In the world of sustainable fashion, there’s a lot of choice. Vintage clothing, made in USA, eco-friendly fabrics – what’s the best choice?
When it comes to shopping consciously there are a lot of choices that we can make. We can buy things made from sustainable textiles. We can choose companies that focus on ethical working conditions. We can look for things made locally. We can buy vintage or used. We can choose to not buy things at all.
Which raises the question: if you’re in the market to buy clothes, what should you be buying?
First off, we have to address the question of sustainability in the fashion world. “I think that most consumers aren’t aware of sustainable fashion at all. They go to thrift shops, consignment or vintage and are aware they are getting clothing that is used and probably cheap but not sure they equate that to sustainability,” says fashion writer, consultant and activist Amy DuFault.
What she means is that a lot of us buy used because we know that buying something second hand is inherently more sustainable than something new, but beyond that we don’t ask a lot of questions or know about the sustainability practices of most brands. She cites EILEEN FISHER and Patagonia as leaders in the industry. “These two brands have been around for a long time and have grown both companies with people and planet at the core,” says DuFault.
In a world run by business, it’s imperative that we seek out the ones with good values. Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard is known for citing conservationist David Brower’s quote, “There is no business to be done on a dead planet,” and he’s right.
Bring your clothes back to life
Working in the sustainable fashion world, DuFault herself committed to a fashion fast for 2014, meaning that she’s not buying any new clothing, jewelry or shoes. “I am hoping that I can look a little deeper into WHY I feel the need to have more when I already have plenty, why I think clothing will change me and most importantly, how I can love my current clothing while working with my local tailor and re-designing.”
That gave DuFault the inspiration for The Tailor Project, a collaboration between her and a local tailor Kathryn Hilderbrand. “I’m pretty amazed already at the response from everyone wanting to support it, sending me pictures of local tailors, revamping their own closets, making their own clothes again,” says DuFault. “It’s like a whole new movement and it’s cross-generational, international and fun.”
For DuFault, she puts mended or tailored clothing at the top of her sustainable fashion list; reusing what you have. Along those same lines, thrift and vintage clothing can serve a similar purpose, as “they require no additional material and processing inputs, no additional natural resources used and they engage wearers in a deeper experience of fashion beyond shopping,” says Lynda Grose, a veteran of the fashion industry – she co-founded ESPRIT’s ecollection, which was the first ecologically responsible clothing line developed by a major corporation – and now an Associate Professor at California College of the Arts.
“I buy thrift and vintage because it keeps natural resources circulating around in the economy,” says Grose. “Imagine the resources going into one garment that is sold and disposed of in six months versus resources going into one garment that goes from one to two to three owners and is worn for many years… it’s common sense.”
If you do buy new…
But if we are buying new, what should we be looking for?
“Origin, fiber content, price, washing instructions, and end life,” says sustainable strategist and founder of new Made in USA accelerator program Factory 45 Shannon Whitehead.
Sustainability isn’t just about what an item of clothing is made with or where it comes from; it’s all of those things.
As Whitehead points out, “‘Made in [blank]‘ isn’t always an indication of ethical or unethical, which is why it’s just as important to consider the materials, as well as the life cycle of the garment. Ask yourself, ‘Will I wear this once or will it be a staple in my wardrobe for years to come?’”
In a consumer society with plenty of fast fashion options, we’re used to shopping in a disposable manner; a cheap and trendy t-shirt can be worn just a few times and then tossed away. But if you’re looking to shop sustainably you have to think about the pieces that will last.
Price is a good indicator of not only quality – how long is that cheap t-shirt going to hold out for – but also work conditions of the person that made it. “Consumers also have to begin looking at price tags and start seeing a red flag when something seems unusually cheap. If a t-shirt is $4.99, then there is a good chance that someone was exploited in the making of it. Think of the cost that goes into make a t-shirt [materials, labor, shipping, retail cut] and ask yourself what part of the supply chain keeps the profit. Hint: it’s not the garment worker,” says Whitehead.
Just like you may ask about the food your buying, who grew it and where it came from, you should be doing the same with your clothes, which means that you have to get beyond the labels. “If you must buy new, do it selectively: buy grown and sewn in US cotton goods,” says Grose. “Not just Made in US, ask where the fabric and the fiber come from too.”
A simple guide to shopping sustainably
With a complex supply chain, breaking sustainable fashion choices down into a hierarchy is difficult, but if you want a guide to follow, Whitehead has a good list that can be used as a rule of thumb when shopping:
1. Used – meaning low-end thrift shops and consignment
2. Vintage clothing
3. Made in the USA with a transparent supply chain – if you’re an American consumer
4. Made outside of the USA with an ethical supply chain
5. Made in the USA with little transparency
6. Made outside of the USA with little transparency
7. Big corporations and public companies (H&M, Zara, Gap, Forever21, and their parent companies)
But be careful when you are thinking about ethical supply chains. “I’m not talking about H&M’s “Conscious Collection,” says Whitehead. There is just as much, if not more, greenwashing taking place in fashion as in other industries; just because a brand is marketing something as sustainable doesn’t mean that it is.
The bottom line
Want a super simplified guide to conscious fashion? Buy very little, fix what you have, look for used clothes and when you are in the mood for something new, know where your clothing comes from and the people who are making it.
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