Ethical Fashion Q&A

When I lived in L.A., days, I worked as a fashion stylist and production assistant for a series of high-end sample sales. We’d phone our carefully-culled list of independent designers and rescue their leftover garments from end-of-season demise, then rent out a boutique hotel ballroom to display the gathered merchandise over the course of an evening. The original pop-up shop, you could call it, or something of the sort.

Every year, eight times a year, I’d swing open the doors and watch women trample women to score a silk blouse they saw at Saks just a month ago, now at 70% off.

Every year, eight times a year, I’d survey the aftermath of an empty room and stuff the excess, unsold merchandise into oversized trash bags, deliver them to Goodwill.

Every year, eight times a year, I’d feel a bit ill.

What I’m saying is this: ethical fashion, for me, has less to do with capsule wardrobes and minimalist sack dresses and more to do with establishing habits worth establishing. It’s not about shopping ethically, it’s about ethically shopping. Thinking about what you’re purchasing, thinking about why. Peeling back the curtain of the dressing room and peering at an industry that has lost the ability to sustain itself.

Wondering if you can begin to opt out, slowly.

ethical fashion where to start 3

I do want to say one thing first, and that one thing is that I’m a most unlikely candidate for this discussion. As long as I have known myself, I have been on the hunt for the perfect outfit for my every whim. My childhood was spent trying on clothing as if they were costumes, trying on personalities as if they were the same. A look for every mood, equal parts Doc Martens and tutus, sometimes both at once.

I have scored the best dressed vote in every friend circle I’ve landed, and I still wear this badge with honor. Getting dressed is a creative revolution every single morning, for every one of us. How could that be anything but lovely?

And so: when clothing lost its luster, or moreso, when the industry of clothing had lost its luster, I fought hard to unlearn what I’d learned: that our rivers are turning blue, and it is entirely the fault of human beings.

My transition to a more mindful wardrobe has been a slow one, evolving much over the past 15 years. There have been seasons of rigid rules for myself, seasons of thoughtless indulgence. Like all good things, my progress has been anything but linear.

And yet, it’s been made. Progress, that is. Quite a lot of it, so much so that I can’t even remember the last time I’ve thrown a Target top into my cart (nor the good-smelling candle, nor that darling tea towel).

Loosening fashion’s hold has allowed me to shake free from other areas of consumption, as well. Gone is my quest for the perfect home, for a curated collection of trendy tchotchkes, for much of anything at all.

Ethical fashion has taught me to look at what I have, to use what I own, to want what I’ve already got. Resourcefulness, you might call it.

Gratitude, you might also.

ethical fashion where to start 3

Still, I’ve received a slew of questions over the years, all worth addressing in one spot or another. If you’re curious about ethical shopping, here’s just one woman’s imperfect perspective on the subject:

Q: What “counts” as ethical shopping?

A: I’d argue that only you can define this. Is it environmental protection you’re passionate about? Perhaps purchasing from a brand committed to zero-waste shipping is an ideal fit for you. Maybe fair wages are most important in your book? Check your favorite brand’s transparency practices. (Of note: ABLE just launched a really inspired movement in this vein; worth a peek.) Is it of utmost importance that you shop local? Do so.

We can, indeed, vote with our dollars, but we must vote wisely and boldly to support our truest values. The reality is this: there is no perfect brand or business. No perfect supply chain. The ethically-made bag arriving at your doorstop might be packaged in toxic plastic. A linen dress hand-dyed from sustainably-sourced, nontoxic herbs might be under-paying their suppliers.

And so, like much, we do our best. We do our research. We pay attention, we ask questions. My general rule of thumb is to know as much about the people who I’m purchasing from whenever possible (and I don’t mean the local Target clerk).

Message the Etsy seller with your questions. Get friendly with your local tailor. Read About pages, interviews, profiles. Find a few brands you trust and offer your loyalty. My two main go-tos are here and here; I’ve traveled internationally with both founders and trust their hearts implicitly. Also, for made-in-the-USA: here.

Yes, this will limit your options considerably. (For the record, I’ve never found limits to be a bad thing.)

Q: I hear what you’re saying. But I can’t afford slow fashion.

A: I think you can. Not at your current rate of consumption, perhaps, and not if you’re shopping for sport. Slow fashion, for me, has meant just that: slowing the fashion. Shopping from need and not want. Consuming out of necessity, not boredom. Finding the upside in owning fewer things, unlocking the creativity in boundaries.

Wearing the same outfit to nearly every speaking engagement, the same dress to church, the same linen romper to the playground week after week after week. (After week.)

If budget is of your utmost concern, start at the local thrift store and head to your tailor. By re-using something that already exists and making it yours, you’ve completely opted out of the fast fashion cycle. You’ve voted against the $18 tee at the mall.

More importantly, you’ve changed a habit.

Yes, it is sometimes as simple as that.

ethical fashion where to start 3

Q: All I see from the slow-fashion movement are white women in neutral caftans posing with plants. Where’s the diversity? Any unique perspectives you can recommend?

A: Favorite question alert! I love Melodie for her bold, unique wardrobe heavily culled from thrift stores. And I’m forever curious about what Beth puts together after her Goodwill treks. Also of note: Morgan’s work here.

For plus-size options, Elizabeth Suzann, Eileen Fisher and HDH all offer lovely basics. (And reader Marilyn loves Universal Standard.)
For color meets pattern, I’d peek at Kowtow, Mister Zimi and People Tree.
For trend-driven, youthful finds, Reformation always gets it right.
For budget finds, Nellie Taft offers only made-in-the-USA threads, and The Flourish Market totes a bigger mission.

Way (way) more here.

Q: I’m ready to take steps toward a more ethical closet. Where do I start?

A: I will tell you where not to start: don’t incorporate slow fashion without first addressing your fast fashion mindset.

The most ethical closet is the one you’ve already got. Meaning, if you wear what you have and work with what you own, you’re avoiding new purchases altogether. You’re avoiding 4 trash bags to Goodwill. You’re avoiding CO2 emissions, new contributions to unfair labor practices, and most importantly: you’re ceasing consumption.

Start with your own closet. Take stock of what you have and what you truly need. Get in the habit of reaching into your own wardrobe for a creative solution, rather than the nearest rack. If you must, put on your blinders. Avoid catalogs, fashion magazines, blogs or Instagram accounts that encourage shopping for sport. Reconsider the belief that you need a new dress for that fall wedding, that your perfectly useful denim is in need of an upgrade. Try a capsule wardrobe and practice the fine art of limitations.

Find the holes in your own wardrobe, if they’re there (they’re probably not, if we’re honest), and begin the research to fill that void ethically, wisely and well within your budget. Small steps, small steps, small steps.

Here’s the thing: you are not going to be perfect at this. You’ll make U-turns, exceptions. You’ll find yourself 28 hours away from home with luggage that has gone missing, and you’ll make a trip to Target in lieu of nudity.

But you know what else? You will make progress, and lots of it. You will look in the mirror and smile at the girl who used to own 4 pairs of Doc Martens, marvel at how far she’s come.

(With or without the tutus.)

ethical fashion where to start 3

More questions? Comment below!

  • Along these same lines, one of my best friends made an interesting comment to me recently—she said, “If we’d all put our money where our priorities are, we could solve the fashion industry crisis.”
    Meaning, I love great, well-made shoes. So while I may spend $100-$200 on a pair of well-made, comfortable shoes, someone else may value luxurious garments—they should invest in those! If they buy more inexpensive shoes, so be it. And on and on…
    I do get that this isn’t *exactly what you’re saying above, and in no way am I making an argument for cheaply-made ANYthing. However, as a “step one,” it seems like if we AT LEAST focused on this first little concept, it certainly wouldn’t hurt!
    Love your book, your IG, and your blog!
    @erinplainandsimple :)

  • Yes! Yes! Yes!
    My favorite brand (the one that fits me oh so well) I know is a big river polluter… ahhhh so sad.
    What about for kids? And for men? I feel that a lot of times I find myself shopping for the whole family in one spot. Any suggestions?

  • Yes! As a former fashion stylist the “sample sale” was a way for fellow fashionistas to indulge! But now so few of us actually work in the industry anymore and many of us feel like we were robbed of our livelihoods and not sure who is actually to blame! This is where I have been trying to go for years now but I will admit it is a very hard habit to break. Here is to having and enjoying what I already have and to slowing down the “want” and “need” list, and asking myself some really tough questions before I buy! Thank you for addressing this issue! Love you Erin!

  • Your links for budget finds have some great, affordable items. My problem is shoes. I wear an 8.5 slim and have trouble just finding something that fits.

  • Hi, Erin! I love this post, and have been trying to ditch fast fashion for our family for awhile. While I’m personally making progress, I’d love to know if you have any advice for dealing with grandparents who love to spoil their grandkids with a constant stream of new clothes. Although we’ve asked them not to do this, they maintain that it’s their right to give the kids whatever they want. I appreciate that gift-giving is a way they show they care, but my kids’ closets are overflowing with more clothes than they could ever need. Do you have any suggestions for how to approach this conversation? Thank you!

    • Hi Katie! I’m blessed to live with one set of grandparents who value experience > things, and another who seems to keep this kind of thing at a minimum (but not gone entirely, as evidenced by Bee’s current wardrobe fave: hi-top Shopkins sneakers). I think this is an area I haven’t fully reconciled yet, because I see both sides. On one hand, I would never want to dictate how someone else shows love to another. On the other hand, a constant stream of new clothes can be cumbersome to manage.

      My rule is simple: if they’re using it, it can stay. If an item is getting good use and is in regular rotation and is beloved, that’s the best way to honor the hands that made the item. Perhaps that’s a good place to start. If you find that the kids can’t possibly wear everything because there’s too much, that’s worth another conversation with their grandparents. Maybe a simple: “Charlie’s obsessed with the dinosaur shirt you gave him, so much so that he doesn’t want to wear anything else! We plan to cull his closet for a big donation, but wanted to check with you first to see if you want any of your clothing back to pass along to another kid.” (I suppose the latter only makes sense if there’s another grandkid in the mix, or a close family friend with kids?) But I think the issue is simply that, unless you’re faced with it daily, it’s easy to become unaware of how much there truly is. It’s human nature – we’re at the grocery and think we need another jar of almond butter only to come home and realize we have 3 in the pantry already. I’m guessing if they saw kid’s closets and drawers overflowing, the thought would register that they truly have too much. Maybe invite a grandparent over, if closeby, to play with the kids so you can tackle their outgrown seasonal clothing and make space for donations? That way, they’ll get front row seats to just how much there is, and they might think twice before adding to the pile.

      I hope this is helpful! I love how thoughtful your comment was and how much you appreciate such caring grandparents!

      p.s. If your grandparents are closeby and you do see them often, consider a request that new additions (toys, books, clothing from grandparents’) stay at the grandparents’ house? This way, it’s a treat to the kids and the grandparents can watch them enjoy the items firsthand!

  • this is so great erin. I love and agree with the point that it’s about slowing US, not just the clothes.

  • As always, I adore this. I have never felt better about myself, and my life, as I have since discovering gratitude for what is already mine. It started in the closet, and has spread its warmth throughout all the nooks and crannies I claim to be my own. Shopping used to be the hobby, now curating what I already have is. Such a thrill to reassess each piece with fresh ever-evolving eyes. Yup, I drank the Kool-aid. So glad I did.

  • Thank you so much for writing this! I had asked you to in a comment a few weeks ago and this is exactly what I was hoping for. You’re so right that the answer is slowing your fashion. I need to just change my mindset. I hardly ever shop at places like forever 21 or target any more and I think I’ve been trying to find a replacement. But really, I probably just need to figure out what my true clothing needs are and address those in the best way I know how.

  • Great article. I’d recommend Universal Standard for high-quality, fashionable, made in the USA, women-owned, size 6-32 fashion. It’s changed my life.

  • This post came at just the right time for me. I have made a commitment to only buy what I need to replace-as in it’s worn out. However, it’s so easy to get sucked into those end of season sales. I needed to remind myself that a white tank will most surely be available next May and the one I have on today will get me through these last months of summer. Thank you for your inspirational words!

  • I love this! I’m looking for a great ethically made, goes with everything cardigan:). Any suggestions?

  • Love your article and commitment. Wonderful food for thought and right up my line. Thank you for boldly sharing. I needed that!

  • Thank you for writing this. Currently I am in that lovely post partum phase where nothing fits and my body looks different everyday. I am struggling so much on spending money (and time! and shelf space!) on clothes for what is a transitional period in my life. As much as possible, I am trying to rely on things I already have. Oddly enough, some of the most frequently worn items are from Target. I am big believer of using what you have. I hope to eventually move to buying clothes that are ethically and sustainable made as well.

  • Where is your dress from in the second photo? I’ve noticed you wear this in a few posts and have always loved it. Also, thank-you for all the links and the research you’ve done behind this. It is hard to sift through all the noise and know what brands out there trully have ethical practicies.

  • As usual a great article to read!
    My problem is sizing. I fit children’s 10-12 sizes and find there are very little slow fashion brands offering xxs in women’s clothes. Same in the shoe department, have a hard time finding size 5 shoes that fits my very bone-y feet. So for now, my approach has been to limit the number of article I purchase and try not to purchase any from the big “fast fashion brands”. Angain, thanks for all the links! Will come back to this post to do more research :)

  • Namaste from India!!
    I’ve always loved Erin’s post, but this one really resonates with me. I am a sustainability practitioner, I teach fashion(also sustainability within fashion practices) and try hard to live a slow life in this crazy fast city!(New Delhi). I read this post from the other side where we are a manufacturing country- sometimes dealing with fare wage issues, sometimes too much left over scraps of fabric(enough to fill landfills) and sometimes seeing our rivers filled with filth, dyes and chemicals. So yes it is very important to be a mindful shopper, and an aware consumer/customer. Read up about your brands as Erin mentioned- question them and ask them ‘who made my clothes’. Make them accountable for how they manufacture and what they use along the way- thats the only way to move ahead and reverse(if it is possible?!) the damage already done!
    Erin posted this a on her Pinterest a while back, but I’ll do it again- a link to an organic, non toxic, baby swaddle/baby blanket etsy shop that I started when my daughter was born- I started it so I could keep her and other children way from chemicals as much as possible. Do look through if you’re looking for baby stuff or need any gifting!

  • Good morning Erin. As I read through your post and the comments, another layer of this perspective is the laundry. Yes, I partake in fast fashion, vintage shopping, consignment spaces, etc. But when I find something I like, even if it is from Target, because I am obsessed with doing laundry, it will last for years. Over the past decade or so, I have ruthlessly culled my closet, creating a uniform of sorts with pops of color sprinkled in. There are items that I have had for 15 to 20 years that I still wear because they were cared for. In a family of six, this has trickled down to everyone else. Usually the only time a piece of clothing leaves a drawer or a closet, it is because it fell apart or someone outgrew it. If it is good condition, it gets donated. Thank you so much for this wonderful content. It gave me a lot to think about.

  • Thanks for your thoughtful words. I feel the need for more of this in my life, too. Can you help by sharing a list of a few retailers or brands that carry Petite-sized clothing (other than Eileen Fisher)? Thank you so much for what you’re doing to make our world a better place! ❤️

  • Would love to talk to you personally about your job and how you got to where you are now. Also your willinglness to explore your expertise in mentoring persons like myself who are fond of your work.

Comments are closed.