I ben getting a lot of questions lately about how each of us can engage with fashion in a more sustainable and ethical way. Honestly, it’s a work in progress for me too. I have had to unlearn so much of what I used to prioritize when shopping, namely that shopping is mostly dictated by price instead of need or value.
These are the steps that I took when beginning to engage in slow fashion. These steps get increasingly more sustainable, with the end goal of wearing what you already own instead of shopping. For me, quitting shopping cold turkey didn’t feel realistic so I tried a more gradual approach that has led me to the same goal. Your sequence of events may look different, and if you can easily skip to the later steps, I commend you!
1. Leave items in your cart for at least 24 hours.
Instead of immediately purchasing an item you see online that you think you like, sit on it. If you still feel pulled to it after a day, that’s a pretty good indication that it’s something you’ll actually value and use. For a lot of us, impulse purchases are a huge way we engage with fast fashion. We see a post where someone wears a trendy item and immediately rush to find it on fast fashion sites like Shein or H&M.
I personally had to unlearn my impulse shopping habits, and this technique really helped. During this waiting period, I often think about the number of ways I can use the item that I’m thinking about and try picturing the scenarios in which I’d use it. I also try researching other ways to acquire this item, whether that’s thrifting, DIYing, or finding a more ethical source.
2. Change the brands you shop at.
If you can shift away from shopping at fast fashion brands, please do. The reason fast fashion continues to pervade the fashion world is because there is consumer demand for it. We’ve gotten so used to 2-day shipping and new trends every other week that we’ve grown complicit with the increased exploitation of garment workers and the environment that comes with these shopping trends.
This step does require a shift in the way you use your money that may not be accessible to everyone. If the only way you can afford to replace your clothes is by using fast fashion, that is okay and you should not feel badly for not being able to engage in this step.
However, a lot of consumers who engage in fast fashion shopping shop in the likes of $100+ hauls. The money doesn’t really seem to be the concern, but rather how far they feel their dollar goes in terms of quantity. The pushback I hear from a lot of people who like fast fashion is why they should bother spending more on an item from a conscious brand when they can find the same item for less at a fast fashion brand.
To be conscious consumers, it’s crucial to shift this mindset from quantity-driven to quality-driven. Instead of asking why ethical fashion is so expensive, we should really question why fast fashion is so cheap. Purchasing higher quality garments that are produced ethically is an investment, but it should be one you want to make when you prioritize the human and environmental impacts of your purchase.
This takes time to get used to and the volume at which you shop will decrease dramatically when you’re spending more on individual items. Overall though, the baseline should not be fast fashion if you can afford not to shop there.
Whenever I want an alternative to a fast fashion brand, I start at Good On You. They have a great set of preliminary ratings based on sustainability, transparency, price, and a host of other categories. They also provide a lot of lists that share direct alternatives to some of the most popular fast fashion brands, such as ASOS and H&M.
\The one frustration that I have with Good On You is that they’re not great about showcasing size-inclusive brands. There is an immense privilege that exists around ethical fashion. Clothing for bigger bodies is already incredibly limited, and ethical options that fit larger bodies are few and far between. I am still actively searching for ethical and sustainable size-inclusive clothing companies that don’t rely on 2008 smart casual as the norm for plus-size fashion. The only brands I’ve found so far that achieve that are SmartGlamour and Free Label (thank you Tiktok for these incredible finds).
I also have a couple Google Chrome extensions that help me find mission-driven brands. Progressive Shopper will show you where a brand provides its political contributions and if there are any major red flags for a particular brand. For example, the screenshot shown is from the Progressive Shopper analysis of Amazon (which probably has even more issues than just the ones shown). Another great extension is DoneGood, which has both an online marketplace for sustainable brands and recommendations for sustainable alternatives to major fast fashion brands. These extensions provide good baselines for whether a brand is ethical or not, but there are many brands that these still do not capture. Individual research is always still important beyond the information provided by these two extensions.
I do want to add one caveat to this step: there is always some level of environmental exploitation that exists in consumerist behavior. There is also almost always a level of human exploitation that occurs. That is why this is only the second step to this guide, as the most sustainable and ethical option is to use what you have.
3. Thrift or buy second-hand whenever possible.
If you do have to purchase something, it’s vital to be as intentional as you can with it. Shopping used & thrifting is the next best option, since you’re not generating any new garments and you’re likely saving a garment from reaching landfills sooner. This is also a great option for homegoods, especially when you explore sites like Facebook Marketplace or OfferUp.
Thrifting in person is ideal because you reduce transportation emissions when you shop in person and you’re less likely to return items this way. However, during the pandemic, that hasn’t really been an option for most of us. The only online thrift shop that I’ve used so far is ThredUp, which I’ve had a lot of success with. Some other sites I hope to use in the future include The RealReal, Swap.com, and Poshmark.
4. Wear what you own.
The most ethical way you can engage with fashion is by using what you already own. Most of us will only wear a piece of clothing 3-7 times before discarding it, even if the item is in perfectly good condition.
Wearing what you own takes a LOT of self-restraint, which I had to develop (and still struggle with) when I started to engage in intentional fashion. The media has conditioned us to believe that our worth is defined by our possessions and without the trendiest looks, we hold no intrigue to others.
I had to learn to silence the voice in my head that called outfit repeating a fashion faux pas, and instead be creative with the wardrobe that I have to make “trends” my own (or ignore them altogether). Now that I don’t pay attention to trends as much, I’m finding my true individual fashion style a lot more naturally and I can focus my attention on pivoting my wardrobe toward the pieces that feel right to me.