IF YOU GIVE A MOUSE A CITY: WATER WEIGHTING
Originally published on TheChiEye (thechieye.com)
IT’S BEEN ESTABLISHED, I rabbit-hole. Or moreover, mouse-city. A recent sequence of which went something like: wonder how to better conserve water - reach out to my friend, Google - encounter numerous articles suggesting I take shorter showers - also read that the average American shower lasts around 8 minutes and uses 17.2 gallons of water - consider how my average shower ends before I’ve rinsed out the shampoo because one of my children is crying - also consider that taking a 6-minute shower will save just over 4 gallons of water - decide I want more bang for my buck - read elsewhere that a single pair of jeans requires 2,000 gallons of water to produce - envision the billions of minutes worth of shower that I would kill for languishing in closets all over the country - nosedive into further research and brainstorming…
… following that ellipsis was a deluge of numbers that left me staring dry-eyed at my computer screen. It all seemed so wonky, like dressing in front of a funhouse mirror. For instance, it sounds fitting that it takes 7 gallons of water to make a cotton t-shirt and on average that shirt will be worn just over 700 times, but that the reverse is actually true, and it requires 713 gallons for a single shirt, only for people to regard it as old after 3 wears, and discard it after 7, is definitely a reflection of something being off. Which makes me think that we are considering the wrong numbers when making our buying decisions. Sure, $20 can seem insignificant to spend, and to lose, so buying a $20 shirt and wearing it for no more than a week’s worth of days, or having it fall apart its first time in the wash, might not register as being of consequence, but throwing away 713 gallons of water, or at 64oz a day, nearly 4 years worth of drinking water, carries a different weight. Especially when actual weight is considered. If I had to draw the water to make my shirt from a well, I would be carrying over 5,700 pounds, and although I now have this side idea for starting a fitness trend - WaterWeighting - where you workout by carrying the equivalent weight of your water consumption, I don’t want the weight of throwing away the equivalent of one of the Lincoln Park Zoo’s giraffes on my shoulders.
Research conducted by Barclaycard has also found that spurred by the hashtag #OOTD, one in 10 people will buy a piece of clothing for the sole purpose of taking a picture for social media before returning it; with men - yes, men, for those who tried to deny to themselves that they should read about fashion - not only being the biggest perpetrators but also reporting a higher tendency of being embarrassed to be seen in the same outfit more than once. This cycle of buy-and-return not only increases the chances that a piece of clothing will ultimately go unsold and therefore become premature landfill waste, but shipping it back and forth also further increases its resource-footprint.
At its core, this is an article about that dirty F word: fashion. I say this outright because its important that we are all on the same page - let’s call it Page 773 - about fashion being relevant to everyone. Over the last five years, I have encountered tens of thousands of Chicagoans and the closest I’ve come to seeing a nudist is the Khal Drogo-lookalike who huffs down the Lake Front Trail on his bike in the middle of January in nothing but spandex shorts. Other than him, we all wear clothes. Clothes which need to be produced, generally through an extremely resource- and water-intensive process, and clothes which need to end up somewhere, which (unless you are like my father-in-law who will wear his running shirts until they simply disappear, the dryer claiming their last few threads as lint) is usually [unnecessarily] in a landfill. This means that all of us, even those who care little for high gloss and runways, have a responsibility to understand and respect the implications of fashion choices on our lives and the planet.
Let me also be completely transparent and admit that I’m not so much an environmentalist as I am an existentialist. This distinction matters because it would be too easy to continue reading while writing me off as some goody goody wielding one of those metal trash-stabbing sticks from her high horse, and if you were to do that then you might also write off my ideas as beyond your own reach or capabilities and that is simply not the case. In truth, I’m really just a selfish person, selfishly trying to make life more meaningful for myself by choosing to believe that my actions matter, and honestly, what’s easier than being selfish? Another important difference is that although yes, I do have some very solid recommendations for sustainable fashion brands and designers, I think the most realistic changes are the ones we make to our practices, not our preferences. I’m not going to say you can’t love Louis Vuitton if that’s what you love, but I am going to tell you there’s a better way to Louis.
EXISTENTIAL [ENVIRONMENTALISM] CRISIS!
In the world of sustainable fashion, there is the 30 Wears campaign which promotes only purchasing clothes that you will wear at least 30 times, thus making their production a worthwhile use of resources. This concept coupled with strategizing for my own transition into a fully-sustainable yet never-not-fancy wardrobe, ménage à troised with consideration for our complicated relationship to clothes, led me to the most natural conclusion: a self-prescribed social experiment, dubbed PepperAnning, where I wore the same outfit every day for a month. For those who don’t know, Pepper Ann was a cartoon in the late 90’s whose opening sequence depicted the title character getting ready for school and selecting her clothes from a closet full of duplicate outfits; what I have always appreciated as a clever nod to cartoon characters been drawn in the same clothes every episode.
From the moment I conceived the idea of PepperAnning, I was gung-ho for it. I could make it matter (existential environmentalism!) and show that being stylish and never repeating an outfit are not mutually exclusive. I set the start date, chose two versatile pieces from ADAY that were made in accordance with the highest sustainable practices, calculated cost per wear ($4.50) for when I wanted to explain how that was the most accurate approach to considering the real price of a purchase, and when the first day arrived, I triumphantly put them on. Then I stood in front of the mirror feeling completely and utterly stifled. (See my unconvinced face from that first day in the picture I’m entitling ‘Exhibit [Pepper] A’.)
I hadn’t had the outfit on for more than an hour and already the weight of everyone knowing I’d been wearing it for a month was bearing down me. Whether this was more or less than the weight of the water I was wearing, I can’t say, but it felt heavy. How was I possibly going to be my funky fancy self in the same outfit every day? Wait! Was this collar not as chic as I’d originally deemed it? It was a little rigid, wasn’t it? Why hadn’t I picked the other pants? The other color? How was I going to wear military green every day? I should have bought the white top instead!
All of these uncharacteristic concerns blindsided me, and I was left awkwardly tugging at my outfit in the mirror. My husband, then, equally uncharacteristically, complemented me. “You look nice. A very futuristic put-together,” he said. Problem solved? Nope. I immediately thought, “Futuristic. As in sci-fi uniformed monotony. As in so efficient so as to lose all personality.” I rolled and unrolled. I tucked and untucked. I fidgeted and floundered. The concerns that can drive people to be wasteful with clothing, the ones that I was going to write about and explain away without truly being able to wrap my head around, were suddenly stuck in my mind. I considered dropping the experiment all together but I’d purchased the outfit solely for this purpose so there was no way I could tell my husband that I wasn’t going to be going through with it. Plus, I’d be putting myself into the buy-and-return cycle without even a worthwhile photograph to show for it. Deflated, I left the house.
And do you know what happened? Nothing. And the next day? Nothing. And the next? Nada. I wore it to dinner with my husband and I wore it while preparing a meal for the hungry with Fight2Feed. I wore it every Wednesday to the Green City Market (where my milkman never once seemed to notice my PepperAnning!) and I wore it to a champagne tasting with a friend. I worked in it. I worked out in it. I went to my garden and I went to the grocery store. Some days I wore the outfit exactly as I had the day before. Other days, depending on the weather or what I had scheduled, I swapped houndstooth oxfords for my wedding shoes (!), added a faux fur vest or carried a different handbag. Sometimes I documented my progress with a selfie, sometimes I didn’t. Overall, I made it through the 30 days quite inconsequentially.
As it turns out, representing who I was through clothing started with me, not the clothing. Creativity without restraint is one thing, but creativity within restraints can be so much more. To start each day with a blank page on which to create something original is easy, but to be given the same coloring book page over and over, the same dog-with-a-butterfly-perched-on-its-snout, and make it something new and interesting, that requires creativity. This is not to say that I believe the solution is to wear the same outfit every day, but rather, if Pepper Ann was too cool for seventh grade than maybe we can all be too cool for only 7 wears and figure out more conscientious ways to #OOTD.
Despite a fair amount of a potential as a terrific punch line to a terrible dad joke, these two words made for an all-around terrible first day of fourth grade.
As I walked down the hall of my new school, the Florida heat prickling both my New York sense of what autumn should be and my uncustomarily bare legs, two plaid cows, along with their plaid, plaintive request for someone else’s relocation, meandered on the white field of my t-shirt, fenced in only by coordinating plaid sleeve trim and skirt. All my new classmates, being nine years old and competent readers by this point, heeded the message and wandered off to graze elsewhere come lunchtime and recess. Meanwhile, alone, wishing my PB&J was roast beef, I received my mother’s message loud and clear: if you hide clothes you don’t like, you will come to find there are ones you like even less.
Okay, that might be a touch dramatic. In truth, I don’t remember anything about that day but it has morphed into a funny tale to tell about how my mother got me back for all of the unwanted outfits she found stuffed under sofas and behind bureaus in our house as we packed up to move; stories are a lot like alcohol in that regard - something going bad doesn’t seem like a good idea until you learn to turn it into booze or an autobiography. What strikes me most when I tell that story now however is what my current reaction to MOOVE OVER! would be. Ironically enough, as graphic tees trend back into popularity, it is exactly the sort of thing that I might chuckle at and purchase on a whim. But because no one enjoys the person who says “Have I told you this?” and then proceeds to repeat the joke they have in fact retold on your last four encounters, I’d only wear it once. Thus MOOVE OVER! and its 3.5 cows worth of water weight would be corralled to the back of the closet, hopefully out of the reach of both my mother and my guilt.
At least that is what pre-mouse-city me might do. Post-me has learned a life hack, as we’ve come to call such things, that allows me the single-use experience of a piece of clothing while saving me from the mistake of treating clothes as disposable: renting. It turns out you don’t have to own clothes to wear them.
We’re urbanites: we share apartments, bikes, tables at hip restaurants and personal secrets with our Uber drivers, it only make sense that we would share clothing as well. Doing so is as good for our psyches as it is for the environment (existential environmentalism!). Let me explain.
We all have those pieces in our closets that we’re hanging onto for when we are a different size or have a different personality (here’s looking at you, pink fur coat) or lead an entirely different life where slinking around a silk slip dress is the norm. While it’s true that someday we’ll all be different, we probably won’t end up so different that these things will suit our tastes or our lives. Which means that unless you are Chicago comedian Andrea Levoff for whom leopard print is a neutral, sometimes the seduction of trendy pieces can leave us wanting and then wasting. But by banishing the idea that a throw-away (or back-of-closet-hideable) pair of leopard print pumps from Forever 21 is an option and instead renting these studded beauts from By:Fashionaholic, a new membership-based Chicago service that gives you access to the couture ‘closet’ of one of the city’s most stylish female entrepreneurs, you can have that one-time thrill without commitment or remorse and those heels can easily garner their 30+ wears accompanying dozens of women to different events on the feet of dozens of women who might otherwise have purchased a one-and-done pair.
Another perk of rental is the prevention of “I have nothing to wear” syndrome, which is really more of a symptom of boredom with one’s current selection than a syndrome at all. And as a person who rearranges her living room furniture every few weeks, I get it. Which is why for those of us who sometimes change our mind as often as we change our clothes, I highly advocate for subscription-based rental options for all of the new-to-you enjoyment of a rotating wardrobe without the burden of excessive spending and waste (environmental existentialism!).
Chicago is one of five cities with a Rent The Runway location (710 N Wabash Ave.), making the use of both their one-time rentals and membership-based wardrobe programs exceptionally practical and green. Stop in on your way home from work and bring home new designers duds every day if you so wish. Through their tiered monthly membership program, you can borrow up to four items at a time, with limitless exchanges throughout the month meaning this minute’s leopard print can be yours for a brief fling before next week’s velvet steps in; you can be your minimalist and have your maximalist too. Rent the Runway also sells their clothing at steep discounts when pieces can no longer be rented looking brand new - on average after, wait for it, 30 rentals.
At the time this article went to print, the rental options for men were exclusively online, but as soon as people read this, they will realize the boon that awaits them should they open a men’s rental boutique in the city and then it will exist. Just watch. As for the current online options, however, The Mr. Collection offers a personally-styled rotating wardrobe with both casual and business options available. Their different packages allow you to control the number of pieces and frequency of exchange according to your needs and preferences. ThreadTread offers numerous popular men’s brands, including Levi’s which is also actively pursuing sustainability and social responsibility through its supply chain.
WWES (WHAT WOULD ELLIOTT’S SELL)
Living in a city is a lot like having a weird cousin. Everyone in the family knows that Cousin Tim paces around the backyard at parties but it doesn’t seem that strange until someone new comes to dinner and you have to explain why the food won’t be served until he completes six more laps. I’ve come to fully accept that sometimes a cocktail can cost $28 but halfway through the phrase ‘cardamom infusion’ I realize that my out-of-town visitors think I’m insane (and a yuppie). Which isn’t not true but what is more insane, the sort of family secret that stays deeper down, is that plenty of the people seated around us are swallowing more money than they are wearing. That we can believe in the artisanship of flavoring dry ice but have forgotten the value of turning a plant or a plastic bottle into clothing leaves us spending more on 4 ounces than 713 gallons, and frankly, as a family, we can do better.
This is not to say that being green requires more green. It is not what you spend but how you spend it that matters. My first experience shopping consignment was when I wandered into Elliott Consignment on a Sunday afternoon. I perused with no more intention than to stall my trip across the street to Mariano’s to stand in line with the rest of the city as we tried to pay for our weekly groceries, but then I saw them: perfect condition, size 7.5, Rachel Comey Distressed Gold Novak Oxfords. Elsewhere these shoes retailed for $248, but here they were, marked as $24. Through some miracle, the universe had forgotten to include the 8. Shoes in hand, I furtively climbed the stairs to checkout, envisioning the clerk laughing at what a fool I was for thinking I could buy them for less than a cocktail; I reasoned that there must be some sort of membership fee or that the $24 was an installment, like fancy layaway. But, to my delight, the shoes were really only $24. That was a few years ago and I have since worn those shoes so many times that my cost per wear is down around $.08.
The world of second-hand and consignment is really a rather magical one: a loophole in the fabric of the universe where whole numbers are left out of the price of high-end clothing and accessories, and where clothing mistakes can go to be forgiven. Love a brand or designer who isn’t yet sustainable in their practices? Buy your Rag & Bone jeans second-hand and your powers of good will transform them into a sustainable option by keeping them out of a landfill and diluting their extensive water-footprint over many wears. Buy something you won’t actually wear once let alone 30 times? Consign it for someone else to love and you’re golden, or really, green. There is also a bit of magic in the shopping itself, the potential of finding something great, like trolling Instagram, if trolling Instagram were actually rewarding.
Elliott Consignment (3015 N Broadway and 2465 N Lincoln Ave) has been a part of the Lakeview neighborhood for over 20 years carrying a wide variety of clothing, shoes and accessories ranging from J. Crew to Jimmy Choo. Ahead of the curve on realizing the importance of fashion to men, their men’s section is as extensive as their women’s with every pattern and color of button-up imaginable as well as pieces ranging from John Varvatos blazers to Gucci high tops. They receive new items daily, making it a budget-friendly, guilt-free choice for updating your wardrobe, and donate anywhere from 20 to 60 bags of unsold but great condition clothing each week to local charities.
Luxury Garage Sale is a Chicago start-up that since its online inception in 2011 has expanded to include two local boutiques (1658 N Wells St. and 900 N Michigan Shops) and several pop-ups throughout the country. No one is throwing away Louis Vuitton luggage but that doesn’t mean they are using it and giving it a purposeful life either. Focusing solely on luxury items, Luxury Garage Sale is providing a way for items that might otherwise languish in the backs of peoples’ closets to find homes with people who will use them (existential environmentalism!).
Unlike when I was growing up in the 90’s, kids today dress really well. They also grow freakishly fast - I swear I’ve bought shoes that my toddler outgrew on the drive home - which makes children’s fashion another important opportunity for sustainability. Cloud & Bunny (1600 W Montrose Ave) is a children’s resale boutique in Ravenswood where you can find like-new clothes that you’ll probably want for yourself. They also donate any clothing items that they receive but choose not to sell to organizations benefiting families in need as well as $1 for every $1 worth of items sold to local nonprofits such as Heartland Alliance.
A bonus perk of adopting a second-hand mentality is its use as a benchmark when shopping for new clothing pieces. Part of my decision-making process when considering whether or not that navy, tasseled sweater will be a worthwhile addition to my wardrobe is if it is a quality that could be resold. There are many pieces that I will wear indefinitely, like the black jumpsuit that has been with me through thick and thin, but there are some that despite as well-meaning as I was when purchasing them just don’t see the light of day. Thus by purchasing that which can be resold, I have built-in quality control that says the item will last as well as a built-in back-up plan should I need to share the responsibility of 30 wears with others. Where is this clothing of resellable quality coming from?
Local boutiques are an excellent place to start. Not only does shopping locally serve as an environmental offset to our Amazon Prime addictions subscriptions, but independently-run boutiques tend to hand select their inventory from emerging designers and American-made brands, which by default are more eco-friendly; we dump dye in our rivers for drunken holidays, not as the normal course of clothing production. Felt (2317 N Milwaukee Ave), a modern, upscale women’s boutique in Logan Square, carries numerous environmentally-conscious brands, including Re/Done with its ever-popular luxury jeans born of vintage Levi’s denim, New York designer, Yeohlee Teng, who will give an in-store talk on sustainability in the fashion industry next month and Shaina Mote whose comfortable yet sophisticated pieces wear in multiple ways. Being a part of the community, Felt and its owners, Kat and Holly, regularly give back by partnering with local organizations to donate a portion of sales to the individual causes and by donating unsold inventory at the end of a season to charities such as Dress for Success, which provides women with the professional skills and attire necessary to achieve economic independence. I should also tell you, because we are a city who brunches and brunches love mimosas, that Kat is very generous with the champagne.
Mod + Ethico is a Chicago-based boutique that transitioned into an eCommerce site dedicated to exclusively selling sustainable and socially conscious designers. Modern, minimalistic local outerwear brand, Coat Check Chicago, revolutionary shoemakers, Veja, whose sneakers made of organic cotton, wild rubber, recycled plastics and responsibly processed leather would make even the biggest social media curmudgeon snap a secret picture of their feet and all-around closet-filler People Tree are just a few of the options.
Second City. Third Coast. 5k Country. This city runs. So much so that even our donut shops host races, and while come rain or frigid, icy winter shine, Khal Drogo might be braving the shores of Lake Michigan bare, the rest of us turn to athletic wear in times of exercise (and excessive eating). With the mantra of Look Forward Give Back, Chicago’s Joriki Yoga designs upscale yoga apparel that is meant to do as much good for the world as it does for you. Made in the U.S., each of their collections are linked to a specific charity who will receive a percentage of sales from their respective collection. If you happen to be on my Christmas list, you’ll have heard of Kiva because in place of a candle, I gifted you money that you were required to loan out, but if you’re not, you might not know about Kiva’s system of alleviating poverty by providing micro loans to entrepreneurs who otherwise don’t have access to fair and affordable lending. Joriki has not only heard of Kiva but sales from their current Domingo Zapata collection go to directly to providing loans for future businesses and educations. Girlfriend Collective is another stellar option for athletic wear as all of their leggings and sports bras are made from recycled plastic bottles (though you’d never know it) and their t-shirts use 692 less gallons of water than traditional cotton tees, which while bad for my WaterWeighting idea is pretty incredible for the environment. Everlane is also onboard with making plastic cool again via their newly launched ReNew outerwear collection made of recycled plastic bottles.
GOODY TWO-SHOES (OR PANTS. OR SHIRTS. OR DRESS.)
So here we are buying what we’ll wear endlessly, renting what we won’t, feeling really good about ourselves and our decisions. But there is still more that can come from fashion. I mean, why just buy and wear (and wear and wear) a shirt when you can buy and wear a shirt AND further save the world as the same time, sans having to rip said shirt in half inside a phone booth, which I think we can all agree is just silly wasteful.
Clothing both new and old can be donated. Good condition business attire is perfect for Dress for Success (70 E Lake St. #900), professional and casual attire alike can go to Goodwill, homeless shelters and women’s shelters, even your holey-stained-only-wear-them-when-you-are-home-alone shirts and boxers are accepted by Chicago Textile Recycling and other similar recycling facilities which turn them into industrial washing clothes. Denim with so many holes that you’ve become distressed on its behalf can be dropped of at Madewell and J. Crew locations where it will go to the Blue Jeans Go Green program which recycles old denim into housing insulation (some of which goes to Habitat for Humanity - I’m telling you once you get started the good can really pile up). Coats and jackets are perfect for Button & Zipper, which is in its fifth year collecting coats for homeless and at-risk youth. Next Door Cafe (659 W Diversey) in Lakeview is one of the program’s many drop-off locations throughout the city, but the bonus perk of this location is that in exchange for a few gently-worn coats, they will caffeinate you!
Positive change can also be achieved simply by wearing your clothes. Despite the [slightly misleading] header photo to this article, I don’t wear dresses. I’m only wearing the dress for the photo because I bought it for a friend’s wedding and now need to up its wear count (before I most likely sell it). I wouldn’t even have worn a dress to my own wedding if I hadn’t already convinced my husband-to-be that we could self-cater our 250 guest wedding and I thought another bout of unconventionality might push him over the edge. But I have now committed to wearing a dress every day of December as part of the Dressember campaign to raise awareness about the 30 million people currently enslaved worldwide. As a non-dress-wearer and limited dress owner, in order to make 31 days of dresses happen, I will be utilizing some of the practices discussed, along with a healthy smattering of #PepperAnning… as well as seeking out Khal to ask how he doesn’t freeze to death without pants on.