Many of us have an interest in exploring self-reliance in our lives. To be self-reliant, you need to reduce your dependence on wants and needs that come from sources outside of your control. Indeed, self-reliance is about taking charge of those things that provide you utility (measure of usefulness) and fulfillment by providing them for yourself. It is necessary to temper this notion to a degree, however. As much as I would like to say that we can do everything on our own, that unfortunately isn’t possible for the overwhelming majority of us. There are just simply things that we cannot make ourselves or that it makes far more sense to obtain from others. Therefore, part of any self-reliant action plan is making the most sensible decisions when it comes to purchasing consumable products. For many of us, clothing falls under something we must procure from others.
When it comes to clothing, I imagine the ultimate form of resilience would be making them from raw material that we gather ourselves. Since the vast majority of us (including myself) don’t know how, we will have to get clothes from others. I, personally, have neither the skill set nor desire to learn the clothes-making process (but I have tremendous respect for those of you who know this genuinely useful and indispensable skill). Due to the fact that we rely on others for clothing, we need to go about obtaining them in the most practical way because it has big implications. The way in which we go about procuring clothes can be the difference between constantly depending on others for new ones because of poor quality and durability or being able to hold onto clothes for decades because you bought clothes with the proper material, quality, and build for the tasks that your lifestyle entails. It can be the difference between struggling to afford them (regardless of income) because of poor financial prudence or the ability to spend money on necessary attire when the need arises. Let me begin this dive into clothing with some context on how I used to approach clothing. Then I will get into how my approach changed, what I expect to get out of them now, and the benefits that come from resilience in the clothes-buying process.
It’s very eye-opening for me when I think of how much my view of clothing has changed over the past few years. I used to really love clothes. I truly did. And this led me to make many stupid decisions regarding them. I used to spend quite a lot of time shopping online and in stores, getting sucked into searching for the best deals and coming up with reasons to need certain types of clothing for an array of scenarios (scenarios that never actually came up). I bought clothes that I didn’t need and that didn’t last me, despite being quite expensive sometimes. It pains me to think of how much money, time, and energy I spent needlessly in the quest for clothes. Money, time, and energy that I could have put to good use for almost any other endeavor. Not everyone is like how I was, but I do believe a lot of people have similar attitudes and behaviors towards clothing, particularly those who have easier and more plentiful access to in-person shopping. These attitudes and behaviors include: having more clothes than are needed, buying clothes impulsively, and spending money on them that they can’t afford (but a credit card makes everything possible right?). I want to explore why we have the feelings and conceptions that we do about clothing. To reinforce that there are many people who have a profligate and absent-minded approach to clothing, let’s look at how much we spend.
Believe it or not, the average American household spends over $1,800 a year on clothing and clothing related services according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2016 Consumer Expenditure Survey. Some of us may be quick to dismiss this as incredulously high while others may be surprised to see it quite a bit lower than what they spend. Now to me, this is extraordinarily high as neither my girlfriend or I have spent money on a single article of clothing in several months. But, I can certainly see this being the status quo for many Americans. Some might buy several hundred dollars worth of clothing every couple or few months, rather than evening it out month-by-month, which I assume is the case for most. There are others that may save their clothing expenditures for the biggest sales, where they may take advantage of it to buy most of their clothes for the year. Whatever way it comes about and whatever the actual total is, people spend a lot of money on clothing. Now that we have established that a lot of expenditure does in fact go towards clothing, I want to consider why a decent chunk of our disposable income gets diverted there.
Do we buy so much because there is an incredibly vast number of clothing brands and retailers that are accessible both in-stores (for most of us) and online? Is it because clothing, for the most part, is within a price range where it can easily be bought without much commitment or savings? Or is it simply because, whether we agree with the notion or not, we are very much self-obsessed with our own image and think at least part of who we are is defined by what we wear? Is it because many of us think that the clothes we wear are an expression of who we are? If we do, this is no doubt due, at least partially, to the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on advertising by the clothing and textile industry, that itself is worth trillions (yes, that’s trillions with a “t”). Have they wrapped us up in the illusion that clothing is a component of success and image, rather than just the simple truth of being a basic necessity? I do think that the psychology they employ is powerful and ensnares many of us into possessing at least some degree of irrationality towards clothing.
I have been in the marketing industry for years now and I have seen how the psychology of producers and consumers has changed drastically. I can’t say when a drastic switch happened exactly, but I’m sure it occurred by an unnoticeable transition rather than being centered around any defining moment. However and whenever it happened, the result is an environment of perpetual sales. There is no longer the “genuine” sales anymore. The periods like Black Friday, Memorial Day, etc. when noticeable markdowns leading to tangible savings unavailable during other times of the year were the precedent. Now nearly all clothing brands seem to have sales all the time, with the notable exception of luxury or niche brands that do not usually have sales at all. Of course the sales differ in their names and their offers, but trying to decipher any substantive value (if any) that they may have has become purposefully blurred and obscured. Consumers want and need to feel like they are getting a deal, whether there is genuine savings or there is just the perception of savings. They need to feel validated. They need to feel that they made a good choice, like acting on an offer and paying less than they would have normally paid otherwise, or getting more than they normally would have for the same price. This feeling is what leads us down the path of making irrational purchases through impulsive buying. The cruel irony is that this often leads to us spending more than we normally would have. This is accomplished through some clever illusions. Now this article is not about the psychology of buying or advertising strategies so I am only going to gloss over a couple tactics to substantiate this point.
One method of advertising manipulation is a current price in relationship to original MSRP. This usually involves a large discount off original MSRP. This looks nice except the retailer never actually sells the product at original MSRP to begin with, so they can offer big discounts from a number that isn’t even relevant. They set the original MSRP high to make for a vast spectrum of potential “discounts” to suit the urgency they want to create.
Another method is the infamous “Buy One, Get One Free” or “Buy One, Get Three Free” or one of the innumerable variations. This also is usually accomplished by starting with original MSRP. We’ve all seen it before. A retailers sells an article of clothing at it’s normal sale price (because there’s always a sale) of $40, but two for one applies to the original MSRP of $80. They aren’t even trying to be sneaky anymore, just relying solely on the psychology of “FREE” to drive urgency and demand. Now sometimes there may be a real savings, but it is not normally getting double the product for the same price you would have normally paid for just one. Even sales on larger ticket items with limited time “0% financing” will probably lead you to find that the cost of financing is built into the price of the item. And there are countless other crafty and no-so-crafty ways of optically enticing us to act and feel validated about our decision.
Despite what I was encouraged to think about what my clothes said about me and the manipulation that I was enticed to fall victim to, I came to a powerful realization that helped fundamentally change my view of clothing. It’s this: clothes in their simplest form are just tools to accomplish a purpose. Now when I say tools, some may think it sounds funny because they think of tools in a more traditional sense like drills, saws, hammers, etc. But when we start to really think about most things, they are tools. Now some items are purely ornamental, whose purpose comes usually from aesthetics or religious significance, but much, if not most, of what we use are tools to get a job done. Clothes are no different. Their fundamental purpose is as a tool to cover us up during the activities and tasks we undertake in life. Therefore clothing should be looked at like other rational purchases we make without (or at least try to make without) emotion. We wouldn’t go to the store and see that dishwashers, dryers, etc. are on sale and buy two because of it. We wouldn’t buy more just because the price is now cheaper, or because they come in different colors and we want the variety. No, we would buy one because that’s all we need. If clothes are therefore tools from which we derive utility, then we should define what utility we want to get out of them and let that guide our decision.
I have thought about this idea of utility in clothing extensively and believe I have come up with the three most important attributes of clothing. They should universally apply to anyone with any lifestyle and are not mutually exclusive so none of these attributes need to come at the expense of the other. They are: comfort, practicality, and durability. Regardless of what you are doing, you want to be comfortable. After all, there probably isn’t a tool that you utilize more than clothing. Next is practicality. Clothes are meant to serve a purpose that is likely or guaranteed to happen based on your lifestyle and the demands of that lifestyle. Your clothing choice should be aligned with the tasks and activities you perform and should be designed for that. Lastly, but certainly not any less important, clothing should be durable. It should last a long time and it should maintain it’s purpose and function until it is ready to be disposed of. I do not believe in frivolous clothing that severely limits your ability to do things in it or that requires highly specialized care and a lot of effort to maintain just so it will last.
By looking at clothes with those values in mind, my view of them has fundamentally changed. This change has allowed me to eliminate a tremendous amount of both physical and mental clutter. I no longer go to look at clothes merely to “browse”. I unsubscribed long ago from the email lists of the clothing companies I used to look at frequently. I no longer regard clothes as anything more than merely necessary tools to help me perform tasks, which include staying capable of important activities related to my lifestyle in the conditions that I encounter. I only look to buy clothes when there is a legitimate need. For me, there are two legitimate needs: 1.) clothing no longer fits and cannot be altered, either by myself or economically from someone else. 2.) clothing has been degraded to a point where it has lost so much of its original utility and cannot be easily fixed, and/or that fix would not restore an adequate amount of utility. I have eliminated the emotion and all sense of image from the clothes-buying and owning process. This has freed up time that I spent shopping, checking promotional/sales emails, etc. This has freed up money because I no longer buy clothes that do not serve a practical, immediate needs purpose. This means no more impulse buys. No more blindly following recommendations or trying to mimic the looks I see on others. No buying clothes for “what if” situations. No more buying clothes that I may wear once and never again.
With this newfound view of clothes, I have freed up a peace of mind, which may be the most important reward. I no longer think about clothes to project an image, to gain approval, or to meet the status quo. I have freed my mind from the constant tethers of social influence, coercion, and occasional alienation for certain clothing choices. I brought up earlier in the article that many believe clothing is a definition or expression of themselves. I do not believe this needs to be so, and indeed I believe it is our actions that should speak for who we are as they are the truest expressions of ourselves.
Clothes have become merely a means to cover myself up in the most practical, comfortable, durable, and cost-effective way possible to meet the needs of my life. I don’t expect many people to appreciate my views or even feel the same way and I certainly don’t care if they think any less of me because of it. That brings me to another point about clothing. Once you rid yourself of seeking validation through clothing in the form of approval or compliments, you will feel even more rational about your relationship with clothes.
If you’ve bought into this way of thinking about clothes, then let me tell you where you should start. It starts by taking stock of your wardrobe and writing down everything you have. I’m serious. Categorize them by type, condition, and whatever other criteria you think is pertinent. Next write down the things that you do, including tasks you perform, leisure activities you engage in, etc. Can you perform those things with the clothes that you already have? If yes, use them and exhaust them, even if they are cheaper quality than what you will buy the next time around. Clothing is a highly wasteful industry. Disturbingly wasteful, actually, when you learn about the massive amounts of chemicals used in the production process which ultimately end up as environmental pollutants. The textile industry also uses a tremendous amount of water, which again becomes polluted and ends up back in our waterways. Not to mention all of the emissions associated with the manufacturing processes required to produce clothing. This is not the article to go into the unsustainable practices of the textile industry, but you should certainly read about it. Here’s a good article to get you started from Business Insider.
If your current clothes cannot perform the essential functions and duties of your lifestyle, it is time to acquire different clothing with comfort, practicality, and durability in mind. Because only if you acquire them in this way can you be resilient and reduce the amount you have to rely on them from other people. If during your clothing “audit”, you find that you have clothes that do not serve a purpose and should no longer be held on to, please donate them to whichever organization you see most fit. Clothing is just too valuable of a good to simply throw out when there are so many others in need. Plus, a lot of resources like raw materials, energy (resulting in pollution) and labor went into those clothes so don’t let all of those elements go to waste. Reduce your impact through reuse by donating or selling these clothes.
As we consider having to acquire clothes, I want to point out that I didn’t put price as one of my guiding clothing attributes. I believe that a higher price does, at least partially, translate into quality. However, price that is bolstered by brand “prestige” does not translate to quality whatsoever. I have had plenty of clothes that were the nicer labels in the industry and experienced the same qualities of poor comfort, practicality, and durability as I did with clothing brands on the very cheap side of the spectrum. I believe you should buy the highest quality within your price range and have the purchase be guided by reviews, past experience, etc. You may employ some other factors in the clothes-buying process such as: guarantees (limited or lifetime), accessibility of physical locations (if you are the type of person that likes to buy, try on, and return clothes in person), company values (environmental stewardship, social responsibility, etc.), and others. Personally, I really like Eddie Bauer, L.L. Bean, and Carhartt. I have had no issues with any of these brands delivering on the attributes I seek in clothes. I have bought these brands both new and used to test durability and longevity and I give them high marks.
Now due to the relative simplicity of clothing in that it lacks moving parts, intricate features, etc. and pose no risk of being “lemons”, I see no issue in, and indeed encourage, buying quality used clothing. There are sources like Facebook Marketplace, Goodwill, Salvation Army, and a multitude of apps that have seen a recent explosion where people sell used products. Many of these clothes are only gently worn or even still new. I won’t encourage you to pursue one over the other, but I do discourage you from buying clothes at retailers like Marshall’s, TJ Maxx, etc. These brands encourage you to browse frequently since selections are always changing. This leads to buying something you don’t need, driven by the thrill of finding it and not wanting to miss out on it at a low price. These retailers promote the “fast fashion” trend of lower quality, bargain-priced clothes that do not last and are disposed of quickly. This results in a greatly shortened purchasing cycle so that new clothing is constantly being produced for sale, which leads to a tremendous waste of resources and huge amounts of pollution. This is not to say that you can’t find decent clothes at these places, but if you go then make sure you go with the intent of looking for a particular piece of clothing. They may have a great piece of clothing for you that fits your criteria, but don’t settle for options that won’t meet your needs (and they will have plenty of options).
I hope you’ll consider looking at your clothes differently. And if you are looking at them differently now, decide what clothes you truly need and explore options of how to acquire them. Continue on a path of self-reliance that makes you less dependent on clothing by minimizing its control on you through smart decision-making!