In my experience, your “a-ha” moment stays with you. Even if you don’t make an immediate change to your fashion or shopping habits (and few of us do), you’ll always remember the sobering moment that snapped you out of your giddy fashion haze. My “aha” moment happened when I learned about the cocktail of toxic chemicals used to produce jeans. I was wearing my favorite pair that day and my colleague was talking to me about benzidine and formaldehyde (known carcinogens used in the manufacturing of jeans) while I felt the skin on my legs prickle and itch. All I could think about was how badly I wanted to tear my jeans off and jump in a steaming hot shower. Admittedly, this wasn’t the first or worst alarming fact I learned about the environmental damage caused by fashion, but for whatever reason, it resonated.
Maybe for you, it was the recent "Burnberry" scandal which revealed how brands regularly dispose of surplus clothing not by marking it down, donating, recycling, or upcycling it, but incinerating it. Or, perhaps you read that frequently shared quote that fashion is the second biggest polluter in the world after big oil. (Fact check: it’s technically not the second biggest polluter but it’s one of the most polluting industries). And if not the environment, there are plenty of social issues that could tip the scales for you like fashion is one of the biggest supporters of modern-day slavery across the globe. Too many to list without depressing you (racism, ageism, body-shaming is a start), or enraging you, but let's just say, fashion is notoriously unkind to women in all spokes of the fashion life cycle. In short, fashion as an industry sux.
Many of us love fashion. I love it so much I built an entire career of it — uprooting myself to move halfway around the globe. The desire to express ourselves with clothing, make up, and jewelry goes way back. We have been decorating ourselves for an estimated 200,000 years, long before the advent of capitalism, fast fashion, or influencer campaigns. It’s important to acknowledge that to love style, fashion or shopping does not make you shallow or a sucker for being seduced by advertising. (Anyone who has seen “The Devil Wears Prada” should already know that.) Dressing up feels good and the desire to adorn is powerful; so the reality is, fashion isn't going anywhere. Unfortunately, neither are harmful supply chains, global inequality, and profiting from women’s manufactured insecurity. So in a world where you already have enough to worry about, now that you know that fashion is seriously bad, what can you do?
1. Don’t panic. If you’ve fallen down the rabbit hole researching the impact of fashion you probably feel guilty, annoyed, or overwhelmed and all are justified. Remember that information about clothing production is opaque by design so that you can’t register how shady an operation it is. To feel guilty for not knowing the unknowable is pointless. And while the issue of harmful fashion as a whole is huge, meaningful long-term change is best applied incrementally. Pushing the fashion industry to be more transparent and sustainable is going to take time. Taking me to my second point….
2. Start small. If you set a goal to run a marathon and aren’t a seasoned runner, it would be unwise to leap out of bed the next morning and run 26 miles. Of this list, choose just one change you can easily slot into your life. Once you've mastered it, then try one more, and then one more, and then one more….
3. Say no. I don’t know the specifics of your shopping habits, but I can say with certainty that you have unworn purchases that you regret buying. I’m also going to take an educated guess that most of those purchases were impulse buys or buys because they felt like a really good deal. Few impulse buys are worthwhile and more often than not they waste money and space in your closet (and natural resources). The next time you feel the pending thrill of an impulsive purchase or the high of a really good deal, stop, say no, and keep walking. If you’re still longing for it a week later than it’s probably a worthwhile investment and you should invest your hard-earned money into it. Given that Americans on average discard 82 pounds of textiles per year, saying no every now and again is a practice that will benefit you.
4. Try new brands. I recently decided to switch my disposable razor brand from Gillette to the more environmentally friendly Preserve. I have transformed my go-to clothing brands from underwear to outerwear with relative ease so was surprised to struggle with this small switch. I’ve been using the same brand of razor my entire adult life (I can’t bear to think of all that wasted plastic!) and sometimes familiarity is hard to replace. Of course, my new razor performs the same task as effectively as my old one except now I support a brand that does good in the world. So, take a risk on a new brand even if it feels daunting. You’ll be pleasantly surprised and broaden your styling world. Check out our brand directory for a list of worthwhile brands to add to your closet.
5. Vote — it’s free! There are many things that we can do as individuals to impact society and there is value in reducing your carbon footprint and spending money on brands that have ethical practices in place of those that don’t. But cleaning up the fashion life cycle will require a joint effort between individuals, business, and government. Make sure your elected officials know that this issue matters to you by contacting them via phone or social media and vote for politicians who share your ethical values. Most importantly, that incremental change we talked about in the beginning applies to politics as well. Elections at the local and state level are just as important as the federal level and can even produce more tangible results.
6. Donate to an environmental or social justice organization. Like your vote, your donation to an environmental or social justice organization has influence beyond your personal impact. It’s also something you can do today. Like, right now!
7. Talk to your friends. Take it from someone who has spent the past five years torturing friends, family, and strangers with an endless stream of anxiety-inducing articles and facts about how terrible the fashion industry is, they don’t like it. So, while you should continue to follow the progress of the fashion industry and take the time to discuss the issues with others, share the changes you’ve made that you love the most. When you find an ethical brand that you love — tell your friends about it! Encourage them to vote (even if they don’t share your beliefs) and brag about how good it feels to donate $20 to charity instead of buying that junky top that you were never going to wear anyway. Sharing solutions is more satisfying than sharing problems.
Words: Laura Jones
Copy Editor: Sonjia Hyon