How To Shop Sustainably Without Really Trying

women at the thrift store - How To Shop Sustainably Without Really Trying
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How To Shop Sustainably Without Really Trying

In 2020, I decided to lay off some of my rigid guidelines for shopping.

We were six months into the pandemic and everything was terrible. Things were worse than ever for garment workers, there were massive supply chain delays, and companies I trusted weren’t living up to their own standards.

On top of that, I was about to enter a year of online pandemic grad school. With no place to go and no one to see, my clothing needs had radically changed. Not to mention that sponsorships and offers of free clothes had all but dried up. Lastly, my size kept fluctuating in ways that made it really unaffordable to shop from higher-end and bespoke ethical brands.

There was simply no reason to pretend that things could continue as usual.

I was overwhelmed and, honestly, in the midst of an identity crisis. So I decided that my rigorous standards for shopping ethically were no longer worth it.

My Ethical Rule of 3

I came up with something I called the Rule of 3. First, I established eight criteria I look for when shopping, including good labor standards, sustainability, accessibility, and quality (see the full list below). Then, I committed to make sure that anything I bought met at least three of those criteria.

At first, I didn’t notice a big impact in my shopping habits. I was still stuck in a cycle of trying to select from a few popular “ethical” brands. Or, I was irresponsibly trying out fast fashion brands I had sworn off years before.

But now that I’m more than a year in and back to an in-person school and job context, I have really noticed a positive difference.

How the Rule of 3 Improved My Shopping

It turns out, when I let go of some of the rigid standards for shopping, my overall habits actually improved.

I started buying exclusively Madewell Curvy jeans. Even though it turns out that many of their denim styles are fair trade certified (affiliate link), I never would have known that if I hadn’t allowed myself to make a “conventional brand” purchase. Once I found jeans that actually suited me, I was able to cut down on purchases in that category.

Then, instead of buying and returning tops from a variety of brands that I deemed “ethical,” I purchased a couple t-shirts from Target in a style I really preferred. When it came to workwear, I waited until I was in my summer job context and then shopped at local thrift stores. These are still some of the best purchases I have made in recent years.

When I needed new shoes, I thought about it in terms of comfort and ideal style instead of scrolling through “approved” brands. I am more satisfied with my shoes overall – and I was still able to purchase many things secondhand.

women removing clothes from the chest = How To Shop Sustainably Without Really Trying
Photo by cottonbro on

Surprisingly, by allowing myself to online-shop for things I actually liked instead of things I thought I had to like, I actually fell back in love with ebay.

I would find what I wanted at a conventional store and then hunt for it secondhand. This actually increased the number of secondhand purchases I was making, which is vastly more sustainable than buying new.

Even though I still consume too much (at least by my own standards), I have a much better sense of my personal style and what makes me feel my best. I have also cut down on total consumption.

Progress, Not Perfection

There is no perfect way to care about the things that matter. And you’ll never transform the world by consuming more. In the midst of the pandemic, that became very clear.

My preoccupation with being the perfect consumer was taking up so much mental space. It was distracting me from the work in front of me. And it was actually making it harder to truly shop sustainably.

I was caught in a cycle of overconsumption because the ethical and sustainable items I bought didn’t suit me, or didn’t hold up. In moments of frustration, I would still make less ethical purchases to try to compensate for my disappointment.

When I admitted that I couldn’t manage it, I actually got better at managing it.

Today, I have a better idea of what will work, what I like, and what will truly make a difference. In most cases, that means buying the thing that actually suits my needs, even if it doesn’t tick all of my ethical criteria.

Maybe the title of this post is a bit disingenuous. Shopping according to your values does take energy. It takes thoughtfulness and time. But it doesn’t have to be all-consuming, because there’s no such thing as perfection.

When I switched gears and started shopping for what I really wanted, needed, and liked, I became more satisfied with my wardrobe, turned more often to secondhand options, and bought less overall.

And those are definitely ways to shop more sustainably. Now that I’m honest about that, it’s not hard at all.

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Leah Wise

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.

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  1. I’ve been in a very similar situation (hyper-fixation on “is this ethical?” along with body changes, etc.) and found this to be very true. It’s not that I think my personal style is more important than pressing social/environmental issues or that I want to give myself a pass to buy whatever, whenever, wherever…but I’ve stopped pretending that “perfection” is possible. I think that buying ethical/sustainable whenever possible is a worthy goal, but I realized how much space consumerism was taking up in my brain. Is that really any better just because the consumption is “ethical”? Like, I really spent SO much time looking at ethical brands and following ethical influencers to learn about new brands and buying the most ethical version of whatever…and next to NO time volunteering, or contacting my representatives, or engaging with my community about the issues. I think about it now and for a long time, I’ve been engaging with the fantasy that the only thing I need to do, to do my part, is buy stuff. That’s really sad.

    1. That makes me think about how shopping “ethically” or sustainably can often obscure shopping addiction. I have fixated on clothing since I was a kid, so it was natural to fixate on buying “the best” or most perfect clothing. But the problematic, obsessive tendency was still there and it wasn’t good for me.

  2. Julie Moorhouse

    Thanks, love this and so true, shopping sustainably is hard, even for those who write about it! I’m a huge fan of second-hand, and currently quite heavily pregnant (yes, an excuse to buy more clothes because otherwise I really don’t need any), I’ve bought all of my maternity clothes second hand. And immediately resold the ones I didn’t like! It makes me feel better that I can sell all of this stuff again when the baby arrives! I love your checklist idea 🙂

    1. Thanks! Body changes make buying clothes so annoying, but it’s easier to deal with when you can buy and resell secondhand.

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