[Essay/Review] Ethical Consumerism & Tilley Endurables

Christmas is almost here, and while I love the holiday season, there’s always one thing that’s difficult for me : being given clothing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m at that stage in my life where I can really appreciate a nice sweater, or a fancy shirt. Clothing is always a welcome gift. No, the problem isn’t the clothing itself, it’s that little spot on the label that always says “Made In Bangladesh,” or “China,” or “Mexico.”

I like adding to my wardrobe, but I hate that my new Christmas clothing is almost always made in the Third World. Even if they aren’t made by children in sweatshops, they almost certainly come from a factory where the workers are underpaid, poorly treated, and even put in danger. You can’t rely on companies to police themselves - major clothing labels typically contract their production out to other companies, which then subcontract out to the actual factories. John Oliver did a wonderful piece on this issue, revealing (among other things) that some of the largest clothing companies still use child labor.

What’s the alternative? A lot of people think that there isn’t one. The truth is, there are options, but they aren’t cheap. A typical button-up shirt (which is pretty much the only style I wear) made in the Third World might cost $30-$50, while a similar shirt made in Canada will cost you at least $100. A single pair of boxer shorts can be bought for as little as $3, but if you want boxer shorts that won’t weigh on your conscience, you’re going to be paying at least $15.

Of course, the production end of things isn’t the only aspect that can affect the overall morality of a company. There are a lot of questions that have to be answered before I’m comfortable buying something from a company :

Are your employees unionized? Are they paid well, and treated with respect?
Is your business environmentally friendly? Do you use sustainable materials, and clean energy?
Do you actually pay your taxes?
Do you use deceptive marketing?
Do you treat your customers with respect?
Are your clothes (or other products) well made? Will they last for a long time under normal conditions? Will they hold up well under harsh conditions?

Is a clean conscience worth it? That’s one hell of a tough question. I work for a non-profit, which means I’m broke most of the time. I absolutely have to get the best value for my money. If I have to choose between buying clothing that may have been made by children or going to work naked, well, that’s not a tough choice. On the other hand, people often claim that clothing made in the First World will last longer than cheap clothing, thereby saving you money - I’ve even claimed that myself.

The truth is, I’ve been a fan of companies like Tilley Endurables, Stanfield’s, and Red Wing Shoes for some time now, but I haven’t really put those claims to the test. Maybe I just bought into the hype. Maybe I was fooling myself, because I was so eager to find an ethical solution. Or maybe they really are an ethical, economical way to make sure I don’t get arrested for exposing myself in public.

It’s time for me take a long, hard look at my beliefs. To that end, I’m going to pull out every piece of Tilley clothing I own, and review each one. Let’s see if they’re really worth the money.

TH5 Hemp Hat

This was my first Tilley product. I bought it because my work often takes me outside during the summer, and I was tired of wearing ball caps & straw hats. I wanted serious protection from the sun, and my father has two Tilley hats that he’s quite fond of, so it seemed like a natural choice.

After 4 1/2 years, I’m still pretty satisfied. I definitely haven’t gotten any sunburns on my face or neck, even though I’m not as careful with sunscreen as I should be. It looks pretty good, but there are a couple caveats there : the Hemp Tilley is a lot floppier than my dad’s nylon one, and it don’t really hold its shape. This is especially noticeable after washing - you have to be careful to stretch it back into the desired shape. Speaking of washing, the manual recommends doing it frequently, and they aren’t kidding. I wasn’t as thorough as I should have been when I first got it, and now my hat has a slight discolouration around the brim - turns out my forehead is pretty sweaty. Needless to say, I’ve been a lot more careful about washing my Tilley often.

Will it last? Absolutely, just so long as you wash it.

Overall : 9/10

Tec-Cork Ivy Cap

No, my facial hair doesn’t make me look like a dick. I look like a dick even when I’m clean-shaven. Because I am a dick.

This is my most recent Tilley acquisition, and I have been pleasantly surprised. I’ve wanted a Fall/Spring hat for awhile now, something that’s more formal than a toque, but not as heavy-duty as my ushanka. I came close to buying something similar last year, but neither Tilley nor Aero Leather offered something that was large enough for my out-sized head, and didn’t require dry cleaning.

I’ve only had the Ivy Cap for a few months, so I can’t really speak to its longevity, but it has performed quite well during cold, wet weather. It fits comfortably, and there are adjustable Velcro straps to adjust it as necessary. I’ve been most impressed by the hide-away ear-flaps. I had no plans to actually use them, but they’ve definitely come in handy on windy nights. They’re quite thin, but rather surprisingly warm.

My only complaint is so minor you can’t even see it in the photo. The seam that runs from the back of the cap, around the front of the brim, and then to the other side of the back is slightly misaligned at the front, giving the cap a crooked look - but only if you examine it really, really closely. It’s such a small issue that I feel silly even bringing it up, but this whole exercise would be pointless if I’m not honest.

Will it last? I haven’t had it long enough to say, but I’ve worn it almost every day for the last couple months.

Overall : 9/10

Tech Novelty Shirt

My cellphone doesn’t take great pictures

This is one of my favourite shirts, but if I’m going to be completely honest, I haven’t worn it that much. It’s one of the most expensive shirts I own (it was a birthday present to myself, a year or two ago), and since my work can often get messy, I don’t want to risk damaging or staining it.

What do I like about it? Perhaps most importantly, it fits well. Sometimes it seems like most men go around wearing shirts that are far too large for them, particularly in the shoulders. I’ve found that large Tilley short-sleeve shirts fit me perfectly. The fabric is very thin and light, which makes it perfect for summer or late spring.

What don’t I like? The pockets have Velcro closures. I just don’t like Velcro - it wears out, it collects crud, and it’s loud.

Will it last? I sure hope so, but I honestly don’t have enough data to say for sure.

Overall : 9.5/10

Reality Check

I’ve just given out three near-perfect scores. Am I being willfully blind here? I don’t think so. I’ve got a few more good scores coming up, but after that there are several pieces that will definitely score lower.

Urban Safari Bush Shirt

I have a lot of these. Most are in khaki, one is dull blue (which I’m wearing as I type this), and one is in Oxford blue (I would take a photo, but it’s in the wash). All were purchased from eBay - in theory, a high quality shirt should be tough enough that second-hand ones will still be in good shape.

That theory has actually held up pretty well. All of my bush shirts have seen fairly heavy use since coming into my possession, and for the most part, they’re none the worse for wear. One lost a button, which I replaced, and another has an unfortunate paint mark that I’ve been unable to remove, but the only real issues are with my Oxford blue shirt - the colour is starting to fade (which is understandable, as it’s probably my most-worn shirt), and there’s a small stain on the front that I just can’t get rid of.

Like my Tech Novelty shirt, my Bush shirts fit me perfectly, although they seem to be a slightly slimmer design.

There is one issue, though, that has to be addressed. All of these shirts have shoulder straps/epaulettes, and that lends the ones in khaki a very military/safari/general outdoor adventure appearance. Personally, I don’t wear them if I know I’m going to have to interact with people - they’re just really hard to pull off as casual wear.

Will they last? Absolutely

Overall : 9.5/10 in blue, 7/10 in khaki

Camp Shirt

I pulled this out of my laundry basket for the photo, hence the wrinkles.

This is another eBay find, and unfortunately it seems that Tilley no longer makes these. I’m fairly confident that it’s authentic - it has a Tilley label, it came from a seller with excellent feedback, and Tilley isn’t a particularly well-known company, so I doubt there’s much of a market for counterfeits.

A quick description, since my photo isn’t very good. This is a fairly standard camp shirt, with 5 buttons, and a fairly deep V-neck (which is almost a perfect match for Stanfield’s V-neck undershirts). The material is 100% cotton, but it’s much thicker than my other cotton shirts, and there’s a pattern of raised lines on it.

On the whole, this is an excellent shirt. It has several me well for several years, it’s cool enough to wear in the summer, and warm enough to wear during the rest of the year. The only issue is that it’s somewhat larger than my other Tilley short-sleeved shirts, even though they’re all supposed to be Large. It’s not really a problem, since it’s an inherently loose, informal design, but it’s worth noting.

Will it last? You bet!

Overall : 9/10

Assorted Long-Sleeved Shirts

My father is the family photographer. I really should have let him take these.

These 3 shirts (only 2 are pictured, as 1 is in the wash) all came from the same eBay seller. I’m reasonably certain they’re authentic, for the reasons listed above and because some of them have Tilley-branded buttons. I can’t imagine any counterfeiter going to that much trouble.

That said, these all have very flamboyant designs that are definitely out of sync with current Tilley styles. Based on that, I assume that they’re fairly old. If that’s the case, they’ve definitely held up well, with little-to-no noticeable wear.

There is one thing that has to be addressed : these are labeled as “Large”, but they are MUCH large than my other “Large” Tilley shirts. They are significantly wider in the shoulders, and have a longer/deeper bottom. Worn informally, with rolled-up sleeves, I can just barely pull them off, but they’re definitely too baggy to be worn when I need to look my best.

Will they last? That seems likely

Overall : 7/10

Classic Belt

Almost as twisted as my morals

This is the first Tilley product that has disappointed me, although I have to admit that it’s partly my fault. On the whole, this is a decent, serviceable belt, and my expectation were too high. I won’t describe the belt itself in detail because, well, it’s a belt. If you don’t know what a belt is, then this article is probably the wrong thing for you to be reading.

So what were my problems?

  1. The buckle. OK, this one is entirely on me. I would have preferred a belt with a removable buckle, but that’s a relatively uncommon feature these days. If the product description doesn’t mention that the buckle is removable, you should assume that it isn’t. In this case, the description didn’t mention it, and the picture certainly didn’t look like the buckle was removable, but I hoped that it was anyway. Frankly, this was unreasonable of me, and can’t really be held against the belt itself. Why am I mentioning it? Because, at least in this article, I’m trying to hold myself to a policy of full disclosure, even if it makes me look like an idiot.
  2. The type of leather. This one isn’t on me, but I can’t actually back up what I’m saying, and I don’t remember the details, so feel free to discount this entry entirely. I seem to recall that the leather type listed on the Tilley website didn’t match the information that came with the belt - one said it was made with full-grain leather, and the other said top-grain. Both are high quality, and I don’t know if one is better suited for belts. What’s more, the website does not currently say what type of leather is used, and I don’t remember whether the information that came with the belt was printed on it (in which case, it has worn away entirely), or was on the accompanying paperwork (which I’ve lost or thrown away). I bought this thing at least 3 years ago, maybe 4, and I’ve forgotten the crucial details. I have a clear recollection of the issue itself, but then, memory is a fragile thing. I could be wrong. Chalk this up to the “full disclosure” policy.
  3. It deformed too easily. For the most part, I wore it with blue jeans, some of which had fewer belt loops than normal. After a few months of wear, it had already warped significantly. I’ve since been told that I should have alternated which side I wore it on, to even out the damage, but even so, it didn’t stay pristine long.
  4. The price. My Tilley belt has actually lasted longer than my previous belt, which was a cheap belt made of cheap leather, but it cost me more than twice as much. For the exact same price I could buy handmade belt that’s also Canadian-made. On the other hand, Tilley recently had a sale where these belts, or ones that are quite similar, were only $14. If I wasn’t broke, I probably would have picked up a few of them, and been set for the next couple decades.

Will it last? Yes, but it will stretch out of shape pretty quickly

Overall : 4/10

Classic Long Shorts

Not exactly an eBay-quality photo

Alright, I’ve got to admit something personal here : I’m overweight. I’m not obese, but I definitely need to lose a few pounds (and then lose a few more pounds). Unfortunately, I carry a lot of that weight in my thighs, which means I go through pants fast. A good pair of jeans will last about a year before holes develop in the upper thigh/crotch area, while cheap shorts might only last a summer or two. I recently got a couple of pairs of cheap jeans, and they’re already showing significant wear after a couple of months of heavy use.

Sadly, Tilley shorts aren’t immune to my Thighs of Doom. I have more of these Long Shorts than I can be bothered to count, in navy blue, khaki, and white. Some came directly from the Tilley website, while most came from eBay. I suspect that some of the ones from eBay were owned by another person who’s too fond of baked goods, because they already had a lot of damage in the same place I get it. Those wore out fairly quickly - I don’t think they lasted more than a year or two of being worn once or twice a week during the summer.

The shorts that I bought new have done better, but their demise has only been prolonged. They showed minor, but noticeable signs of wear after a couple of months of use. After a few years of regular use, the fabric in the crotch/thigh region is lighter in colour, thinner, and displays quite a lot of piling. Other than that, they’ve held up very well.

Wear aside, these are pretty good shorts. They look good, they don’t have cargo pockets (cargo pockets are occasionally useful, but never stylish), and the main pockets are quite spacious. My only issue with the design is the use of Velcro to seal the back pockets.

Will they last? Yes, but only if you aren’t overweight. If you are, then they’ll last longer than most shorts, and about as long as a good pair of jeans. Frankly, I may end up sticking to cheap shorts from now on - if $20 shorts will last 2 summers, and $100 shorts will last 4 or 5, then I’ll have to make my conscience secondary to my bank account.

Overall : 8/10

7-Pocket Military Pants

I can’t give these a full review, or even a score, and I didn’t bother taking a photo, because I haven’t been able to wear them. That’s partly my fault. You see, most Tilley pants are available in a single length (which is 6–8 inches too long for my legs) - you either have to get them hemmed to your inseam, or their design lets you roll them up easily. These pants are sold in the same 36 inch length as the rest, but the finish is slightly different - they’re finished, but they have a drawstring at the bottom.

I had assumed, since they aren’t meant to be altered, that the drawstring would compensate for the extra length, and that they would be one-size-fits-all, but they aren’t. The drawstring only tightens the leg opening, and the fabric isn’t stiff enough to roll up the way you might with denim.

I got these for $49, down from the usual price of $189 (which is the reason I was willing to buy pants with cargo pockets), and now I see why they’ve been discontinued. In their place, Tilley now offers slim-fitting 6-pocket pants, and relaxed-fit 7-pocket pants, both of which are unfinished, with no drawstring.

I’ve had these for a couple of months now (I bought them at the same time as my Ivy Cap), and I haven’t bothered to have them altered yet. I’ll definitely get around to it, since they seem like decent pants otherwise.

Overall

No, Tilley doesn’t make overalls (as far as I know). In general, I’ve found that although Tilley products tend to be more expensive than other clothing, they’re generally worth it even if you’re thinking purely in terms of quality. Add in the fact that they’re made in Canada, not in some Third World hellhole, and they’re typically an excellent purchase.

What’s Next?

There are a number of other Tilley products that I’d like to try. The two that appeal to me most are the Crusader Pants and the Touring Shorts, which are both from Tilley’s Legends line - they’re guaranteed for life not to wear out. For a guy who goes through pants and shorts pretty quickly, that’s a no-brainer, so why haven’t I bought some already? Frankly, the price is an issue - if they’re as durable as claimed, then they’re an excellent deal, but the up-front expense is more than I can really afford right now.

I’d also like to try some more of their long-sleeved shirts, although it seems like some of the ones that appealed to me have recently been discontinued.

Other First World Clothing Brands

Stanfield’s - Underwear and socks. Almost entirely made in Canada. Expensive, but long-lasting and comfortable. Pretty much all I wear.

Red Wing Shoes - Boots and shoes, both for work and daily use. Made in both the United States & China, but their website is very transparent about which is which. A used pair of their work boots have been my primary footwear for the last 3 years, and they’ve held up extremely well, and still look pretty good.

Chippewa Boots - Work boots. 100% made in the United States. I can’t vouch for them myself, but they come highly recommended.

Dayton Boots - Work & fashion boots. 100% made by hand in Canada, and the price reflects that. I can’t even afford a used pair.

Oak Street Bootmakers - Boots (duh). Handmade in the United States. Expensive, but well-regarded.

Naked & Famous Denim - Fashion-oriented blue jeans. Made in Canada from Japanese denim. Expensive, but apparently worth it. I haven’t tried’em, both because of the price and because I understand they’re really not made for overweight people.

Aero Leather - Extremely tough, high quality leather jackets in classic styles. Handmade in Scotland. Very well regarded, with a commensurate price.

Schott NYC - Best known for their high quality leather jackets. Mostly made in the United States. Generally somewhat less expensive than Aero Leather. I actually have one of their jackets, and it fits well…except the bit around my waist. I definitely need to lose some weight.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also be interested in my guide to purchasing knives, my reviews of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Supergirl, and Star Wars : The Force Awakens, my essay about Star Trek, some general advice about life, or The Sad, Strange Story of the Taliban’s Canadian Hostage.

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