When I lived in L.A., pre-HGTV.com 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.
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.
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.
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.)
More questions? Comment below!