The many sides of buying more ethical clothing

Tuesday, December 5th 2017
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One of the fundamental aims of Permanent Style has always been to show the value and enjoy of investing in better clothing.

Quality menswear not only often looks better with age, but can be better value than cheaper alternatives, if kept for a long time and looked after well.

It also absolutely minimises waste.

With quality clothing you might have one pair of shoes that lasts 10 years, perhaps, rather than three that last 3 or 4 each.

Buying less is not easy.

When you become more passionate about clothing, it’s hard to buy less of it. (You want to do the opposite, if anything.)

And we all know that heady retail fix - the thrill of the irresponsible purchase, the bright bag and the tissue paper.

I’ve always thought that’s one of the reasons men love shoes so much. It’s the one thing you can clean, cream and polish, and feel like you have something new again.

Eggert Johannsson, the Icelandic furrier who is stocked at Anderson & Sheppard, has always talked to me about waste.

He gets very frustrated with the strength of the anti-fur lobby, fear of which leads some governments to destroy thousands of culled animals every year, rather than try and re-use them for fur.

These include red fox in Germany, muskrat in Holland and brushtail possum in New Zealand. One of Eggert’s collections recovers baby lambs that die in their first few days, in order to re-use their skins.

Words like ethical, sustainable and ecological are often used interchangeably, as if they mean the same thing - rather than very distinct ideas.

Such discussion always reminds me of a friend that said he was proud to buy Fair Trade products and support local, English farmers. Even though those two ideas are mutually opposed.

As with many of my preambles, this is slowly getting to the point: Eggert sent me this article on Craftsmanship.net, which I would recommend reading.

More than anything, it shows how complex any argument about ethical clothing is: it requires balancing animal suffering, human livelihoods, environmental destruction, sustainable ecosystems and the natural landscape.  

You cannot have all of those things. Prioritising one always means de-prioritising another.

Buying vegan, for example, is ethical in many ways but also usually means buying more plastic, which involves factories and emissions, and creates waste and landfill.

Fortunately, most of the things we value on Permanent Style come off pretty well.

Linen and hemp are the best materials, and vegetable tanning is a lot better than chrome. Leather is bad in some ways, but if you wear that leather jacket for a long time, it will be pretty good too.

Do have a read - the article is here, and you can support Craftsmanship.net if you feel moved to as well.

Images: top, Permanent Style; second, Eggert; third, Luke Carby; fourth and fifth, Craftsmanship.net

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JB

Buying less is indeed a big challenge. As you say, the more you learn and the bigger your interest gets in clothing, the more you want to buy. When you aquire that first pair of lovely flannels you want more of the same, even if the only change would be a slightly lighter shade of grey.
It would be very interesting to read about your own reflections and views on this, and your usage of your own wardrobe. Just by looking at the pictures featured here in the blog, I’d say the pieces you rotate on a daily bases are not a huge percentage of your full warderobe? Of course, seasonality will affect a bit, but not that much.
I find this to be true for myself at least, I keep coming back to the same 5-6 pairs of trousers, sweaters and shoes, jackets, ties etc.

David

I can’t agree with the assertion that “the more you learn and the bigger your interest in clothing, the more you want to buy.”
Frankly, the reverse is true. I’ve been ploughing this furrow since I was a ‘60s mod and the more prudent and discerning I have become in buying only top quality clothing that I need, the more permanently stylish I have become.
Being a shopaholic is just boring and wasteful and please Simon, no capsule wardrobe articles please!
Take the bull by the horns – which 4 suits, 5 shirts, 2 pairs of shoes, 2 sweaters , 2 jackets/trousers, 1 pair of chinos, 1 pair of jeans, 2 outwear coats would you keep? Taking it back to the bone will focus the mind on real style.

David

Yes, it is true that initially you think more is better. It is also true that historically there were less independent advice sources – like your excellent site – so people tended to make their mistakes by buying and trying.
The key message is that the real aficionado makes very considered purchases that fits a wardrobe that is designed for his style and way of living.
Worn quality clothes also have a charm and louche look that is an essential ingredient in the permanent style game and I see by following your blog that you are becoming more and more aware of this.
Of course, endless commissions are the name of the game – it’s what you are here for and it is very useful because you can make our mistakes for us.
Your readers are intelligent enough to know that they should self select and if they don’t they should have a lie down in a dark room.
As to the capsule wardrobe / cutting back debate . Folk can design capsules ad nauseam – it’s the violent cut back that is the real test because that is the one that obliges you to make the tough choices that will bring true quality to the for.

Fridrik

This is a debate I have had many times with my pink haired vegan nephew that yes wearing leather or wool creates harm but the ecological footprint is tiny compared with plastics and fast fashion. Fleece has it´s place and that place for me is in the mountains and even there I am moving more often to wool.

Anonymous

Simon lambs don’t have fur. They have fleece.

Tim Fleming

Good article – worth bookmarking. Thanks for the link!

D

“Such discussion always reminds me of a friend that said he was proud to buy Fair Trade products and support local, English farmers. Even though those two ideas are mutually opposed.”

Why exactly ? The local English farmers are getting fair wages when you buy from certain brands. Whats the logical fallacy here ?

Clive

I find my Fairtrade purchases tend to be stuff that can’t be grown domestically, like coffee and tea, so not necessarily inconsistent. But overall I agree: quality is often better value if you can afford it. Thank you for the continually interesting blog and also for the pop up shop which I enjoyed visiting to buy the new polos that I hope to be wearing for many years!

Ani

For Cotton versus synthetic clothing, I’m told that the overall ecological footprint is much bigger with cotton given the amount of water used in growing the crops.

As you say, overall there aren’t easy decisions when it comes to this. A Primark jumper may cost £10 but be disposed of within a few months while a Smedley jumper could last several years.

I think looking after the clothes , shoes etc that you do buy – whether they are high street or too end – is very important. And as a society we do need to move away from disposable culture – from bottles to blazers.

Simon

Attempting to reconcile the desire for things against the harm those things cause is always difficult. I’m sure most of us would avoid air travel if we fully allowed ourselves to consider the scale of the environmental impact.

It is extremely difficult to find suitably stylish and non-leather footwear, especially so when avoiding plastics. I suppose the thing that offsets this seed of guilt about the use of synthetics is the reduction in green house gas emissions avoiding animal agriculture brings and how much unnecessary suffering it prevents, which for me overrides all else.

Michelle

Thanks for sharing this article. It was a well written and thoughtful piece. It’s interesting that there is not so much a vegan movement in Japan nor Hong Kong, and therefore never had people question me about my choices of good leather and such.

Simon

I travelled around Japan last month and found that although the vegan movement is unquestionably in it’s infancy it shows signs of starting to grow. It reminds me in someways how the U.K. was about 10-15 years ago.

Jordan Healey

Have you tried a jacket from hemp fabric yet, Simon? Several italian mills do a hemp/wool or hemp/cashmere blend. I’m thinking about trying a Carnet Bellagio myself

SB

“fear of which leads some governments to [?] thousands of culled animals”

There appears to be a missing word in this sentence.

Best,

SB

BespokeNYC

Very interesting article, thanks for sharing! The last section about the “outrage economy” is depressingly true in many areas where simplistic slogans / causes trump the more complex, nuanced reality all too often…

BespokeNYC

It’s one of the many reasons I love this site…!

For what it’s worth, I think most menswear aficionados do pretty well on the ethics front, by virtue of buying clothes that last longer and aren’t made in sweatshops (although the carbon footprint of all those tailors flying over from Naples probably adds up… ;D)

I do sometimes get a pang of guilt with things like alligator skin belts (or a rather nice ostrich leather wallet I just got) so it’s interesting to learn more about the provenance of these materials. In general, there’s a great need for more universal accreditations to help us make more informed and, dare I say, ethical, choices about clothing, in the same way we can with food (although the current system is far from perfect there either)

Martin

A very eloquent text. It reminded me of a heavy black db wool coat a tailor in Vienna showed me recently. She had borrowed it from a very old man who had inherited it from his father who in turn had gotten it from his father. It had been made by a Romanian tailor likely more than a hundred years ago and looked impeccable.

Ed

In the apologia for fur clothing, please do tell why it is necessary to cull thousands of animals each year.

Ed

Nature does a pretty good job of that.

Gerrit

There is a difference between animal “welfare” activists and animal rights activists, while the former do not care about the culling of animals to manage populations, the latter do care about the rights of every single animal and are therefore opposed to the slaughtering of animals regardless of its purpose.

Dan

I’m glad to see a discussion of this topic here at PS. I would love to see more of the Permanent Style-aligned sources doing more in this area. But it’s true that, at best, you are going to rob Peter to pay Paul on any ethical issue you may feel strongly about and as soon as you’ve factored into account the environmental cost of transportation, you’ve scuppered any progress you may have made in areas of ethical treatment of living beings, or protection to the land from pesticides, bleach or dyes. This may be why there is a dearth of clothing actually matching more than one of these descriptions. Some of them are nice, but are compromising in one way or another.

A couple years ago I found myself tasked with sourcing “sustainable/ethical/ecological” clothing for a wedding party, the futility of which is staggering. Beyond the impossibility to tick every ethical box is the STYLE which emerges from the movement’s loudest proponents, and this gets to the heart of the matter: having been down this rabbit-hole, there are some truly hideous garments being made in the name of ethics. Ultimately, I figured my way out through a logical compromise: If you buy a load of awful clothing, you won’t wear it more than once, which is the ultimate sin in sustainability. Cost-per-wear and the longevity of fewer, high-quality garments are certainly old-world notions of sustainability, but ones which still serve us well.

Graham

I propose that people live with the consequences of their choices. If you want to be “vegan” you MUST understand that all drugs have been tested on animals. ALL doctors have been trained in surgery using animals first. Apparently you can have your “vegan cake” and eat it too?

Gerrit

There are several issues I have with this article.

“an animal’s death sometimes produces social and even environmental benefits” I am sorry to say that but the same could be said for any human, and this is why this argument is so flawed. (e.g. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/oct/28/how-save-planet-stop-having-children-doctors)

The author talks about the sixth grand species extinction without mentioning that this is directly caused by animal agriculture as one of the main reasons for global warming, species extinction, water and air pollution and water shortage. (see http://www.europarl.europa.eu/climatechange/doc/FAO%20report%20executive%20summary.pdf) By buying animal by-products such as leather or wool, one is contributing directly to the profitability of these industries.

The author just ignores the pulse of the fashion industry report with claims about toxicity of acrylic and rayon. The fact that acrylic and rayon are toxic does not make leather, wool and silk more sustainable! And there are many other vegan materials which the author tends to ignore.

“Calling something that is plastic ‘vegan’ to promote it is false advertising,” this statement is just wrong and the owner of the leather shop does not know the definition of veganism: seeking “to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.” The ethical motivation of vegans is constantly ignored throughout the article and they are portrayed as misguided environmentalists.

The article constantly compares vegan product with the worst environmental footprint with the non-vegan product with the best footprint. For example rayon from chopped down rainforest with silk from “sustainable silk farms” or pleather made by polluting the environment with vegetable tanned leather from animals killed for the food industry. Again there are many alternatives the author ignores and he paints all vegans as pleather buying, plastic wearing fast fashion victim.

There are countless sustainable vegan clothing brands and most vegans do not see avoidance of animal products as the “moral bottom line” but also avoid petroleum based products, products produced in sweat shops, etc. But should there be a dilemma where a vegan had to choose between a product that is deemed not perfectly sustainable and a product that is a bit more sustainable but is made by killing non-human animals, the vegan would obviously choose the latter because there is no logical reason to value the non-human animals suffering any less than human suffering.

Anonymous

Gerrit makes some rational, referenced points. Prior to being a vegetarian, and a long time ago, I had shot and killed animals for food and trapped animals (culling and then skinning them). The former is forgivable the latter an atrocious practice. Understandably the fur producer wishes to promote his product – however the ethical argument is weak. Animals farmed for fur are killed by electric shock via an anal probe. Mainstream TV docos have shown shocking animal welfare practices – especially in Russia. The arguments that PETA formulated in the 80’s still stand but fur pedlars are still trying to insinuate their way back into the market. I believe that if a pelt is a by-product of the food industry (i.e. the main product is sustaining life) an ethical argument can be made as further waste undermines the process. However to raise an animal to satisfy the questionable tastes of the wealthy is another matter altogether. I understand your point about culling but as with many practices around welfare matters (box calves etc.) there is a thin line between actual husbandry and the (often intense) pressures of commercial interests. If part of a food process chain the animal has a dignity in death as it serves a real purpose – in killing an animal to satisfy human vanity there is no dignity, not for the animal, nor for the killer. There are of couse many other arguments in this sphere – that fashion, behind the automobile industry, is one of the world’s most wasteful and polluting, which is why David’s argument bears increasingly important weight.

Ladislav

Well, I agree with the idea, that one’s perception on a style and quality picks can and do mainly develop with a time. I totally agree with investing in quality goods that lasts for a long time and if the day comes and they need f.e. change of sole, skilled craftsman will always do his part…we all know, that there is no other substitution for leather shoes, other than leather shoes. I would say, my most likely experience with sustainability of eco system was buying a down jacket of one of the famous producers in version “no fur”, which frankly also looks better than puffy-fluffy ones. Cheers and thanks for your good piece of work dear Simon