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Top 5 Tips for Shopping Sustainably

December 10, 2020

This is part three of a four-part series on Sustainable Fashion by our FFAC summer interns and mentees. You can read part 1, 2, and 3 here:

Part one: fast fashion and workers

Part two: fast fashion and the environment

Part three: fast fashion and health

With the advent of fast fashion, the routine of buying the latest trends at shrinking prices is becoming increasingly commonplace in our population. Yet, what we often don’t see in those single-digit price tags and flash sales is the true cost of the fashion industry, an industry polluted with a continuing history of human rights violations, environmental negligence, and endangerment of public health. Luckily, there is already a better solution we can undertake to work towards a more sustainable future, namely within the growing movement known as “Slow Fashion.”

What is Slow Fashion?

Initially coined by Kate Fletcher, a professor of Sustainability, Design, and Fashion at the University of the Arts London’s Center for Sustainable Fashion, the idea of slow fashion originated as an entirely new approach to how we buy and view our clothes. With a focus on intention and meaning, the movement advocates for responsibility from both producers and consumers. On the manufacturing side, these ideas manifest in the form of enforcing equitable labor laws and establishing fair wages for employees and having the integrity to deny cheap labor and materials from impoverished countries, opting instead for durable materials that will be able to endure years of wear. It includes prioritizing our environment and ensuring production lines work with the environment instead of against it. As consumers, we are encouraged to take ownership of the role we play in the rise of hyperconsumption and recognize, too, how we can curb these behaviors. This ideology has evolved into a movement towards finding value and forming relationships with our clothing, taking time to preserve and repair our garments, and finding satisfaction not in chasing each new trend, but instead in slowing down and appreciating the impact that our clothing choices can have.

As many individuals have actively begun to shift focus away from fast fashion and towards sustainability, a plethora of brands have arisen covering the entire spectrum of clothing categories, from timeless designs for blouses and shirts to shoes and backpacks. While many of these companies have taken this growing interest in earnest, others, unfortunately, have seen nothing more than an opportunistic business venture to capitalize on. Thus, one of the first tips* we offer for those interested in starting their Sustainable Fashion Journey is to:

1. Do Your Research (aka the Case Against Greenwashing)

Unsurprisingly, given the harm this industry imposes on communities as well as on the environment, news about these practices rarely make their way to mainstream media. As a result, many of the largest and most popular brands continue to grow their clientele each year with little to no repercussions. Thus, it is crucial that we hold these brands accountable. While often overlooked, the “power of the dollar,” or the power of our spending habits have a massive sway in the future trajectory of a business. After all, without customers, there wouldn’t be any profit to make. Websites like goodonyou.eco (also available as an app for both Apple and Android phones) which function as a rating system of various clothing brands based on its impact on people, the planet, and animals is a great starting point when investigating the ethics of many of our most well-known clothing brands.

However, it’s also important to note that even with tools such as goodonyou.eco to help inform us, it is still essential to put in the effort to do our own research. While many articles nowadays are quick to call out the largest global fast-fashion retailers, including companies like Forever 21, H&M, Zara, and Uniqlo in addition to the increasing number of online-based clothing brands such as Shein or Fashion Nova, there still lies a significant crowd of lesser-known companies that are able to avoid scrutiny. One common method that is employed is the use of Greenwashing, or the attempt to skew marketing to allow products to appear more sustainable than they really are in order to improve the company’s image and attract more Earth-conscious consumers. Strategies often consist of promoting certain items as products of wealthier nations despite the actual manufacturing occurring in sweatshops in impoverished nations. Other approaches include the avoidance of specific language or concrete goals in a company statement, instead opting for broad, vague promises that are left to be interpreted by the consumer. Even with brands that appear to completely encompass the values of slow fashion and ethical production, we must do our best and continue to research the practices of these companies in regards to worker welfare and environmental responsibility. For instance, searching for third-party certifications (such as B Corps certification) can help solidify whether or not a company is truly committed towards creating a better future or if they are merely greenwashing.

2. Keep an Open Mind

When deciding to stop supporting fast fashion companies, it can often feel like suddenly being dropped in an open sea, with miles and miles of open water without a lifeline in sight. However, contrary to popular belief, this shift can be adopted very easily. For instance, within the realm of sustainable shopping, there is still a myriad of options available. From online shopping to consignment stores, sustainable shopping in practice is no different from the behaviors and habits we’ve already developed and are familiar with. Indeed, second-hand shopping, in particular, can be an exhilarating experience in itself as the fervent search through different clothing racks can feel almost adventurous as if you’re an explorer looking for treasure. Of course, it is necessary to acknowledge that with most online stores and in-person thrift stores, it may sometimes prove more difficult than in the past to fulfill the yearning for a specific article of clothing, especially if it is by a particular brand. With most ethical and sustainable brands that have arisen, the ethos of these brands is often centered around longevity and thus, the pieces will frequently carry a more minimalistic design and are modeled in very “classic” and “timeless” silhouettes. Additionally, with thrift stores, much of the magic lies in the excitement of letting something new and unique catch your eye and beginning to build a closet that encapsulates who you are.

Nevertheless, as more and more digital reselling apps grow traction, buying specific items is becoming even easier. Apps like Depop and Poshmark as well as online thrift stores like ThredUp are great resources that are helping to streamline the second-hand shopping process. Furthermore, the emergence of curated thrift stores such as Plato’s Closet, Buffalo Exchange, or Crossroads are great places to look for buying more in-style clothing more sustainably and at a more affordable price. Still, it is useful to keep an open mind and welcome the possibility of discovering clothing by brands you may not have thought to look into before, or even brands you’ve never heard of. Thus, have a general idea of what you’re looking for when shopping, but don’t have your heart set on finding the exact piece you want. You never know what you might find instead!

3. Patience and Persistence

Despite all the excitement shopping second-hand can have at first, especially with thrifting, the experience is very unlike traditional shopping and can be highly variable from one day to the next. For instance, it can often feel like an uphill battle where some days just won’t have the best selection as another day. In these cases, this is where the importance of patience and persistence comes in. Thrifting in itself can often serve as a great opportunity to bring along friends and family to spend a day together and learn about the enjoyment of second-hand shopping. From saving money to knowing that you’re helping to reduce waste on the planet to finding some incredibly unique pieces, second-hand shopping is a fantastic way to introduce and teach people about what we can do to lessen our impact on the planet. However, to maximize your chances of finding those pieces that you’ll cherish for years to come, it can be helpful to talk to the staff at your local consignment store and find out when restocks happen, which will enable you to be the first pair of eyes on incoming donations.

4. Learn to Get Creative

Like most things, we get out what we put in when it comes to second-hand shopping. Especially with thrifting, a lot of the initial effort can be left to the customers due to mislabeling or misplacing new donations, meaning certain styles of clothing might be found in sections you normally wouldn’t have considered such as the men’s section or even the children’s sections. As well, with the massive inconsistencies in sizing across brands, especially as sizing guidelines have changed through time, this can often translate to finding clothes that have much better fits all across the store. Therefore, don’t be afraid to go out of your way and try on things you wouldn’t otherwise! Considering clothes always look different on hangers versus when tried on, this is the perfect opportunity to experiment with styles and try something new.

With the affordability of thrift-stores, they, too, are the perfect playground for sampling different DIY ideas. Our modern age is currently experiencing a renaissance of early ’90s and 2000’s fashion from scrunchies to bucket hats, and styles such as cropped sweaters and oversized band T-shirts are gracing the storefronts of every major fast-fashion brand. This resurgence of vintage fashion has made it easier than ever to repurpose clothes for a much lower price tag. Cropping men’s sweaters yourself is one example of a cost-effective and environmentally-sound method of embracing the oversized clothing trend. Distressing jeans or making your own cutoffs suddenly becomes less stressful when the pair of jeans cost less than $10. One of the best opportunities, however, that thrifting can present is providing space to learn the basics of sewing and altering clothing. It is becoming more well-known that the concept of “universal sizing” is impossible; there is simply too much wonderful diversity across the world. Thus, one of the most useful skills we can learn to do is how to slightly modify and revitalize our clothing.

5. Don’t Be Afraid to Reach Out!

One of the most outstanding facets of sustainable shopping is how community-minded it is. By choosing to support ethical brands, you are also supporting all of the communities of employees and their families by advocating for their right to fair wages and working conditions as well as the millions of communities that will benefit from efforts to curb the effects of pollution and climate change. When choosing to shop at thrift stores and consignment stores, you are choosing to support local businesses and reducing all of the waste that would’ve been destined for the landfill. And by choosing to shop secondhand, you are modeling to those around you how easy and adaptable conscious consumerism can be in their everyday lives. In fact, many communities have already arisen surrounding the principles of low-waste living and are fantastic resources to reach out to and learn more about the growing Slow Fashion movement, as well as being additional resources to look into to buy or sell second-hand clothing. Buy-nothing groups on Facebook are excellent examples of this, which are groups that encourage giving unneeded objects away for free to your neighbors. This not only supports your local community but helps reanimate the lives of many of our material goods, giving them a new life, and helping to keep them out of landfills.

Of course, it is important to mention that the spirit of sustainable shopping is truly rooted in the desire to uplift our communities, and not to take advantage of them. With the increase in demand for vintage clothing, many business-savvy individuals have started independent reselling companies either on platforms such as Depop or Instagram or through personal domains dedicated to this service. While valuing antiques or collectibles at their true prices and curating them for interested buyers is an art on its own, it is still necessary to caution against unnecessarily buying mountains of clothing and artificially marking up the prices of every garment found at the thrift stores. The problem with this is that it can often lead to further disadvantaging people who rely on second-hand shopping as a necessity rather than a hobby. Thus, when reselling clothing, always opt to value each item at its true price and do so with the intention of decluttering and revitalizing old clothing by selling or giving them away to new homes.

Still, perhaps the most accessible and often overlooked source for sustainable shopping starts right at home: in your closet. According to the chief design officer of California Closets, the average consumer regularly wears only 20% of their closet. Thus, one first step is to see if there are any clothes that you can repurpose and wear from within your own closet. If not, as the figure implies, this means that 80% of your brother, sister, mother, grandfather, or friend’s closets are waiting to be picked up. Feel free to hold clothing exchanges with those in your life. These can be wonderful ways to try out new styles and experiment with different looks without needing to break the bank or cause unnecessary harm to all the people and environments impacted by the fast fashion industry.

Finding the Perfect Fit: Main Takeaways

Living a more sustainable and equitable lifestyle doesn’t need to be difficult as long as you have access to and make use of the resources and people around you. The biggest takeaway of sustainable shopping should be this: shop intentionally. Buy things when you need it, and if possible, try to support local and/or ethical brands. Otherwise, try not to fall into the marketing for new collections or the urge to drop everything at a sale. Shopping sustainably means shopping responsibly and holding public welfare and the environment in mind when we consume. We owe it to the world and ourselves to go out and support the future we know we deserve.

(*Credits to Meghan Jones, the Seattle Director, for helping with many of these tips!)

Where to look if you’re interested in learning more!

Sammi Lin was an FFAC Summer 2020 intern.

Sharing this article helps raise awareness about the impact of factory farming on humans, animals, and the environment.

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