Lately, I have been approached by readers with a recurring question. "Where," they demand, as if it is my fault that this is a problem, "am I supposed to shop?" They often take on a combative stance: legs spread, hands on hips, elbows akimbo. Their eyes tend to narrow, and, as the wind ruffles their well-coiffed hair, I feel that I must weigh my answer carefully, avoid flip answers or even better, avoid the question altogether.
Depending on how intimidating the aggressor, my answers up until now have ranged from a timidly squeaked "Don't?" (after which I duck and cover) to an even more tentative "The thrift store?" (as I brace myself for the inevitable look of disgust that is sure to follow).
Sometimes my inquisitors will take their queries even further by posing impossible moral quandaries. Why is it OK to buy from a thrift shop when it's not OK to buy at the mall? Does the fact that someone else bought it first remove the stain of human and environmental-rights abuses that follow your average item of clothing from the cotton field to the hanger? Does consumer responsibility get nullified by the redemptive repurchase of someone else's initial selfish buy? And as for not shopping at all, for those who consider fashion an extension of their personalities, who have not yet overcome that basic human instinct to look appealing, this is not even remotely close to an answer they are willing to accept.
In search of an alternative, I meet with Erin Turko, who co-owns E= Ethical Clothing Etc. in downtown Petaluma with Carolyn Leupp Albinana. This chic little apparel shop has been open for the last 18 years, but since November, E= has taken on both a new look and a new mission. Turko walks me through the recently remodeled store and points out the variety of green choices they have made for their remodel: locally built furnishings, organic carpeting, earth-friendly paints and paper stone countertops—choices that mirror their commitment to carrying ethically sound clothing.
I ask Turko if this change from imported apparel to ethical, domestically made lines was due to a shift in the consumer marketplace. Quite the contrary, she says. This was a leap of faith, one made not to meet the demands of their customers, but because she and Albinana believed they needed to do something with their business that they could feel good about. When Albinana contracted lung cancer, the ladies decided it was time to reconsider their daily environment and to make a dramatic change in their business that reflects their commitment to global consciousness and health.
Turko stresses that, after 18 years in the apparel industry, there are certain things you just get used to. The strong odor of pesticides, for instance, that arrives with every shipment of clothing, necessitating that the new articles be aired before hanging in the showroom. There is also the incredible amount of packaging waste. Each shirt arrives from overseas wrapped in its own sheath of plastic, replete with silica gel packet and a nice dose of formaldehyde.
Now all of the clothes E= carries are sewed and dyed domestically, predominantly in California. The dyes used are vegetable or water-based, all clothing is formaldehyde-free and the packing materials are biodegradable. Even the fabrics used must be sourced from factories that adhere to ethical standards of production. Turko stresses that when she and her partner look at product lines, specifically fabrics, organically sourced fibers are not the only factor to consider. What's the point of an organic item if the fabric is still treated with toxic dyes and pesticides before shipping? The most toxic of all treated fabrics, denim serves as a perfect example. E= carries only domestic denim, not organic necessarily, but free from the highly toxic processes commonly used to give denim that "cool" look. Along with the domestic apparel, E= carries bags made from recycled tractor tires, the work of local artists and organic cotton and bamboo bedding. The few nondomestic items, the sheets and towels for instance, come from co-ops that practice fair trade.
There's something refreshing about being in a room full of clothes that don't say "Made in China" on the label, and self-restraint is the only thing that stands between me and a bamboo-fiber shirt. After exiting the premises, I take a brief tour of nearby clothing boutiques. What I discover is a plethora of clothes imported from other countries. None of them makes claims against sweatshop labor or toxic processing, and all of them are priced at or above the clothing available at E=. The fact that I now know where to find a pair of domestically made jeans for the same price as a pair weighed down by a bloody trail of corporate neglect is a relief. For those interested in taking a look for themselves, mark Earth Day, April 22, on the calendar. E= will be holding a daylong event with lectures and educational panels, as well as some damn cute clothes.
E = Ethical Clothing Etc. 122 Kentucky St., Petaluma. 707.769.8564.