When Vivienne Westwood declared, "Buy less, choose well, make it last," the grande dame of British fashion had a point. Our fixation with fast fashion comes at a cost - the very brands that entice us with low prices are also responsible for forced child labor, devastating environmental practices, and sweatshop conditions. When a garment factory collapsed in Bangladesh in 2013, killing more than 1,100 factory workers, it was a shocking reminder of the human price paid for our low prices. Want to become a more conscious shopper? Here are six easy ways to incorporate ethics into your everyday habits.
- Do your research
Wouldn't it be nice if clothes came with the warning "Made using child labor"? Sadly, that's not how it works. Big brands prefer you to know as little as possible about their production practices, distracting consumers instead with sparkly advertising campaigns and seriously I-can't-believe-how-cheap-that-is prices.
Because the responsibility to wield spending power ethically lies with the consumer, it's time to get educated. First, use your common sense. If you're buying a t-shirt for $10, it was made at the expense of someone else. There is no way around it – those appealingly cheap prices are a surefire sign that exploitation has been ingrained into the manufacturing process. Second, start googling. Over the last decade, many major brands have been embroiled in high-profile sweatshop scandals that revealed forced child labor, wages well below the poverty line, and female workers dealing with routine sexual harassment. If none of this sits well with you, click through to see which clothing brands place principled practices at the heart of their business.
- Support local brands
Before American Apparel dissolved in a sea of sexual harassment lawsuits, the brand proudly flew the made-in-America flag. While it may no longer exist, a host of equally stylish labels continue to advocate for homegrown production practices. From the enduring popularity of the handcrafted Red Wing Heritage boots to the poppy colors of LA-based brand FairEnds, the wide range of American-made brands means even the most demanding sartorialists will find one they like. Although the prices tend to be higher, they come with the knowledge that you're supporting American industry.
- Ditch throwaway fashion buys
Fast fashion brands seem like the dream: cheap, trendy, and capable of churning out haute couture looks overnight. But according to Greenpeace, fast fashion is "drowning" the world in toxic chemicals, water wastage, and landfills filled to the brim with discarded clothing. A single t-shirt requires 2,700 liters of water, says Greenpeace, the same amount of water that an average person would drink over 900 days. Now multiply that figure by billions and you're looking at catastrophic environmental damage.
Our obsession with fast fashion - coupled with an insatiable shopping appetite - is a new phenomenon. By 2007, Americans were buying 67 items of clothing every year - twice as much as they were buying 20 years prior. Worse still, the average American throws away 63 pounds of clothing a year. Low-quality, low-cost items fall apart quicker, which means they'll end up in at landfill sooner - not to mention the unethical production methods that keep their costs low in the first place.
To wean yourself off fast fashion cravings, start by questioning your impulse buys. Do you really need that new dress? Often, you'll find that you don't - and, with time, saying no gets easier. An added bonus is that you'll end up with a enviable wardrobe full of thoughtfully selected quality pieces. You may end up owning less, but you'll get a lot more from what you do buy.
- Invest in quality pieces
Now that you're impulse-buying less, you'll be pleasantly surprised by the extra cash in your bank account each month. And, when you do need a new item, you'll be better equipped to splurge on a quality piece that will earn its keep over the years.
When I was 23 years old, I spent a small fortune on an army-green, wool-cashmere-blend Winter coat that I most certainly could not afford. Six years later, it's been worn to death and yet is still in beautiful condition. It's always worth applying a cost-per-wear strategy to items in your wardrobe: if you divide the total cost of the item by the number of days that you'll wear it, an eye-watering price tag can suddenly feel a lot more manageable. While you should avoid this strategy on particularly trend-led pieces and seasonal It bags, apply it to classic pieces: leather shoes and bags and Winter coats that won't date through the years.
- Buy organic
When it comes to fabrics, natural fibers like cotton, bamboo, and hemp are the best bet. However, there is cotton and then there is organic cotton. Aim to buy the latter, not only because organic materials are better for your skin but because it means that farmers aren't being exposed to dangerous pesticides and agricultural chemicals aren't polluting our water sources. Look out for organic cotton labels on your clothing - this list of organic cotton brands is a helpful resource.
- Reuse, recycle, restore
Channel the eclectic styles of vintage-obsessed fashion mavericks like Kate Moss, Alexa Chung, and Kate Bosworth safe in the knowledge that your environmental credentials are on point too. The antithesis of fast fashion, second-hand clothes have endured the wear and tear of time - not to mention the whimsical turns of fashion - to remain coveted. Better yet, they don't place strain on the environment or endorse sweatshop conditions the way new clothes from high street brands do.
If you've got a fashion itch that you need to scratch, stop by your local thrift store or Salvation Army to peruse the racks. Arranging clothes swaps with friends is another way to keep your wardrobe injected with "new" items that have low impact.