How to Shop Sustainably
By the standards of our grandmothers who sewed their own clothes, I am not an expert on how to shop sustainably. But by the standards of the quickly moving world of ethical fashion on the internet, I’m practically an elder.
I’ve been blogging on ethical fashion – starting with a humble little blog on WordPress dedicated to fair trade – since January 2013. I’ve seen a lot since then, including the rise of “ethical influencing” as a bonafide niche, the retirement of the first generation of ethical bloggers (not to mention dozens and dozens of conventional bloggers), and the growth explosion and exposure provided by social media tools like Instagram.
I consider myself a late-blooming member of the “personal style blogging” generation of the early 2000s. I started my own personal style blog, on conventional fashion finds, in 2008, and quickly fell in love with the longer form narrative made possible by the good ol’ weblog. If I have been resistant to social media advancements and communications changes, now you know why.
Over the years, I’ve profiled dozens of brands and explored the complexities of “consuming ethically” or rather, being a “conscious consumer.” I put both of those in scare quotes because the very notion that we can confidently step forward proclaiming our ethics misrepresents what it feels like to actually be in the thick of it.
The Hard Truth
We live in an economic and social system in which consumption and labor are two sides of the same coin. Our labor and the labor of workers around the world is exploited in the name of progress, and our “reward” is consumer goods.
It’s a trap, because we have to keep working to keep consuming. And we have to keep consuming in order to keep the whole system running. Capitalism does not favor sustainability.
This trap also lessens our ability to do good by making us feel guilty for what we aren’t doing well enough and, in turn, create systems of personal guilt and collective shaming that tear apart community organizing. As Mary Annaise Heglar writes in a VOX piece entitled, I work in the environmental movement. I don’t care if you recycle:
“The belief that this enormous, existential problem could have been fixed if all of us had just tweaked our consumptive habits is not only preposterous; it’s dangerous. It turns environmentalism into an individual choice defined as sin or virtue, convicting those who don’t or can’t uphold these ethics.“
While pursuing personal consumer ethics can be a righteous ideal that changes our orientation to consumer culture, not to mention how we conceive of ourselves in collective human community, it should not – ever – be used to justify fundamentalism and the deep shame that enforces its boundaries.
So, it’s a misnomer, in a way, to call anything ethical fashion.
What we actually mean is that parts of the system – namely labor ethics and ecological sustainability – are, at the very least, being considered throughout the production process.
It’s not a solution – but it is a necessity. Because if we don’t humanize the whole thing – including ourselves – how are we able to understand that exploitation?
I continue to pursue ethical fashion, not because I think it alone can change the world, but because I understand in my thinking brain and in my heart that pursuing small changes is a way to bolster hope, to engage with complicated issues, and to remember my own humanity. It is a kind of collective honoring.
When reading the tips below, keep in mind that things aren’t always going to be chronological, and not everything will feel essential to you.
How Shop Sustainably in Any Context
1. Start with what you have
Chill out! It’s going to be ok. Do a wardrobe assessment to see if you actually need to shop:
- Using the KonMari method, take everything out of your wardrobe and pile it on the bed.
- Create 3 distinct piles: Keep, Donate, Discard.
- Consider taking The Wonder Wardrobe course if you need help defining your personal style. Think about united color schemes (this isn’t the same thing as neutrals) and proportions that go well together and suit your body shape and lifestyle.
- Reference my Thrift Shop Guide to see what you can donate and what you should throw away or cut into rags.
- Use bags or boxes to remove Donate and Throwaway items from the room.
- Reorganize your things in a way that makes sense to you, with seasonal items within easy reach.
- Consider sorting by style and color in your closet, or using shelves and drawers.
2. Assess needs
What are you missing? Where are you over-flowing? Do you have things that are ill-fitting that are due for a replacement?
3. Set a budget
Look over your budget and decide:
- How much you can afford to spend on a wardrobe update
- How much you are willing to pay for a single item
4. Determine your values
What ethical criteria are you looking for and how do those intersect with accessibility (i.e. what you can afford, what brands offer your size and style preferences)? Think about what you’re most passionate about, and what will sustain you as you move forward.
5. Learn about certifications
Check out my Certifications Guide.
6. Create a hierarchy of values
I added this as its own step because I think this part is often overlooked (though it’s done unintentionally) but extremely important. You won’t be able to tick all the boxes in most cases, so think about your priorities.
Possible values (See Definitions in my What is Ethical? guide)
- Labor Ethics and Factory Safety
- Locally Made
- Positive impact to particular community, i.e. Women, LGBTQIA, BIPOC, Refugees, Trafficking Survivors, etc.
- Environmental Impact
- Fair Trade Standards
- Circular Economy
- Zero Waste
- Price Accessibility
- Size Inclusion
7. Seek out ethical brands
Use my Shopping Guides, check out Reviews in Personal Style, and read up on news in Industry Talk. Make a list of possible brands to peruse – or start window shopping.
- Create a Bookmark Folder or Pinterest board to save resources and brands.
- Use a search engine and Pinterest to search by keyword.
- Check out hashtags on Instagram: #ethicalfashion #slowfashion #fairtrade
8. Ask questions
If something about a brand narrative confuses you, don’t be afraid to ask questions! If you don’t feel comfortable contacting the brand directly, email your favorite ethical blogger or journalist to see what they know.
9. Shop secondhand first
Now that you’re armed with more information than you ever thought you could absorb, consider shopping secondhand.
- Sites like Ebay and Poshmark are easy to search and chock-full of deals. You can seek out gently used conventional brands and new ethical favorites.
- Thrift shopping is fun! If you feel overwhelmed, check out this handy Thrift Shopping Guide.
10. Still have wardrobe gaps? Time to shop!
Use the quick guide below to fill in gaps.
- Check out my detailed shopping guides
- View the brand directory
- Follow brands on social media
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.