Sustainability Matters

By M. J. Almdale

The truth: I walked into Clothing Matters without intending to buy anything at all.  I walked in because I needed a parking space off Lake Drive and felt bad for using customer parking without being a customer.

The saleswoman talked over the low hum of the air conditioner, moving around the store and putting things in order, telling another customer to “go ahead and try on the dress. Did you find the right size?” She spoke to me in a casual, this-is-why-sustainable-clothing-rocks way.  This lady was exuberant, happy.  To respond to her friendliness would create a bond between us somehow, as if to tell her I believed in what she was doing here, and I was a potential buyer. I would have been speaking somewhat under false pretenses: I’m not going to buy anything, and I wasn’t staying long.

Each dress I saw, all the skirts and shirts and whatnot—it all looked natural, easy, almost carefree (The same words might describe the longed-after lifestyle, yes?).  When I came around to a pile of coinpurses the saleswoman said were hand-made by Indian artists—rare, she said—she spoke as if knowing I was a tough one, she’d have to convince me to buy.

I spotted a bag with the label “100% organic cotton” unconsciously translating to “fair trade.” I liked the pattern—a weaving, circular tree and an entwined figure within it. Another bag, I liked even better: it bore a simple print of the Great Lakes without any territory lines, just the lakes. I imagined myself carrying it over my shoulder on long-distance travels. I wanted people on sidewalks in Bolivia or England or Africa to look at it and say where’d she get it? And then I could be proud of Michigan.

Image via Corbis

In the end, I went to the counter with the Michigan bag in hand. I liked it for its simplicity, its practicality, and maybe also because I still felt bad for taking up customer parking. Looking across the counter at the saleswoman, I decided she was the type to enjoy a glass of red wine on a late summer afternoon, enjoy home-made quinoa with farmer’s market tomatoes, yellow cloth napkins below the plates.

“How long have you been here? With your store, I mean,” I asked.

“We opened this fifteen years ago, and now we’re, as far as I know, the largest retailer of,” take a breath, “sustainably manufactured clothing in the country, and even beyond that.”

Impressive. “I noticed your made-in-Michigan collection,” we both turn to the display behind me, “that’s neat.” I’d looked at the display—long dresses, a few skirts and tops. All wonderful-looking.

“We’ve worked with Michigan artists for years, but have sold more of it just this year,” she shakes her head, “than ever before.”

If only, I think, the price tag read “$20” instead of “$45, $50.” I might tell her I’ve just graduated, that I don’t have any money. But it would be weak—weaker than my already-minimal purchase of this organic cotton bag.  Still, it’s five dollars. Significant. I could buy two loaves of bread at Meijer with that.

And it seems so petty, doesn’t it? So petty of me, a young woman who wants to look good walking down the sidewalk, but turns away locally-made, attractive artisan items because I claim I can’t afford it. What shall I say? How about: Sorry, I bought two bottles of wine this month, I can’t afford supporting your environmentally-sustaining clothing right now. Hm. Shallow.

So I introduce myself. “I’m Maggie,” I say, “I’m doing some writing for WMEAC this month.”

And it turns out this lady’s parents helped to start WMEAC. She smiles, says her name is Marta. She asks if I’m still a student.

“No, I actually just graduated. A degree in English. With writing,” I nod my head.

“Well, I’ll still give you a student discount.” She punches keys on the register.  And I am ashamed right now. I stole her parking space, I pretended I might buy something legitimate—something expensive.  “Wow. This is my red-letter day.”

I tell her I’m interested in writing about this—about sustainable clothing. Don’t entirely know what that means yet.

“Oh, that makes me excited.”

She gives me her card, a pamphlet. I fold it in three and slip it in my bag.

And all I bought was that cloth bag—not a dress or a skirt or anything sustainably grown or manufactured. Yes, clothing would have taken a noticeable chunk out of my bank account. But I’d have been aware of how much I spent, I’d have known that in buying a piece of clothing from Michigan, or from organic cotton or from a source that I knew supported fair trade practices, I would in essence be helping to sustain the environment in more ways than one. Sustain: to keep something going (through support of, either directly or indirectly by deed or word of mouth).

Spend more, get better quality, keep your closet less cluttered and leave plenty for the rest of the world. An idea worth planting.

Perhaps the next time I’m at Clothing Matters I’ll have more to spend.

M.J. Almdale is a freelance writer doing a summer series for WMEAC about “green” simplicity. She will soon be moving to Santa Cruz, Bolivia for a year of volunteering with the Mennonite Central Committee in the resident Low-German Mennonite community.

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