-shops I could go for hours rifling through the racks. When you go op-shopping you get to congratulate yourself  on developing an “eye” for hidden gold .Of course my “eye”, when I get it home, proves pretty much always to pick things out that are brown. Seriously, every third dress in my wardrobe is brown. I can say that my favourite shades are autumnal, at about the point at which the fall of autumn leaves become indistinguishable from the sludgy mud …

Even though they are so noticeably brown, I love my op-shop outfits – they’re a bit different, they might even be “vintage”-y finds, and you get to feel smug if someone asks you “where is that from?” and you can answer that you found it in an op-shop – very different from you bought it at such-and-such. Saying you found it acknowledges the dress or the top as an object of a quest; a prize fought for and achieved, snatched from the grasp pf the cheesecloth-wearing rainbow-headbanded hippie just behind you.

(Actually my Mum and my Nana hate it when I announce my outfit’s op-shop origins to the world, they seem to be a bit embarrassed that I would prefer to tell someone the story of dragging the severed head of the questing-beast bumping behind me back down the cliff instead of shrugging over one lordly shoulder at the head neatly mounted on the wall – oh this? I had Alannah-monster-hunter mount it for me. The walls wear them on Gossip Girl.)

Op-shop clothes are cheap,  and have no carbon footprint for their production; you are recycling the materials, and the carbon cost of getting the cardie to Good Sammy’s and then you to the shop are pretty minimal; and op-shop clothes allow you to avoid paying money in support of unethical labour practices, and best of all, op-shop clothes are cheap. See the thing is, I included my lacy headband, picked up at Diva, in my catalogue of ethically-sourced fashion because what I remembered was that it, like my other clothes, had been really cheap. Given the long hours of questing through the racks at Good Sammy’s, which is what I really remember, it’s difficult not to think of the few-dollar accessories I pick up on the spur of the moment as a matching part of the eco-chic ensemble.

So what happened is my mind blurred together the eco-savvy-not-supporting-sweatshop-labour-and-cheap. This worries me because I can see that this is part of a wider trend, at least in the middle-class Australia that I’m familiar with. For me, eco-chic becomes troubling when human rights and environmental responsibilities become conflated. We are told that our consumer choices have power, and with all the subtleties and problems that we are asked to consider, it can be difficult to avoid letting one aspect of ethics stand in for and replace another.

Diva products are sold all around the world. According to their website, Diva products “meet all EEC requirements (no nickel content) despite there being no legislation governing this in Australia at present.” So it seems that my outfit ticks a box for energy efficiency and is still pretty eco-chic, but I want to avoid allowing environmental concerns to stand in for the other ethical concern of labour conditions. Who made my headband, and in what conditions? Diva doesn’t have a statement about labour conditions on their website; and I would doubt that they or other similar retailers would feel the same kind of pressure to look ethical in relation to human labour as they are to look “green”.

I have thrown the tag away; I can’t tell where the lovely lace headband was made, although that would tell me little anyway, as the only country whose industrial relations laws I know anything about is Australia. That is the problem though, I don’t assume that my mass-produced (and lovely) headband would be produced in an unethical way, but the point is I don’t know. Unlike the dress from a stallholder I chatted to, the shoes from the second-hand boutique I visited in Melbourne, the belt from my favourite local Good Sammy’s and the necklace fashioned from discarded junk ( stuff from the 80s) at the bottom of my mother’s jewelery box, my headband is an object without history. And because I’ve bought it directly from the retailer, I am the demand that creates the supply, and I have tacitly accepted how that supply is met.

Serendipitously, just yesterday, as I was writing this, I received a note in my inbox exhorting me to “buy Australian on Australia Day.”  I’m pleased to see that I’m not expected to lug into Harvey Norman, politely wait around while I’m first ignored and then patronised by sales staff until it’s time for me to personally carry home a fridge – no, all I have to do is look for gorgeous Australian-made things on etsy, such as for example these:

Not Brown!

Admittedly I probably won’t have magically earned enough money by writing my thesis or this blog by Australia Day to join in the economic patriotism, but I am going to keep track of some of the local markets and other shindigs where I could buy locally and Aussie-made accessories to dot my field of brown dresses.

Made on the Left will be hosting a pop-up-market for the Perth Cultural Centre’s O’day on 30th of January. Made on the Left Markets are a source of local handmade products, their website also provide links to local craft artists and their work.

Made on the Left drew my attention to the wonderful Oxford Street Market which is on at the moment, every Saturday from 9am-4pm down the “cafe” end of Oxford street, and which I always forget to go to, even though the silver choker with malachite teardrops I bought at the Oxford Street markets when I was in year 12 is still the most-often complimented of my necklaces, and also the go-to piece if I want to look a bit bohemian (am going to Fremantle). I resolve to go and see if I can’t find one or two locally-made accessories to go with my op-shop glamour from one of the talented stallholders there.

Of course it occurred to me that a place to go to accessorise my second-hand – sorry, “vintage” – clothes could be the vintage markets (which actually haven’t been around that long). There’s a few coming up – the Retro Markets that are hosted every month by Sugar Blue Burlesque are coming up on Sunday January 30th, from 12pm to 4:00pm, at “The Burlesque Lounge”, 267 William St, Northbridge. These are markets that I have met on the internet and in the photos of veteran market-goers on facebook, but I’ve yet to make it there myself.

On Sunday went to check out one of the facebook pages that usually indicates when a collection of stallholder’s wishing to sell people vintage clothes reaches critical mass and erupts into a market, or, as the official term now seems to be established, a HUGE VINTAGE SALE. It turned out that the sale had been on that day, and so I missed it. It is of course a good thing I missed it, a good thing, as people who are still students at the beginning of ’11 have no money. But still 😦 It was huge!

Mind you, second-hand clothes from seasoned sellers like this come with their own ethical hooks and catches; two of the dresses I bought from the gorgeous and quirky Oh Henry Vintage had labels telling me they were imported from Japan – so buying from someone who sources and then imports gorgeous vintage-y clothes means paying a carbon cost that is potentially very high.

I think that next time I scrounge up some change for funky headgear or belts or brooches to liven up my army of op-shop brown, I will go back to the source of my favourite Good Sammy’s (Rokeby road, and the one in Osborne Park) and maybe, if my lovely friend Sally is in the mood to take me (although I probably won’t be listing it among my heroic exploits) – the tip!

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6 Responses to The Perils of Eco-Chic (Brown is the New Black)

  1. Madeline says:

    Love the earings, if only I had pierced ears!

  2. Jason says:

    Is the conflation of human rights and environmental concerns not also happening here though:

    but I am going to keep track of some of the local markets and other shindigs where I could buy locally and Aussie-made accessories

    …? Because while these accessories are made by people under decent working conditions (ie. their own), the raw materials themselves have a footprint, and are being made into something brand new instead of being recycled*. That is: since it ticks the “manufacturing conditions” box, you forget about the environmental impact it has.

    *Of course, if they are recycled, I am just talking out of my op-shop bought hat.

  3. laurieormond says:

    I guess I can ask the stallholders about where they source their materials… I know I’ve bought some recycled or “upcycled” things in the past.

  4. Sylvia says:

    On the whole, I agree with you. I think buying second-hand is usually the most ethical choice (in addition to the reasons you gave, there is also the fact that these op-shops are often run by charities and employ people with disabilities). I must admit, though, that I’ve had moments of guilt in these stores too – the triumph of snaffling that lovely bit of cheesecloth to add to my rainbow collection before the girl in the vintage dress in front of me gets it can be tempered by the thought that perhaps I’m also depriving someone else of this item – someone who, unlike me, cannot afford to buy new clothes at all. I think this guilt is mainly nonsensical – there seems to be a neverending supply of clothes out there for these shops after all, but I guess I am just often acutely aware of my privilege in these shops – of the fact that while I am there for pleasure, others are there out of necessity, and that I’ve just scraped the cream off the top of the otherwise pretty mundane selection of clothes.

    The same awareness of privilege haunts me as I browse through stalls of exquisitely handmade brooches, jewellery and aprons at fairs like ‘Made on the Left’. I think these fairs are fantastic, and it is wonderful to be able to buy locally made, creative, ethically made goods from the people who make them. We need to remember, though, that until we can buy more than just luxury goods at these stalls, until there are equally ethical places to purchase washing machines, vacuum cleaners, cleaning products, underwear, you name it, then the majority of people have little choice but to purchase goods whose environmental and ethical credentials are unknown at best, nonexistent at worst.

    None of this is to detract from your thoughtful, conscious efforts to live and buy ethically – I love how much thought you have given to this!

    • laurieormond says:

      Such a good point Sylv – at the moment the ethical choice is usually also the luxury choice. I notice this at the supermarket all the time – it is damn expensive to buy organic vegetables, fair-trade coffee, or locally-made sourdough bread!

      Of course, your point also hits home because plugging the markets in the post above and vowing to peruse the stalls was a bit of a conceit for the post – at the moment I couldn’t actually afford to buy anything at them! But it’s not a matter of being genuinely poor, I’m still operating from a position of privilege – it’s more that I’m at exactly that point where I could justify a bit of frippery from Diva because it seems “affordable” but I hesitate over the more expensive labour-of-love and much time like the earrings above.

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