Think that sustainable shopping isn’t for you? Let me prove you wrong. With a growing market for ethical and sustainable clothing, there are many ways to consume fashion in a more responsible way without sacrificing style or blowing our budgets.
This is part of our How To Master Secondhand Shopping Resource Guide.
There’s a lot of chatter in the ethical fashion space contesting that ethical shopping is not accessible to most people. The clothes are too expensive. The styles are boring. It requires too much time and research. Brands don’t have inclusive sizing. Ultimately, it’s primarily for upper middle class, skinny, white, millennial women.
I fully understand the basis for some of these perceptions and don’t dispute that it’s easier for some than others to participate in ethical fashion practices. But as ethical fashion has grown over the last several years, so have the options available to everyone.
I’m not suggesting it’s an even playing field across all socioeconomic levels, races, and genders, but I do think there are areas of ethical fashion that are easier to explore than some might think. I want to dispel some of the myths that sustainable fashion can’t be accessible to everyone.
Let’s Start By Defining Sustainable and Ethical In The Context of Style
“Sustainable” and “ethical” mean a lot of things to different people in the context of fashion and consumption. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s consider sustainable and ethical style to be a paradigm of fashion consumption by which we limit the negative impact of our consumption of clothing and accessories on people and the planet.
The fashion industry and the forces behind it cause massive environmental damage and atrocious social justice violations around the world. Not every player in or consumer of fashion is bad, but by and large, the fashion industry’s track record is abysmal at best.
The fashion industry harms people and the planet, first and foremost, due to its perpetual push toward overconsumption. In an effort to get people to buy more and more clothes, they produce pieces more cheaply without regard for harmful environmental costs, using unfair labor practices, and leaving behind incredible amounts of waste that end up in landfills.
The industry encourages people to move on from old clothes long before they are worn and tattered to create unnecessary churn in our closets. More spending from us means more profits for them and more perfectly good textiles in the trash. It’s a sorry state of affairs.
Some Already Shop Sustainably By Choice or Necessity
In debunking some of these sustainable style myths, it’s important to acknowledge that some people already participate in sustainable style. Plenty of people already buy exclusively fair trade brands or shop secondhand, for example. If that’s you, you don’t need convincing that ethical style is achievable.
Many people living on a tight budget already shop sustainably because it’s not a choice. They only buy what they need and choose the best quality purchases their budget can afford, the most basic tenet of sustainable shopping. If that’s you, you’re already living sustainable style and know it’s possible.
If you’re not throwing away perfectly good clothes or buying new fast fashion on a regular basis just because it’s fun and feels good, then you’ve probably already debunked at least some of these myths for yourself. You know that we don’t have to settle for ever-changing fashion trends that morph at breakneck speeds.
On a side note, fashion could do even better and have a net positive impact when we consider regenerative capabilities like using materials that are grown in ways that replenish soil or capture carbon, but we will leave that out of the discussion for this particular post.
In the context of making an effort to reduce the negative impact each of our personal fashion and style choices has on people and the planet, let’s debunk some of the myths that sustainable fashion isn’t available in some form for just about everyone.
Isn’t Ethical Style Elitist and Expensive?
Are there ‘ethical style bloggers’ who make this whole movement feel elitist? Yes. Does that mean we are all that way? I don’t think so. Can you shop responsibly without having endless financial means? Definitely. There are ways to shop sustainably on a budget.
Cost Per Wear and the Long-Term View
First we must consider quality and longevity as factors of cost per wear. Certain brands are more expensive, and it’s often because products are made with superior fabrics. When products are made with higher quality fabrics, that’s a benefit to us and something about which we ought to care because those clothes last longer and wear better.
When we purchase higher-quality products that last longer, they save us money in the long run. I’m not suggesting we all have to buy exorbitantly expensive fashion items, but a little investment in products with longer lifespans goes a long way. Many fast fashion pieces only last a few wears, so more expensive items may have lower cost per wear despite the upfront cost to purchase.
If you’re not sure how to calculate cost per wear, take the price of an item and divide it by the number of times you wore it before it was discarded or donated (due to quality, change in style, or any other reason it became obsolete). As an example:
Fast Fashion T-Shirt: Cost = $5; # of Wears = 3; Cost per wear = $5/3 = $1.67
Mid Price T-Shirt: Cost = $20; # of Wears = 15; Cost per wear = $20/15 = $1.33
High End T-Shirt: Cost = $35; # of Wears = 30; Cost per wear = $35/30 = $1.16
In this case, the high-end t-shirt is actually the least expensive over the life of the shirt. Of course, depending on the fabric and quality of construction, the most expensive item isn’t always going to have the lowest cost per wear. If the lower priced item is of high quality, that’s even better. I’m only suggesting with the above example that a higher price in the short run doesn’t always equate to higher spending in the long run.
I know that paying $35 for a t-shirt, no matter how long it lasts, is still cost-prohibitive for many people. I’m not suggesting this is the right option for everyone or that it’s the only option to participate in sustainable fashion. But I do think many people could afford to buy better but fewer products and also buy secondhand alternatives that cost the same as current brands they wear but last much longer and don’t contribute to our ever-growing textile waste problem.
We Can’t All Care About Morality
Morality arguments contribute to the elitist perceptions of sustainable fashion. We often pay higher prices for ethical fashion brands in order to pay garment workers more fair wages and allow them to work in safer and more comfortable conditions. I’m not suggesting the well-being of those who make our clothes is of a lesser priority than those buying the clothes. I do, however, understand how those living paycheck to paycheck aren’t all that interested in spending more on clothes simply to support the well-being of people they’ve never met.
It’s not realistic to expect consumers to make global humanity a priority over keeping their own lights on and putting food on their table when such is at risk. While I believe there are many people who could afford to pay more for the benefit of others, I also don’t believe this is an argument that will convert the masses.
On the contrary, it contributes to the elitist perception that “isn’t it nice all you ethical consumers can afford to subsidize the lives of others.” Therefore, it’s not something I dedicate significant time to promoting, because I don’t expect a meaningful number of consumers to put their dollars behind this cause on its own. It’s a worthy cause but not one I anticipate resonating enough to change the future of fast fashion.
Aren’t Those High Prices Reflective of Outsize Margins?
A handful of brands might charge a premium simply because their brands are “sustainable” but I don’t think this is a common theme, and it’s certainly not one that will last. Prices generally are higher relative to traditional and fast fashion because costs of fair labor and better fabrics are higher. When inputs cost more, the output has to cost more as well.
Too many truly sustainable and stylish brands are entering the market that price competition will drive consumers to brands pricing their products with reasonable and not excessive margins.
If you think ethical style is too expensive, hopefully cost per wear and the rise of consumer-friendly secondhand shopping can debunk that myth. If you think ethical style is elitist, I give you permission to ignore those calls for justice if they don’t resonate with you. There are plenty of other reasons why there’s space for everyone in the sustainable fashion world.
Who Has Time To Find and Assess Brands?
Ethical fashion naysayers argue that finding and reviewing brands to ensure they use sustainable practices and materials takes too much time. I don’t believe the naysayers have done their research.
How Much Time Are You Spending Anyway?
To begin, I wonder how much this really even is an issue? Before complaining about the amount of time required to shop ethically, we each have to reflect on the amount of time we spend shopping in general.
Do we go to the mall for a few hours on a weekend? How much time do we spend shopping for new clothes already? How much research could we complete in the same amount of time? Further, if we shopped less often and didn’t get caught up in the ever-changing fast fashion trends, would we end up spending the same amount of time (or maybe even less) shopping?
While my personal experience is only anecdotal, I spend far less time shopping than I did before focusing on more sustainable style practices because I’m not constantly trying to find ways to “work with what I have” and “make it work”. I only buy things I really love.
On a side note, this particular consideration does not apply to those to whom I referred earlier who are on a tight budget and already shopping sustainably out of necessity.
Find a Few Favorite Brands
To shop sustainably, we don’t have to review and understand every brand. Find and get to know a handful of brands we love, and then stick to those. Chances are we’re not shopping from that many different brands anyway.
Our malls are dominated by a couple dozen of the same stores, as evidenced by the fact that our malls have the same stores in just about every town across this country. By shopping fast fashion, we’re not exactly including a wide range of retailers in our repertoire, so why should we feel it necessary to master a plethora of sustainable brands just because we are shopping in a more ethical space?
Let Others Do The Research
We’re seeing more and more companies vet brands for us, particularly with technology like DoneGood. Through a simple search engine extension, DoneGood offers alternatives for more ethical brands when shopping online. They also have a directory of brands they have vetted when searching for a specific type of product, and they offer discounts on some of the brands in their directory.
There are lots of bloggers doing the research as well. Many online creatives are buried deep in research on the sustainability of tons of brands. So… don’t recreate the wheel. Check out their round-up posts that lay out a list of ethical brands to meet a particular clothing need. Search for keywords like “sustainable and affordable sweater brands” or “sustainable and affordable alternatives to [input your favorite fast-fashion brand]”. I bet there are some bloggers who have already rounded up a handful of great brands that are more sustainable than fast fashion options.
Do those bloggers spend a ton of time sorting through fashion brands to find which ones are the best? Yes. But the point is that they are doing the work for you. They are doing the research precisely so you don’t have to (unless of course, you want to, then by all means, dig deeper). No fashion blogger who truly aims to raise the consciousness of our fashion habits expects their readers to emulate the level of due diligence they perform. It defeats the purpose of their work.
So, does it really take more time to shop for ethical brands? Probably not. It could if you want to do all the research, but it definitely doesn’t have to.
Research aside about specific ethical brands, you can always opt for secondhand. We have an immense textile waste issue and desperately need to extend the lives of the mountains of high-quality clothes already in the fashion cycle. But…
Who Has Time To Thrift Shop?
Years ago, I would have agreed with this. I started secondhand shopping and scouring the shelves in thrift stores in downtown Chicago. I enjoyed the hunt. However, I no longer live near those stores nor do I have time, with two young boys, to sift through rack and racks.
Use Online Resale Sites
Most of my secondhand finds come from online resale and consignment shops. The sites curate collections more tediously than most traditional thrift shops and collections are easier to scan using their extensive filters.
Certain online resale sites use technology and scale to create databases full of millions of items we can buy, all sorted by color, size, brand, type, style, sleeve length, dress length, fabric, occasion, and more. Click a few filters from the comfort of your home and you’ll have a curated selection of items matching exactly what you need.
Even better, the products have all been vetted for quality and style to ensure they feel exciting, new, and current. Forget sifting through tables and racks at fast fashion stores that are a royal mess.
In short and particularly due to the growth of online resale shops, secondhand shopping is not what it used to be. High-quality, stylish secondhand is widely available and accessible to people across the country at all economic levels where fast fashion is also accessible. Online thrift shopping success doesn’t take any more time than grabbing a few great pieces from a traditional brand or department store online retailers.
Ethical Products Are Off Trend, Right?
Ethical fashion receives it’s fair share of criticism for being ugly and weird. Some of it is ugly and weird, in my opinion, but such is true for traditional fashion as well. Take one look at Leandra Medine from The Man Repeller. Her style is totally “out there”, and I wouldn’t even know where to buy most of it. Yet she’s an international style icon (which just shows how mundane my style preferences are). Have you ever watched the runway shows? The styles are totally wacky, and they come from some of the most successful fashion houses on the planet.
What is “Trendy” and Who’s Defining Trends?
I don’t believe that ethical brands are all ‘off-trend’. When ‘on trend’ traditional style runs the gamut from beige crew neck sweaters to red carpet costumes and everything in between, how can an entire genre of style be totally off base just because the makers receive fair wages or the materials leave fewer toxins in our waterways?
Undoubtedly, many ethical brands have minimalist and, dare I say, boring vibes. Most are not what we see in fast fashion stores and often far from it. That doesn’t, however, mean that every brand is off-trend or not stylish. After all, who said a handful of buyers at fast fashion stores are the only ones who get to define every trend? If we’re only shopping for their styles, that’s essentially what we’re settling for.
We should decide what we like for ourselves! We only need to find a few brands that are true to our own personal style and enjoy those. Ignore the rest. That’s really what we do with traditional brands anyway, right?
And if not, then we’re likely spending a whole lot of time at a whole lot of stores always in search of new clothes. In that case, maybe we could reassess that myth above that we don’t have time to vet better brands? Or maybe we have time to learn to mend clothes we already have and love? Or experiment with more style pairings from our current wardrobe? Or …. (fill in the blank with anything you love as much as shopping).
This also begs the question of what exactly defines good style. Fast fashion is designed to convince us trends are changing rapidly, over the course of weeks, if for no other reason than to make us feel like our closets are out of date and we need to buy new pieces. But are fast fashion cycles really even trends we ought to respect? Do we have to just wear what they put in stores and assume that it’s what should be popular?
Fast fashion houses spend a lot of time making slight modifications to existing products so the old products feel dated. In essence, they dictate necessity for lots of new clothes by producing poor quality styles that don’t last.
Is following every fast fashion trend really “true personal style” if we’re just changing our preferences to wear what the big brands put on the racks (and effectively tell us is cool) every two weeks? That sounds more like us wearing their style than creating or exploring our own. Are we curating our own style or being puppets for the churn that fast fashion wants us to embrace?
When left to our own devices, our favorite foods and activities don’t change every two weeks. Why would our favorite clothing styles change that often? Don’t be held captive to the “trends” fast fashion dreams up overnight. Instead focus on personal style we love and that lasts. When we think of fashion in terms of things that make us feel good and that we find aesthetically pleasing, personal style doesn’t have to change every two weeks to match what’s displayed in the shiny glass windows.
Isn’t An Ethical Wardrobe Small and Boring?
Sustainable fashion often gets intertwined with capsule wardrobes. I get why this happens. Capsule wardrobes are small, and there’s sometimes a presumption that you buy higher quality goods for the long haul. Additionally, if we have smaller wardrobes, we must be contributing less to the fast fashion churn and textile waste problems plaguing the fashion industry and its consumers. But just because a wardrobe is small doesn’t mean it’s ethically sourced nor that it’s not being turned over frequently.
“Capsule Wardrobe” Doesn’t Mean Sustainable
I recently saw a blogger touting the practice of creating a new five day capsule wardrobe each week. She uses five pieces of clothing to create five outfits. I wondered how often she was repeating items within a capsule from week to week, so I scrolled through her Instagram feed for a good while. My research was far from scientific but I didn’t see a single repeat. Even if I missed a few duplicates, that’s not at all impressive.
Wearing five pieces to make five outfits sounds sustainable on the surface, but that just means she’s using about one new piece of clothing everyday. What is sustainable about buying a new item of clothing every. single. day?! Further, let’s say the “capsule” is two shirts, two pants and a dress. That just means she wears each shirt once with each pair of pants, and she wears the dress once. Is that even a challenge? That sounds like fast fashion?!
Whew. That was some ranting, but it really got me fired up because I feel like she’s really misleading people and promoting fast fashion churn through the lens of sustainability. She even alludes to the conclusion that wearing ‘capsule wardrobes’ gives her a license to shop fast fashion because she’s mixing up and re-wearing the pieces. Re-wearing something two or three times doesn’t make it sustainable; it’s the definition of fast fashion. It’s all just a bunch of rationalizing bulls*it to me. So… let’s just be clear that capsule wardrobes don’t automatically equate to sustainable fashion.
What Is Sustainable Fashion If Not Small Wardrobes?
A capsule wardrobe isn’t necessarily sustainable, and an ethical wardrobe doesn’t have to be limited to ten or twelve or even twenty pieces. Shopping ethically doesn’t have to mean that our entire wardrobe fits in our gym bag. Sustainable shopping starts by taking a step back and being more mindful about what we’re buying, how often we’re wearing it, where it’s coming from, where it’s ending up, and why we’re buying it.
This reflection doesn’t have to be a written essay or even a drawn-out thought process. The first few times, it might be a more conscious interrogation of our impulse to shop. But after a little bit of practice, it becomes second nature, and it’s a subconscious series of questions we consider each time we think about buying something new.
An ethical wardrobe could consist of a few high-end pieces from ethical brands we adore. It could also consist of a wealth of clothes we purchased secondhand and return to the secondhand market when we are done with them. It could be a large, well-curated collection we mindfully amassed over time, of which we take good care and plan to wear for many years to come. It could be a mix of all of the aforementioned. What exactly an ethical wardrobe looks like depends on what each of us wants from our clothes, but it definitely doesn’t have to be boring or tiny.
Can I Feel Fashionable and Comfortable In “Ethical” Clothes?
The argument that we can’t feel good in ethical clothes sort of baffles my mind. Forget feeling good about the clothes for moral reasons; I set that argument aside earlier because it’s just not a priority for most people (no matter what we wish were true). We want to feel fashionable and comfortable in our clothes, and some believe that ethical clothing doesn’t allow us to feel this way.
I suppose it’s a function of the concerns above about limited affordability and accessibility, and a subsequent presumption that ethical clothing requires us to settle for something “less than”. But sustainable style doesn’t have to be an act of settling.
Lots of New Clothes Doesn’t Guarantee Style Satisfaction
Do we need new clothes every week to feel good in what we wear? Buying something new sometimes feels good, but getting lost in a closet of things we no longer love totally sucks. Having personal style and shopping ethically are not mutually exclusive habits.
Similarly, feeling good about our style and buying into all the new fast fashion trends are not one in the same. In fact, I’d argue it’s quite the opposite because ‘keeping up with the trends’ often leads to little more than a never-ending race of feeling like our closets are just short of complete. We always need something new before we feel good about what we own. For the majority of people, chasing fast fashion trends doesn’t feel good at all!
If we want to feel like a million bucks in our clothes, we ought to pay more attention to the things that fit us well and work with our lifestyle. Buy those things. I suspect many of us can stop by an ice cream shop and feel really great about the cone we got without feeling unsatisfied that we didn’t get one of every flavor. We know what we like, and we order it. Why can’t personal style be the same way? It’s fun to try a new flavor sometimes, but no one loves or feels good about every single flavor.
There’s No Single Definition of Sustainable Fashion Consumption
I’m not asking for everyone to be a perfectly “ethical” consumer. I think that’s impossible because so many “better” choices also have costs associated with them. However, I do think there is space for just about everyone to make better, more sustainable choices in some areas of their closets. Being a more responsible and mindful consumer isn’t about being perfect in all capacities; it’s about making progress and choosing better alternatives in areas that make sense for each of us.
So please, don’t just write off sustainable fashion, but consider where it might work for you. If it’s the impeccable style you’re after, there are plenty of emerging ethical brands with incredible products. If it’s the price that drives you, try shopping secondhand. Online resale shops will be your new jam (and you’ll get a much better bang for your buck). I’m pretty certain most of us have space in our closets for areas of improvement, and there’s a niche in the sustainable style market that fits both aesthetic and budget for just about all of us.
About The Author
Jen Panaro, founder and editor-in-chief of Honestly Modern, is a self-proclaimed composting nerd and an advocate for sustainable living for modern families. In her spare time, she’s a serial library book borrower, a messy gardener, and a mom of two boys who spends a lot of time in hockey rinks and on baseball fields.
You can find more of her work at WasteWell, a company that provides composting resources and local curbside compost collection services, and Raising Global Kidizens, an online space to help parents and caregivers raise the next generation of responsible global citizens.