Is Sustainable Fashion Unfashionable?

flat lay of cream sweater on wood table with coffee cup, scissors, and journal - Is Sustainable Fashion Unfashionable?

Is Sustainable Fashion Unfashionable?

A few months ago, a popular blog reached out asking if I’d like to be featured. Of course, I immediately said yes. While the photoshoot and interview haven’t happened yet, I have been anxiously anticipating the post.

But one big question has been on my mind: am I fashionable enough to be featured?

Sustainable Fashion and Compromise

You see, when I first started talking about ethical and sustainable fashion I was insistent that pursuing thoughtful consumption wouldn’t require compromise.

At that point in my journey, I really didn’t want to face the fact that shopping in a sustainable manner might mean confronting my shopping habit. I was content to believe big corporations’ Corporate Social Responsibility statements. And I didn’t really buy the idea of slowing down my consumption.

Being seen as fashionable and knowing the trends were important values for me. They had become part of my identity as an awkward and quiet teen. I carried that badge of honor into adulthood. If nothing else, I could at least be the stylish one.

But to be “stylish” in our trend-driven culture often means buying a lot. You have to make sure you’re always one step ahead of whatever is coming “in.”

So I bought and I bought.

Even as a thrift shop manager, my breakneck consumption continued. In fact, it was even easier than before. I had endless access to cheap secondhand goods and an excuse to buy. After all, I was supporting the business. And what’s the problem with buying a little too much if it’s all secondhand anyway?


Here’s the problem: every time I justified buying just one more thing, I allowed that desire – that hunger – for more to take deeper root. I had a million good reasons to keep buying. And that kept me focused on consumption as the primary way to navigate and create my identity.

And then the pandemic hit. I had nowhere to be and no one to see. The supply chain was in shambles, so it was hard to buy much of anything anyway. At the same time, I lost access to my other big hobby: singing. All the choirs shut down. I felt like I was losing myself.

There was a void. I remember having this huge desire to buy, but no real reason to. So I spent hours looking up home decor and imagining new ways to style my apartment.

That hunger for shopping continued, even when the life-and-death reality of the pandemic permeated everything.

When things started opening up again, I felt adrift. Who was I without new clothes? How was I going to present myself to the world?

To add another layer of complication, I entered a completely new line of work with different clothing expectations. And then I got that email, asking “do you want to be featured?”

Habits and Identity

Of course. But which “me” is going to be featured? I’m not the “fashion person” I used to be. I have a lot less clothing passing through my closet.

But I have something intangible that I’ve been hoping to gain all along. I have the good sense to realize that the hunger for new and better is antithetical to my ideals. In losing some of my will to cultivate and feed it, I have gotten the chance to see myself as more than a fashion person.

I may not be as fashionable as I once was. This might very well be a reality of advocating for sustainability in the fashion industry. Because sustainable fashion isn’t just about what brands you buy, it’s about refusing consumer culture. Ultimately, it requires reducing consumption on a global scale.

But I think I am starting to get a better sense of who I am.

I can like clothes without becoming what I wear. I can pursue a whole life. I can get back in touch with my childhood interests and passions. I can remember that style is about more than fast fashion and overconsumption.

And, when I shop, I can do it with a playfulness and intuition I had lost when shopping was about pleasing other people. Maybe my clothes aren’t perfectly flattering, but they’re mine. And I make my choices with a decade of trial and error behind me.

Changing the Question

Finally, finally, all of this work has started to become habit.

Now, when I look at what I’m wearing, I see 90% secondhand clothes that were thoughtfully purchased. And I see things that fit correctly and hold up. Everything works, even if imperfectly.

And who I am works, too, even if imperfectly.

Maybe sustainable fashion isn’t fashionable in the way our shopping-obsessed culture defines it. But if fashion is about connection, utility, and true individuality, then I think it wins.

It all comes down to this: asking if sustainable fashion is unfashionable is the wrong question.

The question is: are we willing to acknowledge that fashion can’t be our highest value?

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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