It’s hard to believe that I started my ethical fashion journey a little over a year ago. Last December when I was on break from college, I watched The True Cost documentary, and it completely changed my outlook on how I shop. Before, though it seems silly, I had never considered that my clothes were made by actual people, and after watching the documentary, doing some additional reading, and learning about the conditions under which my clothes were made, I couldn’t continue to give my money to companies that exploited their workers and denied them living wages. It became very clear to me that by giving these companies my money, I was directly contributing to a system that treats real life people as though they don’t matter so that a few people at the top can profit. And that’s not to mention the havoc the fast fashion industry wreaks on the environment. So I swore off fast fashion brands, which I soon learned comprised essentially all major fashion retailers, and made the switch to ethical, fair trade brands and shopping secondhand. My experience so far has been extremely educational, sometimes trial and error, but overall positive. I’ve learned a lot over the past year, and I want to share my experience partly in the hopes that it will help anyone who’s undertaking a similar lifestyle change and partly to get any advice, feedback, or encouraging words you have for me as I continue to make changes to my consumption habits.
Here are some of my thoughts after one year of conscious consumerism. Buckle up, because this is going to be a long one.
- The first thing I did after deciding to become a more conscious consumer was begin researching the ethics of various clothing brands and compiling a list of the ones whose ethics I agreed with. In my experience, the clothing companies that are truly invested in the well-being of their workers are forthright about it. They make it a very obvious part of their branding, and you don’t have to go searching on obscure sections of their websites to find information regarding their factories.
- One major change I made was shopping less. I was never someone who was constantly shopping and buying clothes, but I did tend to treat myself to a clothing purchase from time to time. I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with occasionally treating yourself, but over the past year, instead of treating myself with clothes or material goods, I decided to treat myself with experiences and forego unnecessary clothing purchases. Instead, I tried to wear what I already owned in new and interesting ways, and I borrowed from friends. The result was that I consumed a great deal less and actually saved money despite the fact that fair trade clothing is more expensive than fast fashion brands. I think the monetary aspect of shopping ethically is what inhibits many people from making the switch from fast fashion (it was a concern of mine, too), but over the past year, I’ve realized that it is absolutely possible for many people to maintain these ideals while on a rather small budget. (Shameless plug: check out my Ethical Shopping on a Budget Parts 1 and 2).
- I’ve learned to think of the clothing I buy in terms of long-term investment. Whereas before, I would have scoffed at paying $40 for a basic white t-shirt, now I welcome paying a bit more if it means that the shirt was produced ethically, was sustainably sourced, and is of a higher quality that will last me for years. And by buying less, it becomes more feasible to make these investment purchases from ethical brands.
- For the most part, I’ve managed to abstain from buying anything made in a sweatshop, but I have had a few slip ups. Two of which were unanticipated purchases of necessity, where I was in pinch while traveling and didn’t have the time to order something online. The other time was a mistake. I was under the impression that the item I was purchasing was produced ethically, only to realize when it arrived that that was not the case. Those slip ups taught me to be prepared for all weather scenarios when traveling and to be more selective when choosing my sources for determining whether or not a company is fair trade.
- I’ve had a hard time with shoes. Shopping for clothes has been pretty easy. Fair trade clothing companies are a good deal more expensive than fast fashion brands, but I’ve always been good at waiting for things to go on sale and finding a deal. I’m also really into shopping vintage and secondhand clothing. What I haven’t been so good at is finding fair trade shoes that I can afford.
- Most of the shopping I’ve done in the past year has been secondhand. Like I said earlier, I enjoy finding ways to incorporate vintage pieces into my wardrobe. But shopping secondhand is often hit or miss and requires some vision. I’ve really enjoyed the creative challenge that shopping secondhand presents. Aside from some end of the year sales (which are a great time to stock up on clothing from ethical brands), all of the shopping I did this year was secondhand. I love that shopping at thrift stores, vintage shops, or online markets like Etsy or Poshmark allows me to cultivate a unique wardrobe that isn’t full of mass-produced items. It allows my personal style to shine through in a way that fast fashion doesn’t.
Overall, this first year of conscious consumerism has been incredibly informative. When I first undertook this lifestyle change, I was worried that I would feel in some way deprived by my decision to swear off fast fashion and that sticking to these principles would require much discipline even though I believed it was the right thing to do. But that hasn’t been the case for me. Sure, this change required that I redefine what I consider to be a need and make more informed decisions on how to satisfy that need, but I never once felt the urge to revert to my old shopping habits. Even in the moments when I felt discouraged by the apathy practiced by the fashion industry towards actual human lives or by a system that encourages the ignorance of the consumer in order to make sales, I felt more strongly the need for change and the importance of sticking to my ideals.
I’ve grown to feel more strongly that the world does not exist to accommodate my harmful and wasteful habits and that mindfulness regarding my consumption is essential. This past year has inspired me to make similar changes to the amount of plastic I use and throw away, the ingredients in my bath and cleaning products, and the contents of the food that I eat. Essentially, our stewardship of the earth and compassion towards the people in it has the power to bring about social and environmental justice, and I want to be a part of that.
Leave a comment telling me your tips and tricks for cultivating an ethical lifestyle.