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 even 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 is shopping sustainably?
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. It’s also about not shopping at all. Go on, throw off the chains of materialism, just a little.
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. That’s a no from us. 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, there are actually ways to shop sustainably beyond that. There’s a pervasive perception that shopping sustainably is always more expensive, but it’s simply not true. According to sustainable fashion writer Aja Barber, “that assumption is steeped in lies and fast fashion wants you to believe that so that we feel that we are totally dependent on them. We are not.”
Barber explained, “Last year I did a comparison of fast fashion clothing items to ethical and sustainable brands. For several pieces, the price tag was nearly identical. In one case the ethical piece was CHEAPER than the high street option. But if there is a price difference it’s usually between £5-10. You can buy very expensive ethical and sustainable clothing but with the options out there, you absolutely don’t have to.”
“Also, if it works for you, second hand is so inexpensive in comparison to new clothes, she added. “Requires more time and energy. Fewer options for big bodies, but it’s not impossible and doing it online offers more options for everyone.”
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
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 that 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 brand’s 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 secondhand?
Lead image via Stolen Inspiration.