Amanda received this email in mid December. It sparked many, many hours of reading, research, and conversations with other members of the community. In the quest to find a response to this message, a lot of other conversations began:
- Is it greenwashing to say “Small Business Is The Future?”
- Where is the nuance within slow fashion? How does that nuance influence the way we start conversations outside the slow fashion bubble?
- Should we tell people to stop buying goods and services altogether?
- How do the impacts of small businesses compare to those of big businesses?
- Are all small businesses “good?” What should we do if they are “bad?”
- Do small businesses get away with bad behavior because they are small?
- What is degrowth economics? Can it work? Would would it look like IRL?
- How do creativity and art fit into degrowth?
- Should makers and sellers stop what they are doing and shift into public service jobs? Why aren’t they doing that already?
- Why are so many Clotheshorse guests also small business owners?
- What are the challenges of trying to be as ethical as possible within late stage capitalism? How do we make the best choices?
- Who really makes money from podcasting?
- How do begin to value art, information, and content as much as we value “stuff?” And what happens if we don’t make that change?
Thank you to these awesome members of the community for already sharing their thoughts: Dani, Christine, Maria, Selina, Kate S., and Kate K.
After you have listened, share YOUR thoughts on the email and the other conversations we are having in this episode. Feel free to email, whether it’s a typed out message or an audio recording: [email protected]
Or call the Clotheshorse hotline: 717.925.7417
You can also join the convo on Instagram, @clotheshorsepodcast.
Did you enjoy this episode? Consider “buying me a coffee” via Ko-fi: ko-fi.com/clotheshorse
I’m sure I have mentioned this before, but I have been a long time listener of podcasts, kinda since the beginning of their existence. That’s not a humble brag, just the truth. For years, I listened to NPR any time I was getting ready for work, doing housework, cooking, or just hanging out at home alone. I liked hearing voices and I liked learning stuff while I was doing other things. NPR was my constant companion when Dylan was a baby and it was just the two of us day after day. The hosts became the other adults in the room for me. So imagine my delight when podcasts became an option for listening. More options for learning things, hearing stories, feeling a connection to someone far away who has no idea who I am. Okay, maybe that’s the weird part of it all, but those podcast hosts and guests were part of a one-sided relationship for me.
There is one podcast in particular that really inspired me to create Clotheshorse: You’re Wrong About. I’m sure many of you are listeners and if you’re not…I’ll just say my gateway episode was about Tonya Harding and you should definitely listen to it. You’re Wrong About really resonated with me because it was just two smart, funny people (Sarah Marshall and Michael Hobbes) researching stuff and debunking a lot of long held media/pop culture narratives. It didn’t have the slickness of an NPR produced podcast with musical interludes. It wasn’t about true crime, politics, or comedy. Or at least, it wasn’t explicitly about those topics. And it was kinda lo-fi in terms of production. In 2020, when I was sitting in my un-airconditioned rowhouse in South Philly, panicking about what was going to happen to us next now that I didn’t have a job and there was a refrigerated morgue trailer parked outside the hospital a few blocks from our house, I was also thinking about starting a podcast that debunked what fashion, clothing, shopping, and style mean to us as individuals and a society. And You’re Wrong About made me feel like I could do that. And to be honest, being a guest on You’re Wrong About would be a dream come true for me. Same for being on a very different show about Lifetime movies, Mother May I Sleep With Podcast. I have dreams, okay?
There was an episode–well, more of a conversation during an episode– of You’re Wrong About along the way–I’m pretty sure I listened to it 6 months or so after launching Clotheshorse that really resonated with me. I have this specific memory of listening to it in our bathroom in Bird In Hand while I was detangling my hair. And both hosts were talking about how hard it is to balance the constant feedback from strangers on the internet with their mental health and getting work done. One of them said something like “the human brain just isn’t designed for constant feedback from strangers.” They went on to talk about how one shitty review on Apple podcasts sits with them way longer than 100 kind messages from listeners. And wow, I felt both of those sentiments so hard. I mean, I feel sick every time I have to get an annual performance review at work, even when I know that I am working hard and doing a good job. I’ve actually seriously considered calling off work on those days. But that’s just once a year.
Now imagine that it comes every day, in the form of social media comments, instagram DMs, emails, episode reviews, weird posts where someone tags you to talk about how stupid you are without addressing you directly, kinda just coming from all directions 24 hours a day. And 99.9% of this feedback is from people you don’t know. Just total strangers who are now a bigger part of your life because they wanted to tell you what they think of you. And it’s sort of like this burden you have to take on because you create content that people consume. You’re not asking for feedback, advice, criticism…but there it is, arriving in your inbox every hour, all night long. And guess what? You have to do the unpaid labor of responding to this constant feedback, hoping that you can make the sender feel seen and heard, while also figuring out how to solve the problem they are seeing.
It’s hard for me as a people pleaser. On one hand, I receive so many kind comments and messages every day. And I save them, because they mean so much to me. Meeting new people who take the time to reach out, to connect with me…that’s one of the best parts of working on Clotheshorse. I love getting to know people! And I know that when someone reaches out with a kind message, they want to connect, too. I know how uncomfortable reaching out to a stranger can be, I know it feels risky and scary, like rejection is right around the corner…so when someone takes the time to write me an email, I’m beyond excited to talk to them.
But I’m also a people pleaser (and working really hard to change that), which means that every negative piece of critique is agonizing, makes me question if I’m good enough to do what I do. Makes me wonder if maybe I’m just a raging egomaniac who thinks I’m doing something useful, but really I’m just wasting everyone’s time.
Over the past few months, I have stopped responding to instagram DMs. Why? Because they were eating up HOURS of my day every day. Answering questions, handling requests to be a guest on the show, finding information for people, providing comfort to people with eco anxiety or shitty bosses, and reading the stories and experiences of others. Think about it: I have more than 30,000 followers on Instagram, and there’s just one of me. So even if only 60 people message me in one day, and each response takes five minutes to respond to, well that’s 300 minutes of work, aka 5 hours. It’s just too much. I guess that’s why the fancy successful podcasts hire people to handle that kind of stuff!
What I have been doing—because I want to keep the lines of communication open, after all, I do love our community and I want to be a contributing, active part of it–is encouraging everyone to email me. Now, strangely enough, only maybe 10% of people who DM me will go on to send an email, but I think that filters out the people who maybe don’t really care that much about connecting.
I still get a lot of emails: about mispronouncing words, misspelling something in the show notes, from PR people who want their client to be on the show, big greenwashing gross companies that want to “partner,” someone sent me feedback about the way I dress (didn’t really need that one, but thanks), and so on. And I respond to all of them, because I think it’s important to do that.
Last month I received an email that was a little bit more complicated. And I’ve been thinking about it now for like what, 5 weeks? It didn’t help that it arrived just as I was coming down with Covid and feeling anxious about moving, so I had lots of time to think about it in bed, packing boxes, loading boxes, cleaning. It became something to think about when I was trying to not think about how stressful moving was.
I finally talked to Dustin about it three weeks in. And at that point–because I had and have been–on a whole emotional journey with this email, I felt convinced that it was time to end Clotheshorse. That perhaps everything that could be said was said, and now I could, I don’t know, start a podcast about the 1991 Oliver Stone movie, The Doors.
Well, Dustin was elated that I was finally ready to do that podcast dissecting The Doors with him, but he was also like, “whoa, whoa, whoa…this is definitely not the time to stop making Clotheshorse. Real shit is finally happening in the world with fashion. People are listening and getting involved.” And he added, “I think you should talk to some of your friends about this, your slow fashion friends.”
And I did. I shared the email (without revealing the sender’s identity) and got their thoughts on it, which were very helpful with thinking about my response to it.
In today’s episode, we are going to talk about this email and so much more along the way. Trust me, it’s a good conversation…
Welcome to the first episode of Clotheshorse in 2024, and the first episode recorded in our new home in Lancaster County, PA. A lot has happened since I last spoke with you all!
This was supposed to be the second part of my “why clothes are kinda garbage” series, but that will be coming next week. I thought my response to this email would be I don’t know, 15 minutes long…but when the script for it reached the 20 page (and 6 hours of writing) mark, I realized, it was going to be a stand alone situation. In this episode we will be talking about degrowth, the value of information and art, the impact of small businesses, and so much more.
So let’s read this email, okay? And then we will talk about it. And I’ll also be sharing some of the responses to it from the people in my life who read it, too.
Thank you for your podcast; I’ve been listening for a while and I really enjoy your perspective on things and all of the information you share about the ills of the fashion industry. I do want to push back a bit though on the idea that small businesses are the future.
Maybe it’s because when I worked in retail, I mostly worked in small mom and pop shops, and they could be just as exploitative as the big box giants, and because it was a “small local business” they were able to get away with labor violations, low wages, unethical practices, etc etc without much, if any, oversight. Just because you’re supporting a small business, doesn’t mean you’re doing a good thing. Which is a tough thing to say.
As you’ve mentioned before, a lot of people use the whole “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism” line to justify not trying at all. And I don’t want to do that but the fact is, if you are a consumer (which we’re all forced to be), making the “ethical” choice isn’t as easy as buying a $400 sweater from a small designer or buying a secondhand sweater on Poshmark. It just isn’t. Sometimes the ethical choice is not buying or selling anything, not goods, not services, nothing.
I understand the point of Clotheshorse – it’s ultimately a podcast about fashion, but it rubs me the wrong way that a lot of the people you interview are vintage resellers or someone else who’s trying to sell me something. I’m not anti-vintage reseller, but well, not everyone needs to be a girlboss who’s selling her goodwill finds on Instagram. Not everyone needs to own a small business selling yarn or art or styling services, etc etc.
And I think that promoting the idea that small business is the future just promotes more consumerism. It feels like greenwashing. Maybe the future isn’t small businesses but less businesses (and more people teaching algebra or being social workers or librarians or whatever – I admit my bias and “TBH privilege* as a person who works in a completely non-selling stuff based field). Obviously, it’s your podcast and I’m still going to listen because I really do enjoy it but I wish there were less people trying to sell me stuff and more people, well, not trying to sell me stuff. You know?
Okay, so where should we start with this? Some of my friends saw the use of “girl boss” as a bit of a micro aggression because I have spoken so often of how traumatic my time working at girl boss world headquarters (aka Nasty Gal) was. I am going to give the sender the benefit of the doubt that they have heard those episodes or they were trying to underscore just how concerning my use of the phrase “small business is the future” is by using a phrase that would certainly elicit an emotional response from me.
I think really where we begin with responding to this email is unpacking my approach to having conversations about fast fashion and overconsumption, and how that plays out via Clotheshorse.
To get started with that, we have to travel back in time together…to my very early 20s. Or actually, let’s travel back even further, to when I was a little kid with cancer. When I was about two years old, I was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma. It’s a fairly rare cancer that primarily affects children. Now the survival rate is pretty decent, but back when I was diagnosed, the prognosis wasn’t great. I was treated at the Milton S Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, PA (yes, where the chocolate is made), which had its own incredible children’s hospital. That place became my second home for years, as doctors tried different treatments (including chemotherapy and radiation) in a time when doctors were still trying to figure out how to treat cancer well. So I had a lot of weird experimental treatments. I have a massive scar on my head from a port/chemo combo that went very badly and actually chemically burned away tissue. That’s why I usually wear a hat, to ensure that my hair keeps it covered. I have a smaller, but similar scar on my foot from the same kind of treatment failure. It seemed like I always had a raging fever or uncontrollable vomiting. It was scary as shit, but I also have fond memories of the nursing staff who showered me with care and affection. My grandma has always loved to tell stories about how I could really “work a crowd” even as a kid. When anyone arrived at the hospital to visit me, they knew I wouldn’t be in my room, but rather at the nurses’ station, telling jokes or getting my nails painted.
But other kids died regularly on that ward where I lived, including kids who had the same kind of cancer as me. Somehow I survived. My family would always remind me of how lucky I was to be here, when so many others were not. And to be honest, that’s something that I still carry with me. I think we are ALL lucky to be here, living on this magical planet filled with amazing creatures and plants, and natural phenomena. But I don’t let myself forget that luck, that privilege of life, and it motivates me to try my hardest to be kind, thoughtful, and compassionate. I haven’t always gotten it right, but I sure do try.
Okay, so let’s go back to my early 20s. I ended up living in Chicago with my boyfriend Brad, who had been awarded a fellowship in neuroscience at Northwestern. He was working on a PhD, which he would receive years after we broke up. At that point, I was really thinking a lot about animal rights. I still do, of course, but back then it was really top of mind for me. I had just begun what would be (I hope) a life of volunteer work in the world of animal rescue. I was volunteering every weekend at the vet clinic at the Anti Cruelty Society. And I was really struggling with just how horrible people were to animals.
Brad had begun working in a lab that did animal testing. And it really fucked with me. It seemed so wrong that someone kind and thoughtful like him could also be hurting animals every day at work. I stewed about it for months (he always called me “Old Stewy,” because I just silently spiraled about things for weeks and months). But it finally exploded into a big fight, or rather, worked its way into a bigger fight about something else. I just couldn’t believe that he was okay with animal suffering every day in the name of science.
And you know what he said to me? You know what he said to me that just stopped me dead in my tracks?
He said, “Amanda, you wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for animal testing. That’s where cancer treatments start.”
I mean, what could I say to that? I just froze for a few moments, then grabbed my coat and went out for a walk. A long walk along the lake, past neighborhood after neighborhood, until I was near the skyscrapers and tourist attractions.
How could we both be right? That was what I couldn’t figure out. It seemed like there should be a clear right and wrong. But there wasn’t, right?
I’m still not cool with animal testing, especially in the area of cosmetics, detergents, and skincare, where we already know what is and is not harmful to humans. Like, let’s just stop there. But I also recognize that this is where medical breakthroughs begin.
This was my first real experience with nuance. With complication. With grey areas. Everything had always felt so black and white. So right and wrong for a long time. There could only be bad people or good people. Heroes or villains.
And as I have moved through life, the nuance has become more and more visible to me. I mean, yeah, some things are resolutely bad/evil/wrong and nothing about that will change: murder, torture, genocide, slavery, sexual assault, physical, mental, and sexual abuse, bigotry and hatred. That’s just the beginning of a long list of things that are 100% inarguably bad.
But when we get to larger scale social and economic issues: well, there’s a lot of nuance there that makes them a much more complicated conversation. Especially when we consider how we talk about them with others and how we get others involved.
I am so ready for the end of capitalism and and I am so ready for a world in which we are caring for one another as one big community. I’ve had so many shitty jobs over the years that kept me desperate and scared. I’m ready to raise children with my neighbors, swap our skills and food, maybe live on a big commune with my chosen family. That’s the world I want. Guess what? Although I’m hoping to get most of my friends out here to Lancaster County where we can take care of one another, I don’t see the end of capitalism within my lifetime. Or even my daughter’s lifetime. The best thing we can do is fight for what is right, act with care and compassion, and try to make the best choices. Because we aren’t getting that utopia any time soon. And I think too many people are sort of saying, “well, if I can’t have that perfect world, then I’m not changing anything right now. I’ll keep shopping from Shein and ordering dumb plastic shit from Temu because YOLO.” It’s using “there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism” as an excuse to opt out of making any changes.
My friend Selina read this email and said,“We all wish we could live in a utopian world but that isn’t reality. If this person feels like they are being bombarded by feeling like everyone is trying to sell them something – one piece of advice – get off your phone. Because as we all know, if you have a business (I suspect this person’s algorithm is full of artists) – there will ALWAYS be advertising (even when you don’t think there is) I partake in this in one form or another, everyday. As much as I dislike having to set aside time to make a reel to try and promote my next pattern for sale or drop, it is VITAL to my survival as a business owner.”
The fight against fast fashion and overconsumption requires a lot of nuance and reflection. In the early days of Clotheshorse, I was internally full of rage against this industry that I knew was exploiting humans, destroying our planet, and ripping off so many people. This industry that people romanticized, when it was actually so ugly and harmful. I still feel that way, but over the years I have grown in terms of how I talk about it with others. Because if I don’t meet people where they are, if I don’t take shame and blame out of the conversation, they are not going to get involved. Productive activism means community building…and meeting people where they are.
Skipping fast fashion is hard. We’ve grown up in a culture of shopping that makes it really really hard to change. Fast fashion brands with their “sustainable collections” and greenwashy “sustainable” brands are successful because they sell us the idea that we don’t need to change anything to save the planet. They sell the illusion that we can shop our way to a better world. Spoiler: we can’t! And changing the course of our world will mean making a lot of individual changes as a society. But guess what? We are not going to get people involved in this movement if we build a slow fashion paradigm that doesn’t account for the humanity of the people involved.
The very basic fact is that we all need to buy less stuff. In fact, a lot less stuff. Period. And we need to make that change immediately.
Magical fabric or only shopping secondhand or upcycled or only renting your clothes or building a capsule wardrobe…none of these things allow us to consume stuff at the same rate we have been without facing some very serious consequences.
We must buy less stuff. Immediately.
But if we expect people to stop buying stuff altogether, well, we are setting people up for disconnecting from this movement really fast. Because the moment they buy something new, the guilt will make them walk away from us.
Listen, shopping, new clothes, fast fashion…they are woven into our culture and social behavior at this point. And we’ve been swimming in it since birth. We’ve been told our entire lives that new stuff=happiness.
- The “fast everything” model of retail has convinced us that owning more stuff is always the best option.
- We are exposed to advertising everywhere: social media, streaming platforms, billboards, haul videos, etc.
- Social media has reinforced the idea that we need to wear something new for every event.
- Magazines and blogs reinforce the idea that new clothes, makeup, etc. will “fix” our problems.
We can call bullshit on all of those ideas. But we also have to recognize some other truths:
- People are always going to need to buy stuff. Ask me about the stupidly boring shit I have had to buy since moving: a compost can (in Austin it was supplied by the city, here we have to get our own), a recycling bin (same situation), shelving for our closets, a filing cabinet (secondhand).
- People will always need to buy clothes. Hopefully they will be secondhand, but people need clothes. Our bodies change sizes, our life circumstances change, the climate we live in changes. These require clothes that we don’t already own.
- But beyond that, people will always buy stuff that they don’t need either, from gifts to craft supplies, to tchotchkes. People are going to celebrate holidays, get married, have kids, adopt pets, travel, host dinners, go to parties, go camping, read books, listen to music, play music…I could go on and on. These are the things that bring joy. Life is so short…seriously, even on my worst days I remind myself of how impermanent this all is, and we should do things that make us happy. We should have memorable experiences and spend time with people we love and make cool shit. Because we are humans and we only get this one life. Some of this will involve the buying and selling of stuff. But let’s buy a lot less of that stuff, and shop secondhand or from a small business when we do that.
On the anticonsumption subreddit, there’s a lot of great conversation about Stanley tumblers and Squishmallows hoarding, but there are also people who show up to say that no one should have pets or kids because they lead to overconsumption..as if pets and kids don’t bring joy and comfort to us. And as if we can’t enjoy either without a ton of dumb shopping…because we can!
My friend Christine, who unfortunately had to hear about this email for days as we drove from Austin to PA, said, “We have turned to small businesses to try to create a space for us to fit into a world that unfortunately does revolve around capitalism/ consumerism. Most of us are struggling with everyday decisions like do I buy the cheapest milk from a big box store that is anti union and treats employees like a commodity or do I try to wait till I can go to a farmers market to buy directly from a farm? Or do I buy bulk nuts to make my own milk? Or do I buy coconut milk that contributes to deforestation in the amazon? Either way…. you’re still buying goods and shopping. Those I know in non-profit and teaching still have to buy gas, groceries, office supplies etc. Even if you are mostly self-sufficient, you have to buy things (heck, even the Amsih buy supplies, I’ve seen it!!). That’s just the world we live in. Hence where the phrase ‘no ethical consumption under capitalism’ comes from. It’s not just a cop out for those buying shein hauls…. it’s a real concept that has merit as it encompasses the very thoughts in this email. I mean, this person’s email wasnt typed on a found typewriter with handmade paper and mailed via carrier pigeon- it was likely written on a computer bought from a big box store that has bad glassdoor reviews and was likely made in a factory abroad that barely paid a living wage to the factory workers.”
When I say that I want people to shop small, I’m not telling them to keep overconsuming, but shop only from small businesses. I’m not saying that overshopping isn’t overshopping if you shop small. That couldn’t be further from the values I try to share here on the podcast and on social media. Is it greenwashing to say “Small Business Is The Future?” I don’t think so, unless you’re also implying (as many fast fashion brands do) that shopping small “cancels out” the impact of shopping. I actually think that small business and buying less stuff are part of the same construct that is slow fashion.
Here’s a great quote from Kate S, who read this email and shared her thoughts with me:
“I don’t disagree that the future may be fewer businesses — but this isn’t exactly straight forward arithmetic. More small businesses and 1 less Amazon sounds like the math isn’t mathing, but it is. The impact of that outcome for the planet and its people would be huge. The last piece of this I want to highlight is that while I am as anti-capitalism as the next clotheshorse lover, I have to respect that people need to earn a living to support themselves and care for their families. We haven’t course corrected to avoid that reality yet. If folks want to run a small business with awesome ethics and values, I think that is, as we sit here today, one of the best ways to provide for themselves and serve the planet. It is like you always say — progress, not perfection — and I see more small businesses in the future as a huge part of that progress.”
Kate makes a really great point here. We cannot underscore the sheer size and sales volume that a company like Amazon is doing. More than $550 billion in revenue in 2023 alone. And we know that a lot of the stuff Amazon is selling is stuff that people don’t need. But beyond that, Amazon also provides a lot of data storage services via Amazon Web Services. Imagine if we cut that $550 billion in volume in half, to $225 billion. And we said, all of those sales are going to be redistributed to small businesses with a million dollars in revenue each year (still way bigger than most of the businesses within the slow fashion community). Right there we would have 225,000 small businesses with multiple employees, providing goods and services (including the data stuff Amazon does). And that’s with cutting out half the bullshit Amazon is selling, with the idea that consumers would cut way back on shopping.
That’s just Amazon.
Target did about $100 billion in sales in 2023.
Walmart did more than $600 billion in sales.
Dollar General did about $38 billion.
Family Dollar did $28 billion.
These are just four companies. Slash their sales in half to account for all of us buying a lot less stuff, redistribute those sales into smaller businesses, and the landscape looks a lot different.
And remember, that’s how it once was. I know I’m older than some of you, younger than others…but I grew up in a small town in rural PA. When I was a kid we would drive into York where my grandma lived to do shopping. And we had barely any chains, outside of Sears, McCrory’s, JCPenney, and Kmart. Even the mall stores were small chains at that point. The grocery stores were either local chains or completely local one offs. Same thing with hardware stores and pharmacies. We had local department stores like Mailman’s and Hess. Yes, we had McDonald’s and the other fast food chains, but most restaurants were also locally owned.
Shopping felt more personal, because inevitably my grandma or aunt knew the owner of the business. So they weren’t going to sell us crappy stuff that would break, because we would be back to complain. A relationship could be broken by providing bad service or giving us food poisoning or not allowing a return.
Things changed a lot in the 90s, when Walmart and later Target arrived in town. Soon we had Michaels, TJ Maxx, Kohls, and every other big box store that you can find in every small city/big town across the US.
If you’ve ever wondered WHY every small town and city now has the same series of stores in every shopping center, well, look no further than the fundamental issue affecting every industry and our economy: that need to have increased sales and profits year after year after year…theoretically into infinity. How do you get there? Well, you open more and more stores. Target has close to 2000 stores. Michales has close to 1300. Walmart has more than 10,500.
The thing is…opening that many stores requires more than just finding the location and filling it with inventory to be successful…you have to eliminate local competition. And in the 80s and 90s (and even 00s) as these chains grew and grew, they gobbled up smaller chains, eliminated local small businesses, and soon became the only place in town to buy craft supplies, towels, sometimes even groceries. They did this by undercutting every small business in town on price. Which feels really unfair, because in many cases they were able to offer that pricing by reducing quality and leveraging an exploitative supply chain. And when these stores became the only option, they got to control pricing, quality, and offering (not a great situation for customers) along with wages and working conditions (bad for workers). When Walmart first opened in York when I was in middle school, they paid better than any other retailer in town. People left their jobs to go work at Walmart. Now Walmart underpays and underschedules, making it impossible to make a living from a full time job there.
The reality is that the rise of these big businesses has destroyed small businesses. And they have also suppressed wages, controlled our access to products, made it harder for us to repair products, and even changed the quality of the things we are being sold. Why? Because all of these big companies operate under the same model: infinite growth, year after year after year. Well, once you have maximized the amount of stuff you can sell to people, you have to start thinking of new ways to grow profitability without selling even more stuff… and you get there by cutting costs of the stuff you sell and cutting wages and employees. You build even more planned obsolescence into your model, so people can’t repair stuff and have to buy replacements more often.
Now, we know that a lot of big corporations are horrible for workers and consumers alike, but what about small businesses?
You know, I’ve been making Clotheshorse for about three and a half years now. And I have posted on social media almost every single day since then. And one of the topics I post about regularly is why I believe we should shop small when we need to buy something, often using the statement “small business is the future.” Now obviously that’s a much simpler version of a more nuanced take, but I also share WHY I think it is important to shop small. I’ll go into that in a few.
Anyway, everytime I post about small business, someone shows up in the comments to say “not all small businesses are great, I worked for a small business that was terrible.”
Guess what everyone? I know that. In fact, I don’t think every small business is owned by a great person who just wants to do the best things for the planet, people, and their community. In fact, there are a lot of small businesses owned by crappy people all over this world. I’ve worked for some of them. There was the restaurant where the owner would grope me everytime I walked through the kitchen to get dinner rolls for a table. There was the vintage store owner who would scream at us and hold our paychecks when he was mad at us. There was the medical billing office where we were not allowed to eat or drink at our desks, but we were only allowed to get up to grab water twice a day. These businesses sucked.
I’m going to tell you all something that I have learned the very hard way time and time again throughout my life: there are bad people in just about every line of work.
Ask me about the OB-GYN I saw ONE time after my partner died, who shamed me for being unmarried and not making better decisions.
Followed by the ultrasound technician who asked me where my child’s father was in an accusing way.
The teacher who took nude photos of classmates.
The flight attendant who said if I wanted to sit next to a two year old Dylan, I would have to walk through the plane and ask each passenger if they could consider trading seats with me.
The Walmart cashier who asked me with disdain “just how old were you when you had your kid?”
I could tell stories all day about crappy people I have encountered in various fields and job roles around this world.
Some people suck. There are bad bosses and bad communicators in businesses of all sizes.. Plenty of people should not be running a business in the first place. I still believe that most people are great. And the moment I hear a small business is bad, I’m sure to tell my friends and family. I leave them a bad review on Google and Yelp. That’s what we should all be doing. Yeah, we shouldn’t support bad businesses, no matter the size. Remember, the motto of Clotheshorse has always been “Don’t Give Your Money To Assholes.” That applies to businesses of all sizes. And I want to be clear that any guest who owns a small business that appears on this podcast is vetted. Any small brand I post about on IG is vetted. Any one who advertises is…yep, vetted for asshole behavior. Hell, I pulled a person out of a small business round up after they posted a fatphobic comment on a CNN article and I happened to see it.
Maria–when she read the email–said, “I also have worked for small businesses that treated their employees terribly including an extremely popular and revered NYC thrift attached to a life saving nonprofit that was one of the most poorly run businesses I’ve ever had to be around for. However, on a larger scale, it’s still better, or less harmful than a business that uses exploitation on a global scale to function. My crappy experience there doesn’t outweigh the global impact of other business practices on a larger scale.”
And to be clear, small businesses can–if they are run by thoughtful people–have a positive impact on their communities, while also mitigating their impact on the planet.
- Small businesses have a larger positive impact on their communities than big box stores and Amazon.. According to the US Small Business Administration, when you spend $100 at a small business, $48 stays in the community. Spend $100 at a big box store? Only $14 stays in the community!
- Small businesses create jobs in a way that big businesses do not. Since 1995, more than half of jobs in the United States were created by small businesses.
- Small businesses redistribute wealth. Right now, a few huge companies rake in most of the money (Amazon, Walmart, Zara, etc), making billionaires of their founders and CEOs. In fact, when you spend money at say, Target, that money travels away from you and your community in a straight line. Yes, a little tiny bit of that money goes into the pockets of workers and suppliers, but it continues to travel away from you and ends up with shareholders and executives. Meanwhile, money spent with small businesses tends to travel in circles, to other members of the community and other small businesses. And if you’re feeling as “eat the rich” as I always feel, then knowing that this money is staying with us regular people is a pretty big deal.
- It’s too late for the biggest companies out there to magically transform into sustainable, ethical brands because exploitation and waste are built into their business model. It is a way of doing business that will always prioritize profits over people. Getting them to change their ways would mean completely dismantling their current way of doing business, and that’s just not feasible. Small businesses can constantly make changes to be more sustainable and ethical because they are small! Turning around a bike is easy <–that’s a small business. Turning around a huge cruise ship is not so easy <–that’s the big business.
Kate W had some great thoughts about the choices we make and how difficult they can be:
“I don’t think that there is anything wrong with Amanda suggesting small business is the future. It’s not like ‘small business’ is a single behemoth like Amazon or Temu or Shein. There’s room for good ones and bad ones and all sorts of niches within a belief that small and local is usually going to be better than large and far away.
This is a common topic on the ethical fashion subreddit: that there is no way to hit all the ethical highlights at once, and we must choose what we value most.
So for some that is centered around the environment – fibers, dyes, transportation, waste. Much will depend on the specific small business practices, but overall I’d say advantage small because of the waste generated at scale, and local for the lowered transportation emissions for finished goods.
For others ethical means fair wages and worker treatment. This one is very business specific, and I wouldn’t say small is necessarily better than large overall. But it is easier to find out if a small business treats their workers ethically because you can ask the people helping you directly.
For others still, ethical is about the exploitation/use of animal products. Here, too, it’s very much about individual businesses and what they use. And some larger businesses are able to make more cost effective vegan items because of the quantity of materials purchased.
For others still, ethical fashion is about reuse, quality, and recyclability. I think small wins out here, as there is more motivation to manufacture quality items when you are closer to your consumer, and smaller lots mean less waste and more reuse.
And then there is ethical service to customers: here we run into the difficulties of serving all sizes and shapes for small businesses who need to sell the majority of the items they make. Large business I think has the advantage of absorbing the cost of a larger size range and spreading materials costs out, but small businesses that do custom are probably the most ethical on this point.”
Once again, none of this means that you should be overshopping just to support small businesses. You should be shopping small when you need something. That’s a big difference from sort of mindless shopping.
So yes, we should be buying less stuff. And I think we are all doing that. Obviously we need a lot more people to do that to make the kind of impact that we need. And if we could get the majority of our society (honestly even if it were a third, it would be impactful) to just stop buying so much stuff, repairing things, shopping secondhand, etc…well, that would have a significant impact on our economy. And guess what? That’s an entire area of economic thinking called degrowth. Right now, we look at economies both nationally and globally as an infinite growth situation. Basically, just like all of those big businesses, our leaders want and expect our economies to grow year after year into infinity by making and selling more stuff. And guess what? We are seeing that strategy creating climate change, deforestation, pollution, human exploitation, the plastic waste crisis, and so much more.
Degrowth is possible (and necessary), but it would be a big change. That doesn’t mean it’s not out of the range of possibility. It would require massive government funding and legislation. And it would hinge on some very big shifts in the way our societies operate:
- For one, consumption would be reined in big time. Scaling back fossil fuel use. That means less cars, more public transportation. No more private jets. No more overproduction or creation of items that can’t be repaired or recycled. That would mean the end of planned obsolescence. Factory farming of dairy and meat would be substantially declined, which would mean everyone has to rethink their diets and stop wasting so much food!
- Public services would be improved. This means universal access for everyone to high quality health care, good foods, housing, education, child care, etc. All of the things that many of us are lacking right now. In theory, this would significantly narrow both the economic and quality of life gaps that exist throughout the world right now. Massively improving access to education, housing, child care, and healthcare would actually provide more options for all of “girl bosses” who have been pushed into the realm of retail, service work, etc because we would have more opportunities. Many of you long time listeners know that I fell into a career in buying basically because the only job that would hire me when I was a young single mother was a retail store. Was it my dream? Heck no. I wanted to be a writer and an art teacher. Neither of those were an option when I could barely afford rent and diapers, much less continuing education. That’s the other thing about this current stage of capitalism that we are all trying to survive: while we are all told that we have more freedom than ever, many of us are boxed in and trapped by financial circumstances. Here’s what Maria had to say about that:
“Of course not everyone is going to sell yarn or vintage or handmade soap… but also not everyone can have a job teaching algebra or being a librarian, both require masters degrees and a lot of us could barely afford college round 1! I’ve been a barista, cashier, visual merchandiser, and store manager. I’m not cut out for much else and I’m 40. There’s a ton of service industry lifers out here and these “girlboss” (a bit rude to throw that word around) side hustles can supplement a serious earning plateau from your day gig. There’s also the dream, if you’ve spent your adulthood working in that sector that you could someday escape it, through hard work and cleverness and whatever else you could someday not have to be stuck in a job you hate. The idea of being a small business owner has a lot of appeal to some people, and while it’s not for everyone, the people it’s for don’t have some of the options this person may have had. Education and class are serious factors in the dreams and goals we feel like we can achieve.”
Christine had similar thoughts:
“I don’t know if small business is the future, but many of us who’ve struggled in other fields because of needing to commit to families, struggling with aging out of our fields, or bodies aging out of physical labor or even due to neurodivergent minds not fitting into the corporate environments… Most small businesses are just people trying to get by and make some extra money while doing what makes them feel good/ responsible/ resourceful in a world that forces us to rely on money. “
- Another part of degrowth is reducing working time. This means lowering the retirement age, making it financially feasible for people to work only part time, or even making a four day work week the mandatory maximum. This could also mean eliminating salaried roles that call for unlimited hours. Reducing working hours could give people more opportunity to care for their health and wellbeing. And TBH, I think less working hours would make people less likely to find solace in shopping.
- Another element of degrowth is creating jobs and training in new areas like green energy, making buildings more energy efficient, and even administering all of these enhanced social programs. These job training programs would be focused on people who are losing their jobs as part of degrowth: retail workers, fossil fuel employees, warehouse workers, all those people delivering Amazon packages, and I guess, me. Because if you think Clotheshorse is the job that pays my rent, you would be sorely wrong. We’ll get into that later.
But if we are retraining all of these people for these new jobs, what happens to the artists of the world? Where do art and creativity fit into that? Selina had some great thoughts on her drive as an artist in a capitalist economy:
“Fashion is art, to many people, it is a way of therapy, self expression, joy. My job is not just to provide clothes to those people but to inspire many to make their own clothes, seize their own personal styles and buy intentionally. Sometimes at a cost to my own business! Should I feel guilty for wanting to share the happiness upcycling clothes brings me and feel guilty for making a living out of it? Absolutely not. The existence of my business creates beauty, inspiration and hope for many people. We inspire others to start their own ventures, and utilize their talents, feel like they have purpose and make a living doing it.”
Dani had additional thoughts on the place of creativity and art:
“I, myself, have had MANY introspective – or even existential – moments where I wondered whether going from working as a corporate designer who enjoyed a consistent salary and benefits, to having an income that solely relies on people literally buying stuff, represented my core values at all. That shit is a hard pill to swallow. But I started out on this trajectory before I even understood that simply existing costs money. If I could have a chat with 15-year-old Dani and tell her to pursue psychology rather than fashion design, because I would have an existential crisis in my early 30s having me question every choice I had made in my life, would I do it? Probably not! Because I know I would have still followed this path because when you are a creative person, sometimes you just can’t think rationally, and you just DO the damn thing. And as Selina so eloquently wrote, the world NEEDS the creative output of individuals like ourselves – whether they believe their creativity is worthy of compensation or not.”
It’s hard for me to imagine a world without art: whether it’s visual, written, music, dance, you name it. Dustin is a musician. I went to art school to be a painter and I spend an awful lot of time writing and creating content. These things have major value to humanity, but they aren’t really supported financially. So most creative people have some other kind of job or side hustle that gives them the financial runway to make art.
I think this is a great time to talk about Clotheshorse, the finances of it, and how guests are chosen for the podcast.
Let’s start with the guests. On a typical weekday, I receive about 10 requests for guest appearances on Clotheshorse. Some are from big companies who are looking for some free marketing. They get an instant no response from me. Some are from small businesses who are also looking for some free marketing. To those people I always ask, “Okay, well, what is your area of expertise? Your experience? What could you bring to the table in terms of knowledge for the Clotheshorse community?” Sometimes the requests are from people who just want to be on a podcast. I ask them the same question.
Now obviously I’m not putting out ten episodes of the podcast each day, so I’m clearly saying no to a lot of people. That’s because I’m looking for people who bring information and ideas to our community. I really do have a vision for what the podcast is, what it means, and the impact I want it to have. I’m not kidding when I say that an individual episode of the podcast ranges from 12-20 hours of work, not including all of the other time I put it on social media content, answering emails, and handling really tedious administrative stuff. I’m putting about 60 hours of work into Clotheshorse each week, so of course I’m passionate about putting great stuff out into the world.
Yes, there are a lot of guests on the pod who are small business owners. Why? Think about it…this is a podcast whose primary mission is to uncover and explain why this industry is going so wrong. It’s really hard to get people who are still working within the industry to be guests on the show because they are afraid of messing up their future employment options. Or even losing their current job. And I get that. I would have felt the same way when I was still working within the industry. I wouldn’t be able to make Clotheshorse if I had decided that I was never going back.
So most of my guests are people who no longer work within the industry. Well, they have to make a living somehow…and that often means they have started their own small business. That doesn’t mean they are “living the dream” or anything like that. In fact, all of the former industry professionals who now work for themselves that I know are really struggling. Dani said, “I also think folks who are not entrepreneurs/small businesses don’t fully grasp the plight of working for themselves. The amount of work that is done without payment is very hard to grasp for folks who are paid a salary, paid by hour or paid for their output. The literal hustle to earn every single dollar, while I once was paid to do PLENTY of hard and stressful work, but also my share of “busy work” and at even at times, online shop between projects I was working on, or in the moments before I had to waste before I had to attend a meeting in which I would listen to the same conversations happen over and over again about absolutely nothing that mattered, and where my perspective would never have been appreciated. I think all of us have moments where we consider throwing in the towel and pursuing a 9-to-5.”
I am aware that all of my guests are really hustling to stay afloat financially, to feed their kids, pay rent, get healthcare, and just exist. Furthermore, being a guest on this show is about 3 hours of unpaid labor: first our initial conversation where we outline the episode and identify any research needs, then about two hours of recording. I obviously can’t pay for that, but one way I can repay the favor (and support amazing people who are BRAVE enough to come on Clotheshorse and share their experiences) is by giving them some time to plug their business. No one is coming in with “hey you better go buy something right now.” They are just reminding you that they are there.
I also just want to add that when it comes to educating others about over consumption, waste, the ethical and environmental crisis of “fast everything,” it’s small business owners who are doing all of that unpaid labor, and dealing with trolls along the way. I see it playing out over and over again on social media. And I appreciate that hard work, maybe because I know how hard it is. So of course I’m going to encourage listeners to follow and support these businesses. Not to over shop, buy things they don’t need…but to keep them in mind when they DO need something.
Now let’s talk about the financial situation that is Clotheshorse.
It is very important to me that every decision involving Clotheshorse is as ethical as possible and aligns my own personal values. After all, I am Clotheshorse. This is my baby, perhaps you might call it my pony.
In some regards, Clotheshorse is very successful. It reaches a lot of people and it’s often in the top 20/30 fashion podcasts in the world every week. Lots of people are listening and (hopefully) it’s inspiring some change within them. TBH my favorite messages are always like “I listened to this episode and now I’m doing things differently.” Fuck yeah! That’s what I want to hear! That makes all of the hard work worthwhile.
From a financial perspective, Clotheshorse is an abysmal failure. Which makes me sad, because I want to prove that a business can behave ethically and still be financially sustainable. That is unfortunately not the case with Clotheshorse, even though I keep hoping that it will change.
Christine sent me a meme this week that said, “It’s not hypocritical to critique capitalism while participating in it. We’re literally critiquing it because we are forced to participate in order to survive.”
And nowhere is this truer than the world of podcasting.
There are podcasts out there that bring in a ton of money. Even You’re Wrong About brings in about $25-30K month (based on my best guess) from Patreon, without ever doing advertising. It’s literally a full time paying job for the host (now only Sarah Marshall), meaning that she has time to create additional content, fully research and think things through, and pay people for editing, producing, administrative stuff, etc AND pay herself.
But the fact is that most podcasts aren’t making a ton of money. And that’s because there is an industry built off of charging people for the privilege of creating a podcast.
- There are the recording platforms, which can cost anywhere from $20 to $100/month. I personally use Riverside because it allows me to have guests who don’t have computers, and that’s a really big deal because platforming people who usually aren’t heard is really important to me.
- Next, there is the podcast hosting platform. Yeah, I don’t just upload this podcast to Apple or Spotify or whatever. That’s not how it works. You have to pay a service to host it. And guess what? The more listeners it gets, the more that hosting service costs. I also pay an additional $50/month so that the podcast is converted to a video with captions on YouTube. That was requested by listeners who process information better in that format. And accessibility is a really big deal to me!
- That means I also pay to have episode transcripts created. The affordable services for this use AI to do it, which means they require a ton of editing and zhuzhing to make them readable, usually a couple of hours of work by me. And oh yeah, there is a subscription for the editing software. And Dustin bought a few expensive plug ins for audio mixing last year that we needed to counteract common issues with guest audio.
- I am lucky when it comes to editing and audio mixing, because Dustin taught me how to do editing myself. That saves a lot of money, but we are also looking at even more hours of unpaid work. Dustin does the audio mixing for free, but I promise I make it up to him by doing his laundry and cooking most of his meals.
- I also pay for subscriptions to a variety of media sources because it feels unethical to try to get you all to support my work while trying to look for free ways to read other people’s work.
- And then there is the equipment. Last year I had to buy a new laptop because my audio card blew out and it was not repairable. Thanks Apple! That meant I couldn’t hear anything for editing. Nice. I bought a new laptop on a payment plan, about $160/month for a year.
- The interface I use for recording also died last year, so I had to buy a new one. Dustin couldn’t fix the old one, much to our dismay. That was about $300.
- I need a new microphone stand really badly (this one won’t stay in place and Dustin says the issue cannot be repaired), but I’m holding off on that as long as possible.
- And then there are various graphic design related subscriptions (including Photoshop and Figma) that I use for creating social media content.
Long story short: Making a podcast costs a lot of money.
How do you fund a podcast? Well, in the beginning I used my unemployment payments and sold most of my clothes to make Clotheshorse.
In 2021, I took that terrible job in Austin to help pay for Clotheshorse. But ultimately, the cost of living in Austin was so high, that I ended up picking up extra side work to fund Clotheshorse. By then there was Patreon money coming in, but after Patreon took its share, it was only covering about half of the expenses.
Now I’m working for myself, because once again, Clotheshorse does not pay me. I would love it to do that. And I would love to hire someone to help me, but those feel like big dreams that are out of reach.
Most podcasts are funded by advertising, selling swag, and/or Patreon. Naturally many podcast creators are just self funding. Obviously I refuse to do merch. Here’s the thing with advertising:
- It can pay well if you have enough listeners (you are paid based on your listen metrics),
- But the bulk of podcast advertising comes from businesses that are not a good fit for Clotheshorse and its ethics. Some podcasts just agree to let any ads be inserted and get a payment based on that. They don’t know what will be played for listeners when they hear the episode. You might hear ads for politicians, McDonalds, or Verizon. Naturally this is a big industry in itself and surely the platforms enabling these ads are taking the bulk of the money.
- Next you can use services like Ossa or Zencastr to connect you with advertisers. Still, most of the advertisers are not a good fit for Clotheshorse. And these platforms take 60% of the ad payment. So we’re talking like $20-40 left for a podcast like Clotheshorse.
- Lastly, you can do like I do and take ads from small businesses, which I do when I can, and I offer very low prices for that. The series of blurbs you hear between segments are actually Patreon supporters who pay $25 to be included. A very hot deal for a podcast with the listener base the size of Clotheshorse, but once again, I want to be supporting this community as much as I can.
I once had big dreams that Patreon could be the thing that keeps Clotheshorse going. But it just isn’t. At best, Clotheshorse has 100 supporters. I don’t have time to make additional content because I have to work at other jobs to support myself. So it’s not necessarily enticing to potential supporters. Also, Patreon takes a big chunk, too.
I want to be clear that people are not paying to be guests. And I don’t want anyone to feel like they are being sold to when they listen. But I also live within this capitalist system and it sucks. If ads and small business owners as guests make you uncomfortable, this is probably not the podcast for you. And that’s okay! There are an infinite assortment of other things you could listen to!
Dani put it best in her response to the email, “Like the listener, I too wish we lived in a world where objects and specific services were not the only thing people feel are worth money. Or perhaps more along the lines of what they are suggesting, I wish I didn’t live in a world where money is required to continue one’s existence. If society valued experience and “content” the way we do material things, maybe we wouldn’t need to be selling our creations to make a living. This podcast the writer is listening to, how much do they value the conversations they have the privilege to be listening to? They say “Sometimes the ethical choice is not buying or selling anything, not goods, not services, nothing.” which in itself is a wholly entitled and privileged perspective coming from someone who is enjoying a podcast that comes at the expense of a person, and their guests, who puts an incredible amount of time and effort into something that the listener is not paying them for. Does this person value your podcast (the one they are willfully critiquing) enough to be a patreon subscriber? Or are they OWED your time/experiences without recompense? So while the listener detests that some people need to make a living off of their output, and clearly will not be making a purchase, they also don’t value the non-material content they are consuming. I, too, wish I lived in a utopia where we all had the freedom of sharing our creations (both physical and not), without needing to then go and pay money to keep a roof over our head, keep the heat on, and pay for the food I eat, but alas, this is not the reality of life in the modern age.”
Dani captures something there that has been on my mind for a long time. Every once in a while I’ll get a message that says “why do you have ads if you hate capitalism?” or “why should we pay for your work since that’s capitalism?” Well the reality is that I live in this world and making a podcast costs a lot of money. I try to make this work as accessible to as many people as possible, but I’ll tell you when someone asks me why I have ads or something snarky along those lines, what I really hear is “your work has no value.” And if that is the case, why are you listening?
But I will say this: if we are truly going to change our economy, change the nature of our society to shift away from consuming so much stuff, we are going to have to reevaluate our relationship with art, information, and ideas. We will have to stop valuing “stuff” over everything else. Information has value. Art has value. Inspiration has value. And guess what? Good information goes away when we don’t pay for it. Art goes away. Everything goes away. And we are left with big newspaper conglomerates, Fox News, sponsored content on blogs and in magazines, and a lot less truth and art. Over the past year, I have seen a lot of voices in the slow fashion space disappear as more and more were unable to keep up the grind of working a full time job to support their second unpaid full time job sharing information and building community within the slow fashion world. I’ve also seen so many small businesses–who were also doing the work of spreading the word of slow fashion–I’ve seen them close up shop over the last few months.
When it comes to the kind of media we are left with, well, basically we are only left with things that big companies like Amazon and Target are willing to use for advertising purposes, in hopes of selling us more stuff. In fact, our unwillingness to support writing and art over actual stuff helps companies like Amazon and Target control what we see, fueling overconsumption, union busting, and so much more.
TBH small businesses are an integral part of my life…and I’ve made it that way because I believe in them as part of a better world of degrowth and reduced consumption. I see them as integral employers and members of their community. And they are doing so much unpaid labor in terms of community building and education.