I’ve wanted to write this post forever because like veganism (which I endlessly cover here) it can be really overwhelming to take the first step toward a more ethical closet when there are seemingly five million ways to do it “wrong.” But also like veganism, the most important step is the very first one and once you’re on the path you can only do better from there.
There are lots of reasons to put more thought into what you’re filling your closet with – the environment and human rights are two good ones. I recently wrote at length about my own experience that opened my eyes to the issue, you can find that post here. This is by no means a complete guide but rather suggestions for overcoming some of the biggest obstacles I’ve encountered on my own journey to be a more conscious consumer.
1. The Emperor Has No Clothes
Listen, I don’t want to keep comparing this transition to veganism, but they have so much in common! When I first went vegan I gathered up all of my leather boots – literally dozens of expensive pairs of Dr. Martens I’d collected over many Christmases, birthdays, and graduations – and I put them all into a donation bin. This left me feeling smugly vegan, and yet, also without any boots and too poor to replace them. (Plus vegan Docs wouldn’t be created for nearly 20 more years.)
Once you’ve decided to swear off fast fashion and other unsavory clothing manufacturers you might be tempted to get rid of everything “bad” and start over. If you are independently wealthy and have the means to donate your entire wardrobe and replace it in a day, good for you! But for most of us, it makes more sense to replace items as needed, or as we can afford it. Chances are no one is going to point to your Forever 21 dress and say, “Excuse me, but I thought you were ethical?” But on the off chance that does happen, just remind them that you’d rather not contribute to the massive clothing waste stream by discarding an item of clothing while it’s still wearable. Also tell them to mind their own business, they sound like a jerk.
When the time does come to part ways with your clothes, consider selling them to a resale shop such as Buffalo Exchange, or post them online using resale apps like Depop, ThreadUp, or Poshmark. Most of my clothes are pretty weird, and I’ve found Depop to be a good place to sell weird things. If your items are in good shape, you can usually recoup some of the cost, and use your earnings toward buying new clothes from ethical brands (or buying ethical brands second hand, more on that later.) Of course donating your clothes to a charitable cause is always a great idea. I found a women’s shelter in MI that is happy to take my gently worn business attire and shoes for their clients who are going on interviews.
If you’re in a situation where you can’t start replacing items for the foreseeable future, treat your fast fashion gently to make it last. I have more than a few very inexpensive and cheaply made dresses in my closet that I’ve only ever hand-washed and never put them in the dryer. This kept the color from fading, and the stitching from wearing out. I also kept some cheap shirts that lost their shape or developed other flaws and made them into tank tops to work out in.
The bottom line is, you don’t have to walk around naked.
2. Welcome to Staples
Say you’ve sold a few pieces, or managed to save up some cash and you’re ready to start replacing your old wardrobe with a cool, new, ethical one. That’s pretty exciting, and you might be tempted to go straight for an ethically made in the USA gold satin jacket with a hot dog angel appliques because you deserve it! But, I do recommend starting with some staples that you’re going to use a lot. Things like jeans, shoes, office attire (if applicable), a pair of black leggings, or a winter jacket.
I know that’s so boring and hard to do. I keep a list on my iPhone of wardrobe items I need (currently I need jeans) and things I want (a pair of sweatshorts with John Wick’s face on them). As I sell things on Depop, or feel ready to make a purchase, I consult my list. This helps to keep me from making impulsive decisions (please see the golden hot dog jacket one more time) and prevents me from ending up in a situation where I have no pants, but three gold satin jackets.
3. How Will I Know?
TL;DR: Brands with ethical practices are generally transparent about them on their website, and brands with questionable practises tend to not mention manufacturing at all. This is still an emerging area of interest for a lot of brands, so you might need to do some digging and send some emails to find the answers you’re looking for.
How can you tell the ethically made stuff from the rest? It can be tricky, because apparel makers that use child labor, sweatshops, and other unsavory manufacturing methods don’t exactly brag about it in their FAQs. But brands that do manufacture ethically *do* usually brag about it, and rightfully so.
If I’m shopping a brand I’m not sure about, I spend some time on their site looking for a statement about their manufacturing ethics. Nine times out of ten, if a brand is doing the right thing they’re going to have at least one page dedicated to telling you about it. Everlane*, for example, has information about each of their factories (as well as their environmental initiatives and transparency about their own internal practices). Sometimes it’s as simple as these couple paragraphs from Big Bud Press.
*I chose this as an example, don’t come for me about their leather products. I’m not a customer.
You’re going to read a lot of wishy-washy, vague stuff – especially from large brands like Nike that want to use all the right words, but not actually commit to anything. When I run into this, I usually consult sites like Good On You to see what their reports say. Maybe a brand that famously used sweatshop labor has changed its ways – but if not this site can suggest some ethical alternatives.
Indie and smaller brands don’t often end up on sites like that, though, and that’s when it’s time to crack your knuckles and write an email. Email the company and ask specific questions. How do you monitor the health and wellbeing of the people who make your clothing? Are they paid a living wage? What documentation or official statements can you share regarding the health and safety of factory staff? It’s like the old days of veganism before Facebook groups and Instagram accounts – you’d have to email or even call a company and ask if certain ingredients were vegan! And if they didn’t know, or couldn’t give you enough info to make an informed purchase, you didn’t buy that product.
American-made clothing is on-trend right now, and even cooler, US-made textiles are growing in popularity. While “Made in the USA” doesn’t always guarantee ethical practises, it’s usually a good sign and a good place to start. Lots of countries, like Sweden, have good reputations for fair labor practises, and lots of countries with less-than-great records are also home to small manufacturers who are looking to change that reputation. So I don’t necessarily subscribe to the idea that anything made in China or India, for example, is not made with fair, safe labor.
Buying handmade directly from the maker is also usually a safe bet.
4. Ethically Made Money Bags
If you’ve typically shopped fast fashion there can be a fair amount of sticker shock when you start adding ethically made clothing to your closet. For example, Shein has a tie dyed pullover sweatshirt on their site for $9 right now that looks an awful lot like the one Big Bud Press is selling for $78. While I don’t have any tips for scoring BBP clothes for $9 other than making a wish on a shooting star, I do have some tips for shopping ethical brands on a budget.
Once you’ve found a few ethical brands you like, sign up for their emails and/or follow them on Instagram and turn notifications on. Lots of these brands have sample sales, or exclusive sales for newsletter subscribers or social media followers. Once you hear about an upcoming sale, make sure you have an account on the website and if you can save your shipping and payment info do it. Sale items tend to go really fast, so I sit on the site hitting refresh, with my info pre-loaded, ready to grab what I want and check out without stopping to find my credit card or type out my address. Yes, it is kind of dramatic but I’ve scored some pieces at 75% off this way. This applies to seasonal sales, Black Friday, sample sales, and more.
A lot of sites now offer interest-free installment payments from third parties like Afterpay and Affirm, and PayPal also now has a “pay in 4” option that breaks your total into four installments. This option can make the higher price tag that often comes with ethically made clothing a little easier to swallow. No matter what you’re shopping for, I also recommend creating a Rakuten account and installing the browser extension to automatically find coupon codes and earn cash back on your purchase. I know that sounds like an ad, but last year I got over $300 cash back so I know it works.
The Kind You Find in a Second Hand Store
Buying second hand is a great solution to the ethical clothing dilemma regardless of the brands you buy. Fast fashion doesn’t usually last long enough to be resold, but I personally wouldn’t be opposed to buying a second hand pair of vegan** gym shoes from a brand that I otherwise wouldn’t buy from because of their manufacturing practises. It’s also a great way to keep clothing out of the wastestream.
**I’ve also seen vegans debate buying non-vegan items like leather boots second hand. We can argue about it later, just wanted to put that out there.
That being said, if you do only want to represent ethical brands in your wardrobe but are looking to save money, you can find a lot of gently worn items from ethical brands on site like Depop, Poshmark, and ThreadUp. Sometimes they’re discounted, and other times it’s people looking to sell discontinued items at their cost or a markup, so set your expectations accordingly.
Sorry ’bout It
I really apologize for this because I know no one likes to hear it, but the method I’ve had the most success with personally is just buying less. I do shop sample sales, and I do scour resale apps, but more than anything, I just live with fewer clothing options than I used to have when $100 shopping spree at the mall could get me five new items. I have maybe five basic pieces of business attire to get me through meetings and trade shows, some basics like black leggings and a black dress, and then a few times a year I add something special like a jumpsuit or a fall jacket or winter coat to the mix. I have fewer than 10 pairs of shoes in my entire possession and a few pairs are almost as old as Teno! I just try and take care of things so I don’t need to replace them very often. When it comes time this year to part ways with the Matt & Nat shoes I spent a few hundred dollars on in 2015 it’ll be a lot less painful when I consider that means it only cost me $30 a year to own them. (I’ll still miss you, though, silver oxfords!)
5. Perfectly Imperfect
Just by reading this much about buying clothes that aren’t made by children or in sweatshops you’ve taken a big step. It’s hard to identify a problem and make personal sacrifices to try and help solve that problem. Going back to my first point, no one is expecting you to makeover your whole wardrobe overnight, and likewise, no one will ever be a perfectly ethical consumer. I’m typing this on a computer that was probably manufactured in a way that would make me really angry to know about.
But that’s the thing. I can look into that, and if I don’t mind answers that satisfy me, I’ll contact the company. I’ll see if there’s a petition or an organization dedicated to improving conditions for the people who make these computers and I’ll do what I can to support those. I don’t know how to make my own computer, so I have to choose my battles. But that doesn’t mean I have to accept the unacceptable.
This one singular issue is a really good example of how interconnected so many parts of our economy are, and how gross capitalism can really be. Clothes shouldn’t have to be so cheap that we need to kidnap children to make them. Everyone should be able to work a safe job that pays them enough money to buy the things they need and want. It sucks that it’s controversial to believe that, but going back to the veganism connection, it’s something that I hope will one day soon be obvious to more people.
For my own part, the site I use to offer print-on-demand merch lists the certifications from each vendor, and country of origin for each item. I try to choose the best options as I select items to offer. I hope this has been helpful, and please tag me @bakeanddestroy when you post your ethically made wardrobe pieces because I want to see!