It’s easy to feel powerless against the tidal wave of discount clothes, the pull of $5 chinos for a fast-growing boy, the trendy summer dresses that are bombarding my inbox, starting at $14.99.
There are global implications to fast fashion; low-price, low-quality goods have to exact a cost somewhere, and, most recently, it was in Cambodia, where a shoe factory collapsed on Thursday, killing several workers.
But what’s a shopper to do? According to a recent survey in Retail Week, 44 percent of consumers say they won’t change their shopping habits after last month’s factory collapse in Bangladesh, which killed more than 1,100 people. That might not be callousness so much as confusion: Many people are conflicted, but also perplexed. Do you boycott Bangladesh, or would a collapse of the garment industry hurt the Bangladeshis more? Can you trust multinational companies to police their factory floors? And if you skip out on a pair of cargo pants, does it make a sound?
Actually, consumers have more power than they think, said Ellen Ruppel Shell, a Boston University professor and the author of “Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture.” Bad publicity matters, which helps to explain some retailers’ decisions last week to sign onto a legally binding agreement, requiring some minimum safeguards on factory safety. Shell suspects that shoppers would be willing to pay an extra 10 to 15 percent — the amount one University of Massachusetts economist calculates that it would take — to cover the cost of improved factory conditions overseas.
And Shell thinks people are poised to make more fundamental changes in their clothes-shopping habits. The hope springs from a different retail setting: the organic-food aisles that have, in recent years, become standard issue in grocery stores. If people are willing to pay more for a trustworthy tomato, she said, will they pay more for ethically made clothes?
Say, $144 for an oxford shirt?
That’s the business plan of Mark Bollman, the 25-year-old founder and president of Ball and Buck, a menswear and accessories store that moved to Newbury Street last year, having outgrown its original North End location. Bollman started Ball and Buck in 2008 as an undergraduate at Babson College. He was inspired by his upbringing in Atlanta, where hunting and fishing were woven into family culture, and where his grandfather, in a duck blind, once pulled on a pair of waders and proudly pointed out that he’d bought them 45 years earlier.
Bollman proposed that a made-in-America pledge, a connection to old-school traditions and ethical values, would appeal to more than just luxury buyers. Maybe even more so in New England.
“This was something that we hinged upon,” he told me. “People are less willing, when they're being tight with their dollars, to just buy some shirt for the night and throw it away.” He pitches his products, instead, as items that will last for decades — that you can save for your grandchildren to wear.
That sales pitch sometimes requires retraining, he said. Consumers don’t always know how to recognize the differences between a good garment and a cheap one, until they start pulling threads from their hems after two washings. Hands-on demonstrations help, Bollman said; that’s the concept behind American Field, a two-day pop-up store that he created last year, featuring dozens of vendors who demonstrate their American-made wares. He’ll hold a second one in September, in a restored power station in the South End.
Bollman’s vision ties into a “heritage brand” movement that has taken hold in menswear: old brands are also up with hip designers, creating high-end fashion lines that are designed to last. There’s a hipster quality to this trend; it’s associated with the same types who flock to artisanal cheese.
But while that’s a niche market, Bollman has hopes that the movement could broaden. He gushes about the implications of organic food, the way the food industry has shifted in a small amount of time. “Everyone’s doing a kitchen in [the middle of] the restaurant now,” he told me. “You’d never think that McDonalds would have organic coffee. It’s becoming mainstream.”
And if consumers are willing to pay more for clothes they trust, that could send a message to discount retailers: signals about the price shifts people are willing to accept. Two dollars more for a summer dress? That’s the cost of a good tomato, and a mountain of goodwill.