Why I Should Have Walked Out of Old Navy

I almost walked out of Old Navy last month. 

My husband and I had ventured through the foot-high snow banks and sub-freezing temperatures to the fast fashion superstore because he needed new jeans. A simple closet adherer by nature, my husband typically owns only one pair of jeans at a time and wears them until they are completely worn out. But this time the daily wear had truly had its toll: the fibers of his jeans had stretched thin and frayed, leaving bite-sized holes on the front pockets. (Side note: Now I understand why the women’s section of Goodwill and Salvation Army is typically five times larger than the men’s section: men typically wear out their clothing before it can be reasonably donated to the thrift store.)

I was on board to get new jeans until he suggested we go to Old Navy. I sucked in my breath, the image of the couple hugging underneath the rubble of the collapsed factory in Bangladesh seared in my mind. “But that’s where we got new jeans the last time,” he explained, confused at my hesitancy and angst. “I know, and the jeans were fine. They lasted you a long time. But…I just don’t know if I can honestly shop there.” 

I’ve been on a fashion fast from fast fashion for the last 2 years.

I’ve committed to buying nothing new unless it was certified fair trade, sustainable, ethically-made, or environmentally responsible. At the same time, I gutted my closet and downsized, donated, traded, or sold most of the items. Since I’m a budget fashionista and avid vintage dress buyer, the vast majority of the additions to my closet over the last few years have been from thrift and consignment stores. One of the results of these habits is that walking into a fast fashion store like Old Navy feels like a foreign, overwhelming experience and therefore it's a last resort.

I made a deal with my husband that we would hunt at the local thrift stores first to see if they had jeans in his size and style. If we came up empty after a couple stores, then and only then would we head to Old Navy to sift through the 8 different washes and dozen different styles of jeans. After striking out at the first thrift store, I luckily found a pair of good condition Gap jeans in my husband’s size and favorite wash tucked into the overflowing rack of clothes. I sighed with relief as I handed $3.00 to the cashier, excited to show my husband the treasure I’d found that averted the need to shop elsewhere. 

But then he tried on the jeans I got from the thrift store. I had checked the waist and length and wash and condition, but I didn’t think too much about the style name: “loose.” He looked like he drowned in the pants, so we drove to Old Navy.

As we headed to the fast fashion retailer, I started counting the 1,134 ways since last year that my perspective on fashion has changed—one way for every life lost in the Rana Plaza garment factory tragedy in April 2013.

I can’t explain precisely why this tragedy affected me more deeply than others. Perhaps it was because I already was a year into my buying-nothing-new freeze and research into sustainable/ethical fashion. Or maybe it was because the threads between “us” and “them” were tugged so violently that I could feel the connection of my purchases to their demise more directly. 

I do know one thing for sure: the Rana Plaza factory collapse challenged me to ask questions about where my clothing was made.  

“Where are these jeans made?” I asked, fumbling through the four pairs of jeans folded over my arm to investigate the tags. It’s a question that most people – and myself at one time – don’t ask, let alone other questions about how and by whom our purchases are made. But I now knew too much about the global fashion industry and supply chains and the environmental impacts of our apparel purchases to feign ignorance. 

I asked where my clothes were made, but I wasn’t prepared for the answer. 

My husband stood handsomely in a pair of dark wash boot cut jeans as I read with a quivering lip, “Made in Bangladesh.” An ugly cry crept up my throat, scratching at my vocal cords as I hoarsely whispered that I was going to find an alternative. “I don’t know if I can get these jeans, babe,” I stammered out, tears welling in my eyes unexpectedly. “I’m going to look up some other brands that maybe we could order from online.” I sat outside the dressing room, scrolling through my phone for alternatives while my husband tried on another pair of straight-cut jeans. 

An initial Google search for “ethically made men’s jeans” came up dry. While there are a host of brands that sell ethically-made or environmentally responsible jeans, the majority of them were either a) Super skinny jeans that are just too skinny for my non-hipster husband, or b) European brands that are completely out of our price range. All of them were not readily available in local stores, meaning that we would need to order them 1-2 weeks ahead of time when we needed new jeans, which isn’t a big deal but adds a layer of inconvenience onto shopping. 

As my husband tried on a few other pairs, I paced around the store, debating internally whether I should refuse to buy the jeans and tell the cashiers why I wasn’t going to buy them. But the bottom line was that my husband needed jeans that didn’t have holes in them, and we were prioritizing convenience – we were already in the store – over having to spend more time and energy and likely money to order something online that may not even fit well. Nevertheless, we agreed to research ethical alternatives for men’s clothing once we got home so we could be more prepared next time.

Glancing at the receipt as we walked out of the store, my stomach turned again. We paid around $24 for the new pair of jeans, the exact number a recent Huffington Post article called “How to Be An Ethical Consumer” used:

“There is a reason why your jeans are $24, and it’s not because the company is eating the cost. Our cheap clothing obsession cheats millions of garment workers out of living wages, safe working conditions, and humane treatment.”

My throat burned again, reminding me to live up to my values and find alternatives for a better choice next time. The following lists are the results of my research on sustainable mens’ clothing, including jeans. I also share some information on Old Navy’s and its parent company’s ethical practices and ratings for your information and purchasing decisions.  

Sustainable & Ethically-made Men’s Jeans

Other Resources on Sustainable Men’s Clothing

Information about Old Navy's Business Practices