I want to put this out there first because when I decided to stop buying fast fashion, I was not making much money and was working in Tunisia, where fast fashion brands are just starting to set up shop in the country and sustainability is not much of a thing.
So based on my experience of switching from consumerism to conscious shopping, here are a few tips for you.
1. Know what you need
First things first, you need to know what is your lifestyle, your style and know what items you need to complete your wardrobe appropriately. I’m using the word “need” a bit loosely here. I’m not going to advise you to build a capsule wardrobe of 20 items that you can switch around all season, if that’s not your thing.
Notice I’m also talking about completing your wadrobe, not revamping it. As much as I get the idea of getting rid of everything, start from scratch and only buy ethical clothing, you may have other priorities far as your budget is concerned. So instead I’m advising you to take a look at your closet. What do you own? Does it fit? Does it need repairs? Does it meet your needs?
For instance, I work in an office and although the humanitarian world is pretty casual (I would get away with wearing jeans to a meeting at the Ministry of Social Affairs), my style is not. I like high waisted pants, fitted blazers, mid-length pencil or pleated skirts, and a-line dresses. I love wearing heels. I do yoga, but other than that I am not particularly sporty. I live in the Middle East, but it gets chilly in the winter and my house is poorly insulated. Most importantly, the clothes I wear are always colorful: yellow, red and cobalt blue are staples of my wardrobe. I love everything that shines. So for me the idea of having a minimalist monochromatic wardrobe is challenging and slightly distressing.
My point here is know yourself first. If you go into this head first, following the advice of bloggers on adopting a minimalist approach, getting rid of everything you own, wearing only clothes that meet your most basic needs, you may find yourself deprived and end up rejecting the whole concept.
As far as I’m concerned, given my style and my lifestyle, I know exactly what are the items that I need and don’t already have: a classic black blazer, a pair of mid or high-heeled knee-high boots, a pair of flats and a warm wool cardigan. Since I’m clear on this, I can have a targeted approach to what I shop for and avoid emotional purchases.
2. Know your budget
I feel like we don’t talk enough about the fact that ethical fashion is still elitist and fast fashion exists for a reason: most people can’t spend a lot of money on clothing. I didn’t grow up in a wealthy family: as a child, buying new clothes was a mostly pragmatic affair; as a teenager, I refused to go “window shopping” at the mall: I didn’t want to want anything; as a student, I never had more than 20 bucks to spend on any clothing item. In fact until 2 years ago, I thought Zara was a luxury brand and I would never even go in an H&M store unless it was sales season.
I remember my roommate in college telling me she’d rather spend $300 on a pair of solid boots and have a cobbler fix them for $20 every year, than buy something cheap. She was obviously right, but at the time I was mind-boggled. I’d never had 300 bucks to spare in the first place.
At the same time, I already knew my style so everything I bought fit that esthetic and since I love, love, love my clothes, I always took care of them. I know in the ethical fashion world, we love to talk about how fast fashion clothes are only ever good for a season. I personally wear the same clothes I bought 5 years ago and they’re still banging.
A lot of ethical fashion brands can be considered to fit in the “affordable luxury” category. If you can afford items that average a 200 to 500 dollars price point, that’s awesome, buying ethical is not going to be a challenge! But if like me, you happen to always be a bit strapped on cash, or have long-term projects you need to save up for, stick around as we figure it out together!
So take the time to figure out your budget. How much money can you spend in a pair of shoes, a t-shirt, a coat, a handbag, a blouse or a dress? I make more money than I ever have but I will keep applying the same principles to what I buy that I always have. If I’m spending $150 dollars on a blouse, I expect that the fabric is good quality (aka not polyester), that it fits well, that it is not generic, and at the same time, that it is timeless.
The good thing about ethical fashion is that if you are committed to making smarter purchase decisions, you can decide to invest the money you save from emotional purchases on an item that really complements your wardrobe. On my end, the only item I’ve bought since March is a polka-dot vintage dress I’m going to take apart and turn into separates. So the money I would have spent on clothes in 6 months – let’s say about $360, I can invest in a classic vintage blazer from YSL, Stella McCartney or Balmain, or buy new from an ethical fashion retailer like Reformation or Valentine Gauthier.
3. Know what matters most to you
Keywords here are “most” and “you.”
The fast fashion industry has many travesties: from human rights abuse, to animal rights abuse, to water and air pollution, to the use of toxic chemicals, not to mention racism, sexism and classism. As a result, buying ethical or sustainable implies a lot of different processes and standards used to mitigate the impact of production, distribution and disposal of clothes.
I want to insist on this: ethical fashion does not have a set definition or set standards and we don’t all have the same sensibilities. And that’s okay! So it’s important that you figure out what matters most to you. Is it animal rights? Would you wear vegan leather even if it were polyester? Or would you rather wear ethically-made leather than polyester? Would you rather wear organically made clothes, even if they’re H&M (aka likely made in sweatshops), or would you rather buy fair-trade items even if they’re not organic fabrics? Do you need your clothes to be made locally, so the environmental impact of shipping is lessened? Do you need them to benefit disenfranchised communities around the world? Do you need the textiles to be organic? Handmade? Dyed sustainably?
It is possible to find brands that make their own textiles, use organic or dry dyes, pay their employees fair wages, contribute to the local economy of underprivileged regions or communities and reduce the amount of waste they cause. But it’s likely you will mostly find brands that focus on a few of these aspects. This is especially true if you don’t have a large budget to spend on any one item. And in any case not all brands provide this level of detail on their production cycle, so you will have to make choices.
Find out what matters most to you, why you want to make this commitment in the first place, and then explore those options first. In my case, I never want to buy polyester again, unless it’s an accessory made from recycled plastic that does not need washing (aka a handbag or shoes) and given that I’m a humanitarian worker, I’d rather be able to live by the principle of “do no harm” and not support human exploitation through my purchases. So my priority when I shop is to find items that are made from organic material and fairly-paid workers.
4. Educate yourself
Continue to learn about conscious living! Read blogs, watch documentaries, follow ethical fashion brands on Instagram. Even better, get to know people committed to ethical and sustainable living in your community, find your local ethical brands, find out where are the local thrift shops. Talk about it with your friends, chances are they know other people who share your values and commitments. It makes it much easier to stay the course, when you have people around who support you.
5. Replace emotional shopping by meaningful action taking
Some say put your money where your mouth is, I say put your time where your ethics are. We all get overwhelmed sometimes and may tend to try to make ourselves feel better by buying something we don’t need all that much.
I am SO guilty of that, so much of the time. But since the beginning of the year, I have seriously curbed my fashion spending habits. In fact, I only bought 4 items since the beginning of the year, including a vintage dress and an ethically made winter/mountain coat. Instead of making emotional purchases – and there is so much temptation – I take a beat and think of all the places where my time, money and energy would be better placed.
It can be as straightforward as your savings account, but also NGOs providing humanitarian or development aid (I don’t work for them, but Doctors Without Borders and Syria Charity are my go-to), ethical crowdfunding projects – in fact, sometimes you can find ethical brands launching on crowdfunding platforms, like Les Récupérables – or volunteering with local organizations. The emotional benefit you get from doing something meaningful is much higher than that of buying a skirt at Zara, no matter how hot you’ll look in it! Again, I’m speaking from personal experience!
6. Chill out!
This is only applicable to you if you’re the kind of person who has panic attacks after watching the news – and even if you’re not, read on!
Take it a step at a time. Although at first it may seem daunting to think of all the ways that production, distribution and consumption patterns need to be broken before the industry stops having such a harmful impact on people and on the environment. But don’t let it discourage you from believing in the impact you’re having every time you make a smart, conscious, ethical, sustainable purchase. With this many brands out there, your impact is very tangible: otherwise fragile communities are making an income, less water is polluted, less energy is consumed, less waste produced. It may not seem like much in comparison to the energy, water, waste, animals and people we can’t save yet, but it means everything to those we can help!
7. Know where to shop
Now we’re getting to the good part. The shopping part. I have developed a starter kit with some my favorite ethical brands. I tried to include a mix of brands from around the globe, but feel free to send me any reference you have either in the comment section or by email, I’ll include them in a future post!