Here’s a question: is it possible to be committed to social and environmental ideals and to love fashion? Let’s say that you’re in a doctoral program studying the impacts of poverty on the health of communities in developing countries. Does an extravagant pair of shoes put you at odds with your beliefs? Even worse, does it make you a hypocrite?
Enter multi-year sartorial identity crisis.
I became interested in social justice at a young age. I grew up in a quiet New England suburb, but during the summer, from elementary school through college, I traveled to Cairo to spend time with my grandparents and to connect to an identity my parents felt was important for me to understand. It was there that I developed a curiosity about inequality, the role of social, economic and political structures, and the value of human life. When it came time to choose a path, I never doubted that I would work in development. A couple of years and many eye-opening experiences later, I was exactly where I wanted to be: a first-year PhD student delving into the challenges facing our global community.
Meanwhile, my love for fashion never waned. But the more I learned, the more I felt that fashion directly collided with my values. From an environmental perspective, the cycle of consumption and waste generated by fashion’s churn taxes an already-strained climate. On the human dimension, clothes are often manufactured in developing countries that lack sufficient labor laws to ensure that workers receive fair pay and work under safe conditions.
So I explored different ways to maintain my relationship with fashion. There was a period I stopped buying new clothes and only bought vintage or second-hand. Then, for a few months, I abandoned shopping altogether. I enjoyed fashion, the art, as a spectator but found myself increasingly reluctant to participate in fashion, the industry, as a consumer.
Time passed, and these various experiments came and went. But instead of bringing me a greater sense of purpose, this separation from fashion felt like a sacrifice of an important part of my identity. Feeling perpetually conflicted about loving fashion had forced me into a no-win situation. One in which I could never feel whole exactly as I was.
And that’s when I realized it: maybe I didn’t have to choose at all.
Instead, maybe fashion — the clothes I buy, the things I choose to wear — could be another way for me to put my beliefs into practice. For better or worse, consumption is a powerful act. We vote once every couple of years, but we spend money, in some form, basically every day. So instead of rejecting fashion, I decided to embrace it with a sense of greater respect than I had before.
I’ve learned that approaching fashion from this place of higher consciousness can mean, well, anything you want it to mean. At times, the conversation around sustainability can feel like an exclusive discussion that you can’t weigh in on if you don’t know how leather is tanned or whether fair trade is effective. Of course, it’s useful to understand the issues, but sustainability isn’t — and shouldn’t be — about a one-size-fits-all definition. In order for sustainability to mean something to you, it has to work within the context of your life. In the mean time, here are a few ideas to get started.
Slow down your relationship with fashion—buy less, invest in timeless pieces.
Why this matters:
One of the main reasons our modern relationship with fashion is so unsustainable is that we buy too much. Fast fashion fuels this with prices that are often so low, we don’t have to question whether we really need or truly love that thing we’re about to buy. Low prices may seem like an advantage, but they have negative effects on both the environment (we buy more and waste more) and the workers who make our clothes.
How to start:
Try a fast fashion fast. Set a time period that is reasonable for you. Then skip your usual fast fashion destination of choice. (Don’t even go in so that you’re not tempted.) Meanwhile, set your sights on a target investment buy, and save with said target in mind. At the end of your fast, spend the money you’ve saved on something you’ll cherish for a long time to come.
Support artisans, buy handmade.
Why this matters:
Handcrafts are endangered all over the world as artisans can’t compete from a price standpoint with goods that are mass-produced. This has two adverse impacts: the loss of employment in artisanal trades, and the threat that traditional crafts and techniques will be forgotten. Buying handmade doesn’t just support a process, it often gets you a better end product — one that is more intricate and special, one that will last longer than its machine-made counterpart.
How to start:
The next time you need something — a sweater, a beach bag, a silk scarf — consult the Internet for a handmade version of the item in question. Etsy is one of many great online resources for finding handmade items from around the world. If you want to go a step further, support an artisanal cooperative. In cooperatives, profits are distributed among members, with additional training programs and empowerment initiatives in place to promote social and economic mobility.
Why this matters:
Our clothes have a life cycle. Over time, they get worn in certain spots, their buttons fall off and they get ripped and snagged. When we pay very little for a piece of clothing, we tend to throw out or donate our clothes when they’ve had some (even minor) wear and tear. Practically, this generates waste and leads us to buy more clothes. Philosophically, we become at risk of viewing our clothes as disposable. And any true fashion lover knows that clothes are anything but disposable.
How to start:
Yelp a tailor in your neighborhood. Take what you need to get fixed (perhaps that blouse that’s been sitting in your drawer because it’s missing a button). Marvel at how quickly and cheaply something previously unusable can be made perfectly wearable again. After that, take something more complicated. Maybe a pair of pants that don’t fit quite right, or a dress that’s big in the waist. Trust me when I say this: you’ll see clothes in a whole new light.
No matter how you start, the first step to being a more conscious fashion lover is curiosity, which involves cultivating an interest in where our clothing comes from, where it goes after we no longer want it and who is impacted by the decisions we make about what we wear. Once we start asking ourselves these questions, the answers are never too far off.
Photographed by Krista Anna Lewis.