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The 2015 documentary The True Cost has largely accomplished what it set out to do: wake up Western consumers to the horrifying impact of the fashion industry on exploited workers and the environment. And more consumers watch it every day.
But there’s one criticism of the movie that rings true: After all the visual carnage, viewers are left with no next steps. If we agree that mass-produced fashion is awful, that garment workers shouldn’t die making our clothes, that rivers should not be poisoned just for a cheap T-shirt, and that 1.715 billion tons of CO2 released a year (or about 5.3 percent of the 32.1 billion tons of global carbon emissions) is way too much, what can we do to change it?
Unfortunately, there’s no equivalent in the fashion industry to Michael Pollan’s sharp, easy-to-remember instructions: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” That’s because the fashion supply chain is so confoundingly opaque and complex, that even if you buy a purse that was handcrafted by a Peruvian artisan, the leather tannery might still have poisoned the local river, and the cows that provided the leather might have been abused. It’s exceedingly difficult as a shopper to say with any certainty that you are making the “right” choice when you buy something from a green collection or one that is purported to be fairly made.
Still, once you know all the horrible, awful, no-good things the fashion industry does to the planet (pouring carbon into the atmosphere, dumping increasingly large mounds of waste into landfills) and to (mostly female, mostly brown) workers, it feels wrong to throw up your hands and say, “Welp, everything sucks, and I’m going to do some retail therapy at Forever 21.”
As complicated as it can be, there are still things that you can do to lessen your impact on the planet and, of course, not feel like a total hypocritical dirtbag. Here they are.
According to this analysis, a full 22 percent of a garment’s climate impact comes from the process of a consumer driving to the store to try something on, driving to another store to try that thing on, then bringing their final selection home in their car. If you live in a city where you can walk or take public transportation to a store, then do that!
And don’t feel guilty about ordering items online. First, because a UPS, FedEx, or USPS truck is like public transportation for your clothing: efficient at moving a lot of stuff with minimal fuel. Second, your clothing probably comes through a distribution center, skipping the process of going to the store at all and going straight to you. And according to multiple studies, online shopping has a much lower environmental impact than brick-and-mortar shopping. It may feel wrong to get an item of clothing in a plastic bag in a box, but rest assured that if it goes to a store instead, it’s also showing up in a plastic bag — the bag’s just gone by the time you see it on the rack.
Another benefit of shopping online is the opportunity to be more thoughtful and discerning with what you buy. In a physical store, it might not be possible (or even occur to you) to research every brand you encounter then and there on your phone. But when you’re home and on the internet, you probably have more time, along with more access to resources, to do some deeper digging.
There are some excellent resources documenting the bad, good, and gray areas of shopping. The Good on You app lets you search for a brand’s environmental impact, labor policies, and even animal-friendly considerations, plus makes recommendations in different categories (dresses, hosiery, outerwear) of sustainable and ethical brands. Project JUST does about the same thing — carefully researches the impact and policies of various brands, plus puts out roundups of the most ethical and sustainable brands in categories like athletic wear and denim — but on a website.
There’s also the DoneGood browser extension, which pops up in the corner of your browser when you’re shopping and tells you whether or not the brand site you’re on is sustainable and/or ethical, and links you to alternatives if it’s not. If you’re visiting a conventional webstore, it also highlights which sustainable brands you should check out while you’re there.
Also, look through the About section or — even better — the sustainability or social responsibility section of a brand’s site to see if they say anything about how items are made. (If they don’t, it’s a bad sign. Skip ahead to step #7 and reach out to your favorite brands.) Google the brand’s name and look for recent news. And finally, check and see if it’s in the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, a trade group that requires its members to quantify their supply chains’ impact on the environment and is funding some really cool initiatives along the way. (It’s not the same as a third-party certification like the ones mentioned below, but does indicate that a company is serious about making changes.)
Of course, all of this supposed efficiency will be negated if you’re the kind of person who buys a dozen things from a dozen different stores and returns 11 of them. All of this advice really only works if you’re the type of person to use the internet to buy smarter, rather than impulsively.
Look for certifications.
There are a few gold-standard certifications that indicate that an objective deep dive into a product’s supply chain has been conducted. OEKO-TEX is an independent test and certification system for textiles, and it offers multiple levels of certification, the most basic of which indicates that the product is free of hazardous chemicals. The next level up concerns whether the textiles are made in socially and environmentally responsible conditions. GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) is a certification for textiles that contain “a minimum of 70% organic fibers.”
Forest Stewardship Council certification indicates that any trees involved (yup, some fabrics are made from trees — more on that later) were sustainably harvested. Fair Trade certification indicates that the factory workers are paid at least the minimum wage, and that the working conditions are safe.
Avoid these fabrics.
I’ll keep it short: Polyester is made from oil (it’s basically a plastic thread) and all synthetic fibers (excepting a few alternatives mentioned in this piece) shed microfibers into waterways. (You’ve probably ingested these fibers in your last seafood meal.) Acrylic is even more toxic to produce than polyester. Viscose rayon (this includes bamboo rayon) turns plants into a textile through a toxic, polluting process and is contributing to the disappearance of rainforests.
Conventional cotton relies on pesticides and herbicides which are improperly, excessively, and dangerously applied in underdeveloped countries, and might have led to the worldwide decline of insect populations. The typical leather tanning process is so toxic that 90 percent of the people who live in the leather-tanning neighborhoods in Bangladesh die before they reach 50.
Look for these fabrics.
It’s pretty hard to avoid polyester altogether, especially if you enjoy athleisure clothing, swimsuits, or anything with stretch. So look for polyester that’s made of recycled water bottles, fishing nets, carpet, and other post-consumer products. These products financially support the recycling industry and help to keep plastic waste from the landfill and ocean.
Tencel is a viscose rayon alternative by the Austrian company Lenzing made from sustainably-sourced eucalyptus trees in a closed-loop process that ensures no toxins are released into waterways. Silk, hemp, linen, and wool are all natural, low-impact textiles. (Just watch out if you’re vegan — the typical silk thread process kills the silkworms, and wool-producing sheep aren’t always treated the best, especially in Australia.)
Vegetable tanned leather doesn’t use heavy metals in the process (but as an FYI, that means it’ll take longer to soften up and break in). More leather alternatives are coming, but right now the best new alternative available for purchase is Piñatex, which is made from pineapple leaf waste.
Seek out brands that pay their artisans fairly.
Understanding the environmental impact of your garment’s entire supply chain is nearly impossible — all the variables (production, dying, finishing, shipping), debates (are GMOs bad or not?), and scientific reports can lead to a mental burnout on the whole idea of conscious consumption. But picturing the positive social impact of a fairly-made garment is much more inspiring — and easy.
Many fair trade brands, like Lemlem, Voz, Siizu, Brother Vellies, Par en Par, Ace & Jig, Uniform, Manos Zapotecas, and more, have photos and information on their websites of the women and men who hand-make the garments or the factories they use. Other brands, like Reformation and Saint James, give factory tours. Still others, like Naja and Nisolo, give you a report on working conditions, pay, and benefits, plus how getting paid to use their community’s traditional skills positively impacts a worker’s community.
We could argue all day about relative merits of recycled polyester versus organic cotton, or how much you’re benefiting the environment by paying more for organic cotton, but it’s hard to argue with a mother getting paid a fair wage in safe working conditions. It feels a lot more rewarding, too, which can help keep you motivated.
There is a glut of secondhand fashion in the West. Secondhand shops can only resell about 20 to 45 percent (75 percent on a really good day) of unwanted threads — the rest is downcycled into insulation, carpeting, or rags, or (if it’s still wearable) shipped to developing countries to be resold for a few dollars.
This overabundance of orphaned clothing makes secondhand the perfect solution for fashion addicts who feel guilty about their waste and wallet. It prevents production of toxic or exploitative new clothing, and it keeps textiles out of the landfill or from being shipped overseas. Secondhand stores are almost all charitable, locally, or family-owned, so you direct your dollars away from multinational corporations and to small business. And best of all, it’s a way to get fresh threads (sometimes with the tags still on!) for fast-fashion prices.
If you have something really specific in mind and find the chaos of the thrift store intimidating, you could shop online at affordable sites like ThredUp and Tradesy, or Vestiaire Collective and The RealReal for upscale and designer items.
Show your favorite brands you care.
Not ready to pass up on that so cute ruffled viscose top from J.Crew? Curious where it’s made? Email or tweet at the brand! “Consumers think their voices don't matter, but they do,” says Jessica Radparvar, the founder of the social impact communications consultancy Reconsidered. “Tweets, emails, questions asked in retail stores — if frequent enough, these communications get laddered up. I know many Corporate Social Responsibility teams that then use these anecdotes as ‘proof points’ to show that consumers are demanding transparency,” she says. “That can in turn help them get buy-in, approvals, and funding for projects they want to push forward.”
Again, that only works if the brand has a team like that instated. If they don’t answer, and you can’t find any information anywhere about attempts to go sustainable or ethical, you might want to cross them off your shopping list.
Capsule your wardrobe.
The best thing you can do is just buy less stuff. And you can buy less stuff if you buy things that are timeless and high-quality enough to last a long time.
How you launder it, how you dispose of it, even where it’s shipped from — all these factors are a sliver of the total impact of a typical garment. But most of the impact comes from the very fact that it was produced. The longer you use a garment, and the more times you wear it, the lower the impact. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go out and buy exclusively locally-made, organic fashion that costs well in the hundreds of dollars. Whatever it is, if you think you will wear it 30 times or more, that’s definitely a sustainable choice.
One popular notion in the conscious fashion world is the idea of a capsule wardrobe: an extremely edited collection of versatile pieces that can be endlessly mixed and matched, so that you get maximum use out of minimal possessions. If you want some guidance in this area, try the app Cladwell, which helps you discern your style, whittle down your wardrobe, donate or sell what you don’t love anymore, and come up with interesting new combinations.
The goal is to stop getting tossed about on the expensive seas of new trends, and confidently stand in your own personal style, with a closet full of (and only of) pieces that make you feel like your best self. If you love your closet and can easily put together a great outfit, you’ll never say, “I have nothing to wear!” and run out to buy something last minute to make you feel beautiful again, nor will you be tempted by whatever fun cheap thing is in the window at Forever 21, because you already have everything you need, thank you!
If you’re keen to try out a new trend, have a special event coming up, or you’re just bored with your closet but on a budget, renting lets you feel fabulous while using fewer resources. You can try Style Lend, which lets you rent luxury fashion from real women’s closets; Le Tote, which sends you a box of everyday items to try; or the OG of renting, Rent the Runway.
Donate to NGOs and watchdogs.
Don’t stop at conscious consumption! Direct your dollars to organizations that are trying to create systemic change. You can help send a Bangladeshi garment worker to college, fund Canopy’s efforts to save the rainforest from destruction by rayon-viscose pulping mills, donate to Greenpeace or Natural Resources Defense Council, which respectively combat toxic garment factory effluent and increase the energy efficiency of factories, or become a supporter of Project JUST and their deep research on the sustainability and ethicality of large brands.
The main thing to know is that you can take or leave any of these tips and build a sustainable wardrobe that feels right for your lifestyle, your budget, and your personal style. There’s no one way to be a conscious consumer, just like there’s no one way to dress yourself. And as the sustainable fashion movement grows and evolves, dressing yourself with thought will hopefully only get easier with time.