As concerns about our growing impact on the environment have become part of mainstream discussions, there has been a growing dialogue about the impact of fast fashion on our planet.
Fast fashion is defined as the practice of making low-quality, cheap clothing that follows a new trend as quickly as possible so consumers can hop on the bandwagon and discard their clothes after the trend is over. This high turnover of runway-to-retail clothing has innumerable impacts on our society.
I’m not going to recreate the excellent work that others have done to describe the horrible environmental and human impacts of fast fashion, but understanding its impact is critical to identifying the need for ethical fashion.
So, we know we should care about ethical fashion.
But what does ethical fashion really mean?
Ethical fashion has been defined in a lot of different ways, but I have a very specific set of requirements to consider a clothing item “ethical.”
First, every part of the clothing production and distribution must be sustainable. This means using non-intensive materials (i.e. bamboo textile), minimal water waste during fabric production and dying process, upcycling/recycling fabric, and low/offset carbon emissions during transportation and distribution.
Next, everyone involved in the process must be paid a livable wage and be ensured safe working conditions, benefits, and a respectful working environment. By everyone, I really mean everyone: the farmers, garment workers, distribution team, interns, and storefront workers (if applicable). I am even more impressed when a business has a specific mission in mind when hiring people, such as Starfish Project, which provides safe and stable employment to victims of sex trafficking.
Affordability is also something I take into consideration. Obviously, when there are higher standards for production and fair labor, these clothes are not going to be as cheap as Forever 21 might be. However, with all of these measures in mind, these clothes tend to be much higher quality and I often find that these clothes can last long beyond the typical lifespan of a fast fashion item. To me, I look to justify the cost over the span of the time I believe I can reasonably expect to wear the clothing item, which is at least 3 years for ethical fashion items. I do raise an eyebrow, however, when an ethical clothing item is priced much beyond what I expect for it (compared to other ethical options), as overpricing creates a different barrier with financial inaccessibility on the consumer side.
Finally, and where I think a lot of “ethical” brands tend to miss the mark, I highly value size inclusivity when looking at brands to support. As a fat woman myself, I know how difficult it is to find clothes that make me look and feel good. But even beyond myself, it’s important to me that brands provide size inclusivity for all body types.
Are there any companies that actually do this?
Surprisingly, yes! This is becoming an increasingly common standard, as social movements and media promotes these messages of sustainability and equity. More companies emerge every day with mission-driven products and many existing brands are transforming their production practices to meet these new consumer demands. And, we can apply pressures to brands we already love to push them to meet these values (which I’ll get into later).
How do I build an “ethical” wardrobe?
The most sustainable way that you can dress is by utilizing the clothes you already have in your closet. It is not necessary or good to throw out all of the clothes you already own simply because they’re from stores that don’t necessarily align with your value of ethical fashion. Since you already have them, make sure the purchases were worthwhile and use them as much as you can. If something you own doesn’t fit your personal style anymore, try upcycling the garment to meet another need (i.e. converting a t-shirt to a crop top or tote bag).
The biggest shift that I felt when shifting towards ethical fashion was disconnecting from the use of shopping as a pass-time/coping mechanism. As dumb as it was, I truly did use retail therapy to spice up my life or distract from something else and that is probably the least sustainable form of shopping. It’s impulsive, which often results in unworn clothing items, and it’s unnecessary, which means it’s probably going to be the cheapest clothing that can be easily “justified.”
I didn’t realize just how much I shopped until I no longer allowed myself to.
I stopped shopping at a lot of my favorite brands (I still miss you, Express), which was definitely hard at first. But I’ve started to find other ways to fill my time and filled in the gaps in my wardrobe with much more sustainable alternatives than the ones I’d been using my entire life.
What do I do if my favorite brand is not meeting these standards for ethical fashion?
The easiest standard to push companies to meet is size inclusivity. Most brands, even if they carry “plus sizes,” are leaving out bigger fat bodies from their sizing. Reach out to your favorite brands and let them know you want to see bigger sizes offered. If enough pressure is applied by their current customers, most companies will likely make steps to being more inclusive.
If you want to mitigate your environmental impact while enjoying your favorite brands, thrifting might be a great solution for you. Consignment websites like ThredUp have made it really easy to shop for gently used (and sometimes even brand new) pieces from your favorite brands that others have sent in. This is a great way to access affordable clothing while saving clothes from the landfill. I have personally had a lot of success with finding spring/summer clothes on ThredUp that work for my size and fit my personal aesthetic.
How do you identify if a brand you want to support is actually ethical vs. just greenwashing?
The key to distinguishing a greenwasher from an actually ethical store is their transparency. A store that is actually ethical knows that its customers will want to check that information before patroning them, so they will make their production practices and sourcing process clear somewhere on their website.
I also always look for certifications from third parties, such as a B-Corp certification. This ensures that the brand is not only being transparent with their business practices, but that another party has independently verified this information.
So now that I’ve led you on with all this information about ethical fashion, you’re just going to have to stay tuned for a list of my favorite brands! (This is your reminder to subscribe to get weekly updates if you haven’t already.)