Ethical Purity in Sustainable Fashion
Yes, it’s fair trade. But is it eco-friendly?…
Yes, it’s organic. But is it sweatshop free?…
Yes, it’s vegetable dyed. But is it cruelty free?
I only buy vegan, nontoxic, fair trade, sustainable, zero waste makeup.
I only buy organic, local, small batch kombucha.
Being a conscious consumer can be hard, not only because choosing an “alternative” lifestyle often isolates you from family, friends, and the dominant culture, but because you have basically obligated yourself to have a headache-inducing ethics discussion every time you need to make a purchase or lifestyle choice.
It can also be hard because your fellow conscious consumers are immersed in the same internal debate, and they may come to different conclusions than you.
You may think that fair trade advocates and vegans are more alike than different, but their passion for a particular perspective often puts them at odds. I see full scale attacks break out between these parties at least once a month, with each claiming that the other doesn’t care enough.
But maybe the truth is that we care too much?
Put another way, maybe we’ve turned the corner from well meaning ethics into fiercely self-centered identity politics, where every disagreement challenges who we are at our core. This is dangerous, not only to our own sense of self worth, but because it turns on our fight-or-flight reflexes.
It makes those we disagree with the enemy and forces us to build ourselves up by claiming moral superiority. Dialogue is out.
Four months ago, I posted a graphic to my Instagram feed in response to Alden’s insightful response to that totally made up statistic ethical consumers love to repost: “Fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world.” In fact, according to Alden’s analysis, it’s the fifth.
I didn’t get any pushback on that, but just last week, I received a delayed comment on that post:
Animal agriculture is also the worst! Remember to wear #crueltyfree
The response is eye-roll inducing not only because it displays rather poor reading comprehension (“also the worst” is an impossible statement that also doesn’t match the statistic I shared), but because it forces a subject change for the sake of the writer’s self-interest.
And it’s just absurdly preachy. How would you like it if I found semi-relevant hashtags and started saying, “Remember, #Jesussaves!”?
I’m going off on a tangent-rant (tang-rant?), but here’s my point: it’s ok to not talk about every single problem in the manufacturing industry at the same time.
And it’s probably ok to forego a few ethical credentials for the sake of meeting other ethical criteria.
I used to be a hard core fair trade advocate.
And then I started talking to eco-advocates and realized how devastating synthetic materials, pesticide-laden cotton, and toxic dyes are to the environment, not to mention the people who work in the industry.
So I added eco-conscious to the list.
Then I discovered that leather sourced as a byproduct of the meat industry can be more eco-friendly than synthetically produced faux leather.
So I sought out “eco-friendly” leather goods.
Then I started talking to vegans and vegetarians about animal ethics, and was inspired by their compassion.
So I became a vegetarian.
Then a few fellow bloggers reminded me that even “fair trade” companies only have to meet a minimum standard to claim that status, and that we can’t believe what people tell us.
So I started asking more pointed questions, and narrowing who I would support.
Then brand leaders like H&M and Everlane reminded me that the industry will only change dramatically once ethical models can scale, and that someone has to prove the model.
So I started reconsidering my small-scale stance.
Then the minimalists came out of the woodwork and reminded me that quality matters, too, and the key to long term sustainability is buying things that last.
So I stopped buying “ethical” stuff that didn’t fit me well, or was too trend-driven.
Then I looked around at my options and realized I couldn’t find things that ticked all the boxes.
So I walked around in a daze for a few months, threw my hands in the hair, and asked myself, “If everything can’t matter, does anything matter?”
And that’s when I realized my ethical purity goals were dangerous.
In a recent article for Aeon, “practical ethicist” Alberto Giubilini lays out a scenario in which a vegetarian is forced to consider whether she would eat a pork chop at a dinner party if it turned out doing so made a more persuasive case for vegetarianism than abstaining would.
The argument goes that converting many “flexible” vegetarians who make occasional exceptions for meat consumption would undoubtedly be more productive – from both an animal ethics and an environmental perspective – than converting only a few with the teetotaling model.
Of course, practical ethics isn’t the only approach to ethics at large, and we should hold in high regard those who fully abstain from certain lifestyle choices out of sincere conviction. But I liked the thought experiment because it applies quite well to a conversation on conscious consumerism.
Can a flexible conscious consumerism encourage more people to change their habits?
I think the answer is, and has to be, yes.
It has to be because there is currently no company or business model that gets everything right, and because social and financial limitations don’t give us an even playing field for analyzing our consumer choices.
And even in a vacuum, social psychology tells us that when people are too intimidated by the task at hand, they won’t pursue it at all.
I have to acknowledge the personal and social obstacles that stand in the way of being perfect, and move forward. By the same token, I have to let go of my pride so I can let others in.
So when a friend asks me if a Made in Cambodia blazer is “ethical,” my answer is no longer, “No.” It’s “Hmm, does it fit well? Is the material and stitching high quality? Will you wear it for a long time? Can you afford something with more ethical credentials? Here are some recommendations, but you should decide for yourself.”
We’re wasting our time and muddying our message by striving for perfection wrapped into an individual garment. We’re hurting the reputation of the industry by insisting that others prioritize ethics over quality. After all, shouldn’t quality be an ethical category?
It is right and good to stay informed and weigh various ethical criteria, but we are lying to ourselves and discouraging others by acting as if we have, or are even capable of having, it all figured out.
We have to stop telling people, including ourselves, that our work is in vain if we slip up, or perhaps if we’re a bit too flexible.
Progress is progress, and increasingly I determine what is right based on a sincere exploration of what to prioritize in that moment – and what psychological, financial, social, and spiritual factors should be considered – rather than working from a place of guilt. (Of course, there should be space for critique, but this is not the same thing as shaming.)
Our guilt will not redeem us, or the industry we aim to change. It should not be a marker of our goodness.
Instead, our cultivation of inclusive and considerate community will mark us as advocates and activists. We’ll be the nonviolent, direct action folks singing marching songs that kindle fire into deadened eyes. We’ll convert people with our deeply held joy.
Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.