I’ve got a great guest post for you today from Kamea Chayne on what to look for when shopping for ethical clothing. Kamea is the author of Thrive: An Environmentally Conscious Lifestyle Guide to Better Health and True Wealth.
What is the problem with fast fashion?
We shake our heads in disapproval when reading about social injustice. We cringe in disgust when witnessing environmental pollution firsthand. And we frown in unison when hearing the ever-more-alarming statistics on climate change. Yet we often hypocritically contribute to many of these global social and environmental issues through something that touches upon all of our lives: fashion.
Did you know that the textile industry is one of the largest polluters on earth? Or that it is the fifth-largest contributor to carbon dioxide emissions in the United States?
And did you know that our clothes might have been made by underpaid, abused labourers in developing countries? Or that they might be contaminated with toxic chemical residues from the dyes and treatments used to finish them?
Did you know that it takes a shocking 2,700 litres of water (enough to keep one person alive for three years) to grow the amount of cotton needed to make one single t-shirt? Or that conventional cotton growing requires loads of toxic pesticides that eventually go on to pollute our freshwater sources?
The day I learned these dirty secrets of the fashion industry, my world turned upside-down. How can something as (seemingly) innocent as buying new clothes with my friends turn out to be a potential act of harm? This thought baffled me, and I knew there was no turning back. Shopping would never be the same again.
How can we do better?
Getting even a glimpse of what might happen behind the scenes in the fashion world made me realize how impactful our purchase decisions can be. It also made me realise that we can no longer judge a product solely based on its physical properties and price tag, completely neglecting the history that comes along with it.
I concluded: we have to dig deeper. We have to ask questions when shopping for ethical clothing, and we have to make our choices count.
By digging deeper to understand the histories of our consumer products, we can make more informed purchase decisions, and pound (or dollar) vote for responsible businesses helping to drive positive change in our world. In other words, we can shop our way to a better, healthier world by simply supporting companies that value not merely the bottom line (Profit), but the triple bottom line. These being People, Planet, and Profit.
As a result, I began to think more about what to look for when shopping for ethical clothing.
What to Look For When Shopping for Ethical Clothing
Here is my list of questions I personally ask before shopping for ethical clothing. While every conscious consumer might have his or her own approach to shopping more mindfully, this is what works for me.
1. What material is this product made of?
Check the fashion product’s tags for its material composition.
Avoid products made with virgin, non-biodegradable synthetic materials or high-impact, natural materials. See Table 1 for the products to try to avoid.
Instead, Prefer products made with low-impact, biodegradable, natural materials or recycled synthetic material. For some healthier alternatives, please see Table 1.
Table 1. A Shopping Guide for Healthier Textile Choices
2. How was the product made?
Look for voluntary information provided by the company. In particular, where the raw materials came from, what dyes/chemicals were used, etc.
Avoid products with special properties such as stain-resistant, permanent press, anti-static, etc. Additionally, avoid products with labels that provide no insight as to how it was made.
Instead, Prefer products made with natural finishes or dyes and products with credible certifications. See Table 2 for more details.
Table 2. Common Labels in the Fashion Industry
3. Where was the product made?
When shopping for ethical clothing:
Avoid imported products from the other side of the world. In particular, ones that provide no information regarding how the product was made.
Instead, Prefer products made regionally or imported products labelled “Fair Trade*.
4. Will I cherish this item? Is this a keeper?
Avoid cheap, disposable, highly fashionable products you will wear only once
Instead, Prefer durable, timeless, practical products you will wear 30+ times.
5. Does the company that made this product care about the planet?
And finally, when shopping for ethical clothing:
Avoid products made by companies that show no regard for human or environmental health and make no effort to practice responsible business.
Instead, Prefer products made by responsible companies transparent about their supply chain. Look for ones instead that are supportive of social/environmental causes, and contribute to our world’s greater good.
It’s not always possible to buy responsibly and transparently made products. However, realising how much power we each have as fashion consumers, and starting to ask more questions like the ones I have provided are crucial first steps toward reshaping the fashion industry.
How do you make more informed consumer choices?
*The concepts and tables in this post have been adapted with permission from Thrive: An Environmentally Conscious Lifestyle Guide to Better Health and True Wealth by K. Chayne.
Do also check out my guide to zero-waste fashion, if you are looking to reduce the waste associated with making clothes.