The battle between post-consumer clothing and new, mass-produced clothing has an unsung hero in college student Sarah Vandelist.
In one corner, we have the mass producers who manufacture garments, often petroleum-based, with scant concern for employees or the environment. (Example: Cambodian garment factories, where employees faint en masse as a "bodily objection to the harsh daily regimen of industrial capitalism.")
In the other corner, we have Goodwill, consignment shops, the manufacturers of eco-friendly clothing, the sellers of said clothing. And individual people like Vandelist -- a 21-year-old Minnesotan who founded Swag Mittens, in St. Paul.
Swag Mittens is dedicated to sustainability; in other words, to not buying cheap clothing made from petroleum-based fabrics. For the past four years, Vandelist has been upcycling knit clothing into mittens, one pair at a time.
In 2013, Vandelist estimates she sewed between 750 and 800 pairs of fleece-lined mittens, all made from discarded wool or cotton sweaters. Hand-knit baby sweaters, factory-knit adult sweaters, sweaters that fell out of fashion... Vandelist repurposed all of them into fleece-lined mittens that warmed hands and slowed the march of old sweaters to landfills or to being shipped overseas. ("Shipping clothes to Africa is not the solution because it depresses the local market," says Vandelist, a sociology major at Macalester College, in St. Paul.)
Since starting Swag Mittens in 2010, Vandelist has used only garments seeking a second life. "When I started, I went to Goodwill, garage sales and consignment stores, sometimes buying one hundred sweaters in a day," she says. "But Goodwill prices changed and priced me out of the market." Plus, hunting through resale stores day in and day out proved exhausting as Swag Mittens took off.
Now, Vandelist says, she buys 300 pounds of patterned, wool sweaters at a time from Trans-Americas Trading Company, a New Jersey-based firm that buys and sells used clothing and textile waste. "The fashion industry makes so much excess clothing it allows places like Trans-Americas to exist," Vandelist says.
She'll even transform a personal sweater into mittens. "A woman brought me her father's favorite sweater and asked me to make mittens for her and her three siblings for Christmas," Vandelist says. The father had recently died. When Vandelist was done, each sibling was given a photo of dad in his beloved sweater and a pair of mittens made from it.
Such slow-clothing methods are, of course, the opposite of how many of us shop. If you're like me, you've entered a store to buy one pair of jeans, and exited with two unnecessary tops (they were on sale!) and no jeans. But how much new, cheap clothing do we need. More importantly, what is the real cost?
Vandelist keeps it simple with her motto: "Buy less, buy nice."
I will remember that next time I shop.