Back in March of 2015, I dove head first into a year long challenge to purchase at least 90% of my clothes from socially responsible channels. At that time, I’d started following just a couple Instagram accounts that highlighted ethical fashion and I’d dabbled in secondhand shopping.
I began my challenge with a loose definition of what I intended to fit into my guidelines. I knew I would tailor or reinforce that definition over time as I gained more information about various shopping channels and what each really meant.
After ten months of learning about ethical fashion, secondhand style, made in the USA brands, handmade goods and other eco-conscious brands, I’ve become more engaged in focusing my style (and lifestyle) on brands whose values are consistent with my own.
While I’m not a pioneer on this path, I expect a lot more people will be following suit as this trend of the consumer caring about the brand’s values and practices continues to grow. Loyalty toward brands as a result of their personality, mission, and values is heavily embedded in the Millennial spirit. And as we (the Millennials) come of age in droves, our purchasing power follows closely behind.
So What Does Socially Responsible Mean?
As globalization and fast fashion have exploded in the last few decades, inferior labor practices, production waste, jam-packed cluttered closets, and overflowing landfills have become far more prevalent (and maybe the norm?). Simultaneously, fair paying apparel manufacturing jobs have dwindled as has our desire to invest in higher quality but fewer clothing items that will last more than a few wears.
All of this started to frustrate me. While I never led the march to fast fashion outlets, I certainly participated and had a closet full of worthless crap to prove it. It was time to make a change and maybe even encourage a few others to follow suit. So began my 90/10 Socially Conscious Style Challenge.
The 90/10 Socially Conscious Style Challenge
I committed for one year to purchase 90% of my clothing, based on number of items (not price), from socially responsible channels. I consider socially responsible to fit into one of the following categories:
Secondhand ~ Buying a piece secondhand extends its life and keeps it out of the landfills a bit longer. More importantly, it means one fewer item I’ll purchase new to contribute to the ever-racing production cycle of fashion in and out of closets before pieces are even close to fully utilized. Because the piece is secondhand, I don’t consider the brand of the product. If it’s still in good enough condition to add to my closet, it’s good enough for me.
Ethically Produced / Fair Trade ~ Products from this category guarantee a fair wage and good working conditions to the artisans who make them. As I have learned, many are handmade and use old world skills to perfect great quality.
Handmade ~ I appreciate supporting local artisans and small businesses. Generally, these products are produced with far less waste. And they certainly should support good working conditions, considering I’m often purchasing directly from the artist.
Made in the USA ~ While not a guarantee, the labor laws in this country typically support fair working conditions and reasonable wages, all things considered. Thus, products in this category could often land in the ethically produced category as well. But I appreciate supporting the creation and rehabilitation of profitable manufacturing entities right here on our own soil. Jobs for local economies are great. Also, pieces spend far less time and consume fewer energy resources traveling to get to me.
Eco-Conscious ~ It’s pretty embarrassing the amount of trash and waste that we (myself included) generate on a regular basis. We load up our farms with pesticides that end up in our food and drinking water. We consume scores of energy generating and manufacturing raw materials to make new things for consumption.
I’m not getting up on my soap box to suggest that we can all live perfectly green, self-sustainable lives (that’s not my intention at all), but I do hope to make small changes to continually decrease the impact I have on the monumental amounts of waste and consumption. If buying clothing made out of recycled products or organic raw materials can make our world slightly cleaner and greener, I’m all for it.
So, those are the categories I strive to ensure my clothes embody. At times, I’ve found brands that live and breath several of these categories, which sends them even higher on my list.
Typically, I also appreciate brands that have strong philanthropic missions. Many ethical or fair trade companies use a portion of their profits to support education or healthcare or culture in the communities in which their products are made, for example. Many other brands have a 1-for-1 element to them, which also emphasizes the greater impact our style choices can have on our neighbors and communities.
Does It Come At a Higher Price?
Yes and no.
On the surface, many would probably argue that purchasing clothes from the aforementioned categories (aside from secondhand) could put a healthy dent in your bank account. To be fair, the initial investment might feel larger. But many of these pieces are much higher quality than their fast fashion counterparts. They last longer and their cost per wear is meaningfully less than replacing said fast fashion garbage each season.
On that note, some argue that we shouldn’t entirely bash fast fashion because it provides affordable options that might be the only options for some. I disagree. Fast fashion might be the only way that some can afford to buy a new, trendy wardrobe each season, or even each year. But I don’t think having mountains of the latest and greatest clothes is a right, a necessity or something toward which any of us should strive.
Beyond that, fast fashion is a new “thing” and people of all income levels have worn clothes since long before fast fashion became mainstream. History suggests it’s not the only option.
In the long run, I wouldn’t bank on fast fashion saving you any money. While I haven’t done the math for everyone, I suspect it’s probably more expensive than a reasonable, thoughtful wardrobe for most. Being a more conscious shopper has definitely lightened my overall style spending, but I recognize that’s only anecdotal.
Let’s get back to the more thoughtfully produced pieces. The cost of products isn’t just defined by the number of dollars deducted from our bank accounts at the time of purchase. More meaningful and thoughtful wardrobes are often smaller, which requires less storage space. Are you paying rent or a mortgage for that closet (or closets) in which all your clothes are stored?
What about all the intangible social and environmental costs that harm the local and larger communities in which the products are made? Does digging through your cluttered closet or cleaning all your clothes cause you stress? Are we responsible for considering the impacts of our purchases and behaviors on others and the world around us?
If you’re unfamiliar with the larger costs of fast fashion, I’d encourage you to begin by watching The True Cost, a documentary about the impact fast fashion is having on the world.
You can rent The True Cost for $3.99. Invite a few friends over and have them bring drinks and snacks. I know it will cost less than heading out to a restaurant or bar for the evening, and you’ll be with great company. No excuses.
After you’ve watched it, let me know whether or not you think socially conscious style comes at a higher price.
When I took on my challenge, I wasn’t entirely sure what I would find, particularly in the area of professional attire. As a woman working in the corporate world, I needed a handful of professional pieces for the office and didn’t want to prohibitively limit my shopping options. Thus, I left a window of 10% of my items to be purchased from any brands I liked, particularly if they were investment pieces like a classic blazer, a long-lasting pair of pumps, or a timeless dress that could be remixed like a champ.
As I’ve learned about new brands, I have found a variety of socially responsible options that work quite well for work. Secondhand pieces have also been great for the office. Buying more mainstream brands secondhand has helped to fill in some of the gaps where I had trouble finding socially responsible brands directly.
What Brands “Make the Cut”?
I’m not claiming to be The Expert on what constitutes a socially conscious brand, nor do I have the time or resources to audit each brand’s production practices from development through final sale to the customer. I subscribe to the belief that we’re a mostly honest lot in this world, and I serve myself best by trusting and giving the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise. So if they say their products are fair trade or made of recycled plastic, I believe them.
That being said, I have spent significant amounts of time learning about various brands from third party articles, reading up on their websites, and following their social media channels. Arguably, they can lie. But let’s assume they’re generally an honest crew.
On a side note, if secondhand is more your style, I’ve put together a free Secondhand Style Guide to help you navigate the crazy world of thrifting. While dusty unorganized racks and racks of clothes still describe some stores, it’s far from the only option. Online options, like thredUP, are perfect for those more interested in finding their special piece quickly rather than moseying through lots of hangers to find the diamond in the rough.
Year 2: A Group Challenge?
As I complete my first year, I’ve considered what I will do going forward. I love the new brands I’ve found and will most definitely continue my 90/10 goal for myself. I’ve considered branching out with the challenge and encouraging others to join along. Would you be game?