I grew up during a time when the alarming urgency of climate change returned to the forefront of cultural consciousness. While many of us saw our youthful interest in clothing coincide with the established dominance of bubblegum fast fashion, we could never pretend a $5-dollar T-shirt was an innocent purchase. The issues of sustainability, sourcing, ethics, labor, consumption and all of the nuances in-between felt stitched into our visceral experience of fashion as young adults.
But even so, for a while, the perceived insignificance of our individual roles in the socioeconomic processes that fuel the fashion industry made it easy to resign to our deigned fate and assume the situation was out of our hands, even if we were aware it was dire. An expected response from a generation that has never known a world that wasn’t globalized, perhaps. But the alarming reports in recent years, like the 2018 Special Report on Global Warming which indicated “a strong risk of crisis by 2040,” have made that kind of apathy increasingly unacceptable. Which is why, today, shopping ethically is widely considered a noble pursuit. But how does one actually do it? It depends on who you ask.
Sandra Capponi, the co-founder of the ethical consumption business Good on You, agreed that the scope of the fashion industry’s problems can make the industry difficult to face. “Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the problems in the industry,” she tells me. “Thousands of brands are adopting a low-cost, high-turnover ‘fast fashion’ model and we’re buying and throwing away more clothes than ever before. Excessive use of toxic chemicals, pesticides and synthetic fibers make fashion one of the most polluting industries in the world.”
Based in Australia, Good on You is a website and app that has developed a thorough methodology to rate the ethics, sustainability and transparency of popular fashion companies on a scale of increasingly disappointed emoticons.
“The human impacts really concern me too,” Capponi says. “Unfair pay and unsafe working conditions are all too common for millions of garment industry workers, often women and sometimes even children. It just doesn’t seem right to me that some of the world’s most vulnerable people are paying the ultimate price for fashion.”
The multidimensional nature of this issue means the modern consumer that aims to be ethical may find themselves playing a game of sacrifices – the environmental pitfalls of faux fur versus the moral pitfalls of real fur; the ecological benefits of secondhand shopping versus the limited scale; the durability of luxury fashion versus its high cost; the livelihood of the Earth versus that of the laborer. It seems virtually impossible for the average consumer to make clothing purchases that are completely free of ethical stains, and ethical shopping options are not universally accessible. Still, Capponi believes that ethical shopping in the modern day is still attainable and she works to make this possible for more people every day.
“Being an ethical shopper just means thinking about what matters to you,” she says, “from protecting the environment to making sure all workers are paid a living wage — and finding brands that don’t compromise on your values.”
Even for brands with the best intentions, however, the lofty heights of sustainability and ethics can be challenging to achieve. “I run a business and I still have to make a product that will sell,” says British fashion designer and leading force behind her own eponymous fashion brand Bethany Williams. “As a human, I know I’m making recycled garments or organic garments and working with different communities in production, but still, at the end of the day, I run a business led by consumers and I have to make a product that sells for the work I do, so that leaves me with a lot of questions around my work as well.”
Williams’ anxieties about her brand that uses handcrafting techniques, sources local materials and works with local organizations to service communities in need may seem unfounded, but they are the natural product of owning a modern business. In today’s global economy, brands that tout ethical fashion as a founding principle and also turn a profit invite further scrutiny of conditions like pricing, wages, labor and materials that may have allowed a positive margin to arise in the first place. Such efforts can arouse suspicion as to whether the brand’s ethos is the result of clever marketing or genuine responsibility.
As fashion continues to be one of the most reactive and reflective facets of global pop culture, and the ethical realities of the current industry become more apparent, the remaining question is how ethics and fashion can continue to evolve as a synthesized cultural phenomenon.
“Remember in the 90s when buying vintage was almost a badge of honor, a label in itself? Well, I feel that brands with sustainable credentials are next to follow this trend,” says Ben Matthews, creative director of fashion brand NINETY PERCENT. “Surely, clothes that are mindfully made are the greatest luxury at the moment.”
While marketing sustainable fashion as a high-end luxury could be an effective business strategy, NINETY PERCENT’s business model has an even more pointed approach. As a rising sustainable fashion brand, it allows customers to choose the charity to which 90% of the brand’s distributed profits will go to. Each purchase comes with a unique code that allows the buyer to vote for their preferred cause, currently including organizations like Children’s Hope, War Child UK, Wild Aid, and Big Life Foundation. This connection of the personal expression afforded by clothing to material support for social causes fundamentally alters the meaning of the purchase and transforms it into a very literal expression of values.
The idea of personalizing ethical shopping is a compelling venture because it hands control to a consumer who is otherwise likely to feel powerless in a dizzying fashion economy. Even if we are forced to exist in the grey area of fashion ethics for the foreseeable future, this does not preclude our ability to express our values with our clothing choices.
Consuming ethically could mean buying clothing from explicitly-branded sustainable brands or it could mean choosing to invest in clothing with increased durability and lifespan, as the average American throws away about 81 pounds of clothing a year, 85% of which ends up in landfills. It could mean participating in clothing swaps or giving your clothes to a textile recycling company. It could mean buying products from artisans in marginalized communities. It could mean committing to buying fewer clothes or creating a capsule wardrobe.
It could mean selling your clothes to a consignment store or buying them at one. Or repurposing your old clothes or learning how to make some of your own. It could mean asking your local representatives to fund research on textile recycling. It could mean withdrawing support of brands that have repeatedly violated your values.
“[Being ethical] is about making decisions, or even if [something] doesn’t exist yet, asking the brands you do like if there is going to be an alternative product,” says Williams. “I think that’s important: asking questions.”
The anxieties and complexities of our current climate have made personal values more difficult to communicate at a time when this kind of transparency is most needed. Fashion is an inherently social tradition, and for me, ethical shopping includes representing myself truthfully. I think this is at the crux of what ethical shopping looks like today in all forms and interpretations: wearing your heart fully and sincerely on your sleeve.
A.K. Pradhan is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.
Feature photo by John Phillips via Getty Images.