Some of my earliest (and most cherished) memories are of days spent at the mall with my grandma. From the time I was a little girl, I loved the entire experience of a shopping day—smoothies to kick off the day, packing the dressing room full with anything and everything that caught our eye, crafting outfits with someone I love and admire, leaving feeling both at peace and invigorated by the art and connection. Those excursions were about filling our closets, yes, but they were also about a practice in creativity, about being bold and discovering who I was in the safety of a relationship where I was encouraged to be unique.
Shopping became an established ritual, and I grew into an enthusiasm for fashion, styling, and the expression in building a wardrobe. As my interests expanded with age, I developed a passion for studying gender equality and sustainable development that led me to pursue a master’s degree in Social Entrepreneurship and Change with a focus on socially conscious fashion. I quickly learned one can’t study the global oppression of women and not come across massive amounts of research pointing to the fashion industry as one of the most exploitative labor systems in history.
As with many injustices around the world, women are bearing the brunt of the effect of exploitative, underpaid work. Research shows that 75% of the people who are making clothes all over the world are women (Center for Women’s Global Leadership, n.d.). Furthermore, the 2020 Fashion Transparency Index found that 93% (245/250) of the large fashion brands surveyed aren't paying their workers a living wage (Ditty, 2020). This means an estimated 93% of workers in the fashion industry (the majority being women) are likely being held in systemic poverty and cannot meet their most basic needs.
As my understanding deepened, so did my interest in how my age-old love of clothing could transform from harmful habit to a pathway toward creating realistic, consistent income opportunities for women in developing economies. There are many factors contributing to the cycle of injustice being perpetuated in factories around the world, but an uneven distribution of power between men and women is a clear and prominent contributor.
What does it mean to shop ethically?
While buzzword terms like “ethical fashion,” “sustainable living,” and “conscious consumerism” dominate online discussions around purchasing habits and brand identity, the conversation is incomplete. It’s encouraging to witness a necessary cultural shift in how we think about garment production and large scale consumption, but forward motion beyond hollow marketing campaigns remains fuzzy on a consumer and mass level.
There are significant challenges that come with listening to an unprecedented number of voices on a staggering number of issues: political campaign signs along your grocery store route, impassioned friends in Instagram stories, the conscious voices in your own head—all reminding you to buy organic, donate thoughtfully, shop ethically. It’s difficult to navigate how to sustain engagement with all the social issues that are important to us, or to the world around us. If we’re not careful, we’ll get burned out on “should,” ultimately spreading our capacity to care so thin across various issues that we have very little authentic heart left to pour into anything at all.
The antidote to overwhelm and the pathway to sustainable engagement hinge on defining your own personal values so you can live in alignment with what is authentically important to you. Defining what you actually care about—not what you think you should care about—is the first step toward living and shopping in alignment with your ethical priorities.
A closet of your values—not someone else’s
When you’re purchasing from a brand that supports fair working conditions for weavers and sewers, you’re still inevitably having an impact on the environment, simply by creating new textiles. When you buy a pair of leggings that were made out of recycled plastic bottles, that may have come at the expense of a woman making less than minimum wage, because an emerging brand can’t afford high labor costs in addition to the expensive technology required to produce environmentally friendly material.
Not every brand is going to be doing everything perfectly. In fact, almost no company can accommodate every moral concern throughout their supply chain, operations, and marketing. As a consumer, the reality of engaging with this overwhelming industry is that to shop “ethically” means different things for different people. Where you live, how much money you make, the culture of your community, and countless other factors play into what you have access to, and what meaningful expression through fashion means.
Actions driven by perfectionism and shame can’t sustain long-term motivation or change.
Perhaps, like me, your top priority is for women to have dignified, consistent work that honors their time and skill. Perhaps environmental concerns are your top concern, as consumption continues to grow and the planet groans under its consequences. Maybe size inclusivity and representation is your most important consideration. Your own passions, background, positionality, and story will play a part in determining what is truly meaningful to you, but regardless, you can cast a vote for the kind of world you want to live in with every dollar you spend.
Mindfully, not perfectly
As we set out to care deeply and align our actions accordingly, let’s do so from a place of freedom and curiosity, rather than shame or criticism. In pursuing an authentic commitment to your own core values, begin with the understanding that actions driven by perfectionism and shame can’t sustain long-term motivation or change.
If you’re wanting to take a few steps in the direction of shopping more consciously (not perfectly, but mindfully), it can be a creative, reflective, and inspiring practice in determining who you want to become. Not only as a consumer, but as a global citizen. You’ll discover brands that are supporting artisans, having a positive impact on the planet, and developing innovative operation models that are solving complex social problems through wildly creative means.
So, if deeply harmful industries can be revolutionized for good when we put our talent, energy, and creativity toward positive collaboration, then as consumers, our choices have power. How we shop not only affects legislation, demand, and culture around fashion, but it also shapes our own habits and narratives to reinforce our values and keep us personally engaged with the issues we care about.
Steps to get started:
- Determine your priorities.
Start with one to three priorities to guide you as you shop through a lens that is simple, attainable, and meaningful to you.
- Consider every dollar as a vote.
Shoppers have a lot of power, and when we individually and collectively advocate for our favorite brands to clean up their supply chain, increase transparency, and participate in social justice initiatives, the message makes its way to decision makers.
- Consume less.
It is accepted, and encouraged, in our culture to purchase at a rate that is historically alarming. Personally, it has taken me multiple years to undo a perceived need to buy a new dress for every wedding I attend, a new bathing suit every summer, and any and every sweater I try on.
Swapping brands that are harming people and planet for those that are mission-driven and impact-focused can be a great place to start with ethical consumption, for those with the means. However, an arguably more meaningful opportunity lies in the invitation to zoom out and reconsider your rate of consumption in general.
For me, this has looked like shifting my focus from loving what’s new, to loving what’s quality—not only does buying fewer garments per year have a positive impact on the planet, but it’s much easier on your wallet, allowing you to invest in truly beautiful pieces that will last a lifetime if cared for properly.
- Make it easy (and fun!) on yourself.
Open the Notes app in your phone and write out a heading for each product category you wear—shoes, loungewear, formal wear, basics, denim, etc. This list will act as your catch-all reference sheet for brands you hear about that align with your values. Over time, as you get a recommendation from a friend or come across a new brand online, you can build out each category so that when you do need something new, you have a pre-curated list to reference that you can feel excited to browse and support.
For as long as humans have been getting dressed, garments have been an expression of a culture, a meaningful skill, an economic opportunity, and a marker of community affiliation. The art of getting dressed is a gift to participate in, and adjusting our habits to treat it as such doesn’t have to be burdensome or groundbreaking to be significant. Your wardrobe can speak to who you are, what you believe, and where you’re going. Let yours tell your story well.
Center for Women’s Global Leadership. (n.d.). Garment worker sector focus. Global 16 Days Campaign. Retrieved October 10, 2022.