Yes, it is possible to buy your clothing and items more ethically. Now, none of us are perfect and most of us don't have high spending budgets for clothing and other goods, but don't fret. You can definitely become a more conscious shopper and use your voice to change things for the better. Below I've just compiled a list of things I have come up with that can help anyone who wants to shop more ethically. Just for some perspective, the average American creates about 82 pounds of textile waste every single year. With this new trend of fast fashion, something that has just arisen in the past couple of decades, we are buying and throwing out more cheap clothing than ever. And one thing that largely goes unnoticed is the impact that this kind of 'disposable' culture has on the people who work in the industry. I won't get into too many specifics, mainly because I'll link you to some great sources below, but just because you don't see the impact in your bubble around you, does not mean that it isn't happening. Have we gotten to a point in society that we only care for things when they're happening to those we see around us (think: when the triangle shirtwaist factory disaster happened, new laws were put into effect immediately to keep our American workers safe, however now things have shifted East, and they are having the same dangerous conditions and situations arise, however, now it's easy for us to turn a blind eye).
Anyway, I'll stop lecturing you (for now) so that you can dive in and learn some tips on how to be a more ethical consumer!
1. Quality, not Quantity
Focus on buying more quality items than having 300 items in your closet. Yes, it's tempting and feels like a "great deal" to buy 5 Forever 21 shirts at only $7.50 but for the long run you have to ask yourself some questions. Are you going to wear those shirts more than just a couple of times? We are all guilty of this one, sometimes it can even be difficult because you really do think you'll wear something a lot and turns out you touch it once, then never again. But a lot of times it's easy to ask that question and realize, no, I probably won't. If you're getting something like a tank top to layer under other things, there's no need to buy 5 cheap versions of those then have to throw them out after a year or two and repeat the cycle. Invest in a quality tank for $30-50 that you can re-wear for years to come. Okay, that's a weird example, but think of jeans or some other staple of that sort that you truly wear many times throughout your life. Again, those Forever 21 or Charlotte Russe shirts are tempting, but you'll find yourself much more satisfied with the shirt that isn't made of scratchy fabric with threads busting out of the seams much more.
2. Cut Down Buying from Worst Offenders
This ties into the last point I just made. Although more high scale place like Topshop, Madewell, and even Fendi may still not be the most transparent or ethical companies either, try and cut down how much you are buying from stores that are the biggest offenders of fast fashion such as Forever 21, H&M, Charlotte Russe, Zara, Wet Seal, rue21, etc. etc. And also try and not buy too much from one store. That sounds weird but by spreading out your buying you're probably doing more good. And maybe even for every set number of clothing items you buy, buy one or two from a Fair Trade ("Fair Trade is a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers – especially in the South".) or more transparent, ethical company, even a small business! Taking away a companies' profits is probably the biggest way that they realize change is needed.
Fashion Revolution's website has a great Transparency Index with scores they give to brands/companies on a multitude of issues so that you can see where certain brands stand.
This is quite literally the best way to cut down on your overall consumption, consumption of fast fashion, and save money. It does take more time and energy to try and hunt out the best pieces and probably some more creativity to think of how you can rework or style certain garments, but very worth it. And even if you don't have a Goodwill, Plato's Closet, or other upscale consignment shop around you, apps like Depop and Poshmark are perfect for getting a wider selection, more 'trendy' clothing, and being able to filter to exactly what you are looking to find. Even on Ebay you can find great vintage pieces to buy without feeling guilty. And again, if you're struggling financially, this is a great alternative that won't cost you extra money as more ethical companies might (for now). You can even swap clothes with friends, which is easy and you'll instantly get a closet refresh!
Again, this is a simple alternative to buying clothing that will, quite literally, cost you nothing. Next to cutting a business's profits, by speaking out and pressuring companies to change, they will start listening. It is a long road ahead, but nothing will ever change if we don't try. And a big part of the problem is that people don't know the facts or they don't know how they themselves can change things, especially if they don't have a lot of money (which is helpful, but is not as necessary as many think it is). Education is the most powerful tool any of us on this planet have and it is very important to then pass on our knowledge to help others grow and to make a change. The more that people are aware of these problems, the easier it is to change. Companies will do anything in their power to stay away from bad press, especially on social media. So by speaking up, tweeting, facebooking, whatever medium you want to use to let your voice be heard, you will be letting these brands know their practices are not okay and that you demand justice for those workers in other countries. I'm pretty sure H&M does not want to see a million people tweeting at them they gruesome realities of what they are doing to their workers. Fashion Revolution Day just happened on April 24th, but they constantly have events and ways to get involved and help, so you can check out their page here. Again, it's hard to imagine for some, but even just by having millions of more people aware of how they are hurting the planet or how their favorite company is hurting their own employees, it makes all the difference.
The True Cost website has a great list of how to buy better and of some of the transparent and sustainable industry leaders they love. Like I just found out Everlane is on that list, I had no idea they were a great ethical fashion leader! I also love Patagonia and Reformation (who is now, for the first time every, giving monthly tours of their factories were their garments are made, which is unheard of!). And speaking of giving factory tours, Dearborn Denim is a company I just found out about at an ethical fashion show/panel held at my school that is made right here in Chicago and that pay their employees fair wages (starting at $15 an hour!) and that are also starting factory tours this month. As far as quality jeans made ethically goes, their prices are really not bad. The same you would pay at Zara. Mata Traders is another brand I got to learn some about at this event that are also based in Chicago I believe and also have affordable prices on great items. Even Lauren Conrad started a business selling Fair Trade products and gifts called The Little Market, which is absolutely adorable. And then like I mentioned in a quote earlier, Fair Trade is an organization that certifies brands and products that pass their standards so that you know you are consuming something less harmful to the planet than other brands' products. They have a variety of food, clothing, products, etc. that they certify and on their website you can also find tips and how to help/donate.
Going back to 'The True Cost', the documentary is available on Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, DVD, etc. and you can even host community screenings of it! It isn't too long either so there's really no reason to not watch it. I had to watch it for two of my classes last year and it is really heartbreaking and hard to watch the people who are making your clothes talk about their lives and the conditions they work in with the meager pay (even by their own countries' standards).
Stores to Shop At:
Stella McCartney <--- They use no animal products!
The Little Market (Home Goods/Gifts)
Claire V. (accessories)
Books on the topic:
Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price <-- on youtube
The Machinists <--- on youtube
The True Cost <--- on streaming services
The above lists and descriptions/ways to help only start to scratch the surface. You can also contact your local senators and speak with them about the issues. Once again, I just want to point out that for a lot of people with low incomes, buying better quality, ethically-made items for more, even if you are buying less, like I first suggested, may not be an option. But that is why education is the best tool. We can spread the word, pressure companies to become more transparent. We have a right to know where our items are being made and if their workers are being treated and compensated fairly as well as working in safe conditions. If I remember correctly, in The True Cost, they said all that Old Navy would need to do is raise their prices 30 cents per shirt to start compensating their worker's at a more livable wage for where they live. Places like Old Navy produce mass quantities of items, so it wouldn't even be hard for them to make this change if it weren't for corporate greed. But along with these social implications, there are environmental implications. Our planet is not going to get any better with the way that we are progressing unless people start making steps towards living a more sustainable lifestyle as well as our companies producing goods in a more sustainable and eco-friendly way. I cannot stress this enough: our planet is not going away, so we need to start treating it (and our people) better.
*Comment below to add any tips you know of or use + Stores that are Fair Trade and/or sustainable or moving towards becoming more transparent!