Sustainable Shopping: What It Actually Means And How To Start

We’re gonna preface this article with a general statement: there is no such thing as ethical consumption under late-stage capitalism. 

Sweet, now that’s out of the way: what the fuck is shopping sustainably? How can we make better choices so that our fashion purchases contribute less to the depletion of natural resources and human suffering on the planet? All while looking cute?

What even is sustainable shopping?

Generally speaking, shopping sustainably is about minimising the negative environmental and social impact of your purchases. From clothing to food to tech—even experiences like travel can be an opportunity to shop more sustainably. 

In the world of fashion, sustainable shopping is a pretty complex issue: not only is there no universal certification body or easy way to check a brand’s supply chain (that is, the way their products are made and with what materials), but ‘sustainable’ can mean many different things to different people, especially when you roll ethics in as well. 

For example, charity shops are an A+ way of adding new things to your wardrobe without contributing to the consumption of new resources (the clothes are already there! Galaxy brain). However, some charities have a track record of anti-LGBTQI+ behaviour. Miss me with that shit. Others have pointed out the privilege there is in being able to choose to shop at thrift stores out of choice, not a necessity, and how it may contribute to “poaching” clothes from people of a lower-socioeconomic status.

Similarly, while you might feel better purchasing a bag made of vegan leather instead of animal leather, leather-alternatives like polyurethane often use toxic solvents in their production—not to mention the issues with how biodegradable they are. 

Basically: It’s all… so… complicated.

So, how do you shop sustainably?

Sustainable shopping begins with being more conscious about how we shop: do I really need it and could I find a less consumptive option?—and digging a little deeper into where the things we buy come from: where and how was this made and who made it? 

While it would be nice to only buy clothes from locally-owned, sustainably produced, slow fashion brands, an obvious problem is how exxy that would be. 

When you’re on a budget sometimes fast fashion is one of the only realistic options—and we acknowledge that! 

With all that in mind, here are a few things you can do right now to up your sustainability game. 

Change your mind

Our first tip, depending on who you are, might be the hardest or the easiest one: try to rewire your approach to shopping. It’s actually pretty recently that shopping moved from something humans did out of necessity to something we do for fun, for social relevance, as an expression of creativity. 

All of those are important: style and how we present ourselves is the first way we interface with the world. But it doesn’t need to come at the cost of the planet. Get inventive with styling things in different ways, make it a point to challenge yourself to wear everything you already own and learn to repair and maintain your clothes before immediately buying a replacement. 

Good style is something that cannot be bought.

Change your feed

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A life ago in a not-so-distant past, I was a tv producer who had piles of designer clothing. I flounced around in dresses and heels (not the trousers because designer trousers are always teeny tiny bullshit with the exception of Vivienne Westwood). Happy I was like a bumble bee, never even stopping to think about it. ⁣⁣⁣ ⁣⁣⁣ Anyway I diversified my Twitter and with that came a flood of new fb friends and many of my new friends were plus size. I got to be a fly on the wall for some pretty honest conversations from perspectives I had never considered … about what it feels like to not be able to flounce into a store, buy the dress you want and leave. I truly had NO IDEA … because that’s how privilege works folks! ⁣⁣⁣ ⁣⁣⁣ Today I find myself mostly in the plus size section and there’s many stores that I cannot walk into because they have literally nothing for me. But without entering conversations as a fly on the wall years ago (that’s right, shut your trap if you’re here to learn) I would have zero idea until now what plus size people went through in order to simply dress themselves. ⁣⁣⁣ ⁣⁣⁣ How can people claim to understand racism if they’re not listening to people of color?⁣⁣⁣ ⁣⁣⁣ How can people claim to understand poverty without listening to people who are experiencing poverty?⁣⁣⁣ ⁣⁣⁣ How do you claim to know what is and isn’t ableist without listening to disability activists?⁣⁣ ⁣⁣⁣ My point is, if the goal is to move your conversation forward than you’re going to have to do the hard work of listening a lot more. And truly listening. Want more people to be able to choose plant base diets (if they can) … listen and fight the food oppression that exist everywhere. ⁣⁣⁣ ⁣⁣⁣ I want to live in a world where everyone can afford clothing that doesn’t come with a side of oppression. So I constantly push independent designers to extend sizes for this reason. It’s not as simple as saying ⁣⁣⁣ “Well why can’t you people do this too?”⁣⁣⁣ ⁣⁣⁣ You want a better world? Do the work to tear down the systems which keeps folks from being able to make the same decisions you do. But it starts with shutting your mouth and listening to what folks need.

A post shared by Aja Barber (@ajabarber) on

Shopping sustainably means examining our habits, including mindlessly scrolling through fast fashion Instagrams, watching hours of haul videos and browsing because we’re bored. Unfollow Instagram feeds that you know prompt you to buy shit you otherwise wouldn’t and unsubscribe from promo emails from fast-fashion brands. Trust me, there’s always going to be another 20% off sale. 

Replace fast fashion-reliant content with YouTubers like thrifting queen Letitia Ku or DIY angel With Wendy for inspiration on how to achieve influencer-level looks and key trends more sustainably—and usually more creatively too. Journalist Aja Barber puts it perfectly in her IG caption above.

Know your brands

Knowledge is power and power is knowledge, you guys. While it’s nearly impossible to know if a brand is as sustainable as we hope (factories, not companies are the ones getting their third-party certifications and those third-party auditors may not always be acting with transparency—supply chains are v messy), we can still arm ourselves and research before making purchases to a degree. 

The Ethical Fashion Guide is a great starting resource which examines a few critical parts of a company’s supply chain and gives it a grade, A+ is bueno, F is… not. It’s also available as an app if you’re ever out and want to quickly check a brands creds.

For a jumping-off point, check out the ethical and sustainable fashion brands we think are making a pretty good effort.

Support your local charity shop and shop secondhand

According to Fast Company, 2015 saw the fashion industry churn out one hundred billion articles of clothing. Now, we are not experts, but that seems like a liiiiittle too much for a planet that’s only pushing eight billion people. 

Not only that, but most people aren’t wearing their clothes to the full extent of their life. Think about it, when was the last time you truly wore something to death?

The upside to this is that there’s a wealth of secondhand fashion available to us: from dedicated secondhand and curated vintage stores to charity and thrift shops. As the saying goes, what’s old is new again and there’s probably no better time than during this fever dream of ‘90s nostalgia we’re living in now to shop second hand. 

It keeps clothing out of landfills or being shipped overseas and doesn’t contribute to the production of new toxic or exploitative clothing. 

Plus, there’s no better feeling than saying, “thanks, it’s vintage!”

Support your local Depop gang

Don’t forget about online secondhand fashion! From eBay to Facebook Marketplace to Etsy to Depop to Instagram vintage stores, there are so many ways to buy secondhand clothes online if you prefer the comfort of shopping from the couch. 

If you’re looking for something specific, set up a saved search on eBay (or keep a note in your phone) and plug it into Depop, Carousell and eBay every now and then. I’ve found barely worn or new Girlfriend Collective and Everlane on Depop for about half their retail price doing this—do you get double points for scoring a sustainability focused-brand second hand?

Lead image via Stolen Inspiration.

Monisha is a writer with a background in publishing and digital media. A chronic Pisces, she’s into trying to be a better person and sparkling water.

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