How to embrace ethical fashion: small changes you can make right now
Ethical fashion feels like the theme of 2019. Everywhere you turn, there’s campaigns against fast fashion, brands promoting their allegedly ‘sustainable’ options, and influencers encouraging you to make better choices.
But where should you start to become more ethical? Do you really need a new wardrobe? How much money should you be spending on clothes? And will anything you do ACTUALLY make a difference?
First thing’s first: ditch the guilt. It’s easy to get bogged down on the ethics, but this doesn’t help anyone (including you!). Contrary to what some people may tell you, every little helps, so any changes you can make NOW matter more than waiting to live more consciously when you have more time/ money etc. If we all even chose the ‘least worst’ option, we’d still be sending the fashion industry a huge message about what we as consumers want.
What do I mean by the ‘least worst’? Well, these are totally doable moves towards a more ethical and sustainable wardrobe that will start you on your better fashion journey, with minimal effort or expenditure on your part. Sounds good, right? Here’s where to get started (with some eye-opening stats from Fashion Revolution):
Seriously, it’s that simple. One of the biggest problems with fast fashion is its constant encouragement for us to buy more. Since my teenage years I’ve fallen into this trap as much as anyone – heck, maybe even more than most people! I’ve easily spent as much as a quarter of my wages on new clothes each month, yet there are very few purchases from the past five years I still own.
If you asked your grandmother what her mother wore, I’ll bet she can recall specific outfits in great detail. That’s because until the growth of mass produced fashion in the 1980s people owned fewer garments, and wore them often and with love. It’s a thoroughly modern feeling that we simple must buy a new outfit for every occasion. Would you rather wear something less than perfect merely because it’s new, or have a refined wardrobe full of pieces that people will always remember? I know what I’d choose.
While you’re riding that buying less wave, I’m sure you’ll want to have a proper rummage through your wardrobe and clear out old pieces. Good plan! But let’s be clear: now is not the time to chuck anything that doesn’t fit the ethical and sustainable ethos. That’s because the most ethical garment is the one you already own. An acrylic, High Street brand sweater that you wear repeatedly each winter is a better choice than a new and expensive purchase from a sustainable that you’ve bought solely as a nod to ethical fashion.
Make considered purchases
How many of us have thought that despite having a wardrobe full of clothes we still have nothing to wear? That’s because most of us (including me!) buy random garments on a regular basis, with no real thought as to whether they fit in with our current wardrobe or lifestyle. Shopping smarter will not only save you money, but help you define your personal style. That sounds like a win to me!
Start by conducting a wardrobe audit. Count up how many t-shirts/ blouses/ party tops/ dresses/ pairs of jeans etc. you own. Look for any gaps (e.g. you’d really benefit from some black trousers to go with all these printed tops), as well as what types of clothes you love and wear often, and styles that just aren’t you. Now you can focus on filling those gaps when clothes shopping, instead of being swayed by trends.
Someone said: ‘the only crime with fast fashion is to treat it like fast fashion’. I agree with this. If you’re missing the perfect jeans, for example, and the only place you can find jeans that 100% work for you is Topshop, then buy those Topshop jeans, girl! Just be sure to wear them often, wash them sustainably, and treat them with the same reverence as if they were £200 jeans.
Lots of the outfits I post on Instagram are from High Street brands. However, these garments are almost always secondhand online purchases. By purchasing clothes that have already been in someone’s wardrobe circulation, I’m lengthening their life cycle, whilst keeping my own look fresh. You can do this too.
Buying ‘old’ rather than new is one of the easiest and most affordable changes to make right now. I’ve written previously about looking to secondhand marketplaces to create the perfect party outfit, but this is a shopping habit that can be applied to almost every occasion.
One of the most novel circular fashion companies I’ve encountered is Restyleable. This is a monthly subscription service for secondhand clothing – perfect if you need to scratch the new clothing itch, and enjoy a surprise too! Restyleable also buy secondhand High Street clothes, so you can sell them your preworn loves when its time for a wardrobe refresh.
Buy natural fibres
Most of us agree that plastic is a problem, yet the production of polyester garments has never been higher. If you really want to make a difference, start shopping for clothes made from natural fibres as well as cutting down your plastic bag and bottle usage.
There is a slow yet noticeable growing trend for recycled polyester garments (known as rPET), which definitely fall into the ‘least worst’ category. But let’s be clear: most of these are made from recycled bottles, as opposed to recycled fabric. While less virgin polyester is being created, transforming bottles to fabric is still a resource-intensive process (and the resulting fabric is still not biodegradable!). There’s plusses to rPET garments, especially when it comes to gym wear or swimwear.
However, if it’s everyday comfort you’re after, I recommend building your wardrobe on foundation pieces made from natural fibres. A cotton t-shirt, silk blouse, a cashmere sweatshirt and real leather trousers all feel infinitely better than their polyester, PU or acrylic counterparts. Not only are they softer and more comfortable, but natural fibres are breathable, meaning fewer sweat patches.
Once you’ve mastered this natural fibres business (trust me, it’s harder to avoid polyester than you think!) you can start looking for the ‘best’ versions of these products. Shop for organic cotton, EcoVero viscose or tencel, and sustainably sourced, second hand or recycled wool and cashmere.
You’re bound to have plenty of polyester pieces left in your wardrobe. That’s cool: you’re still sticking to the ethical fashion principles by rewearing your old clothes, but be mindful of how you wash these items. Polyester sheds tiny microplastic particles that enter the water system, so try to invest in a washing machine filter or wash bags to help minimise the spread of these. Minimising how often you wash all garments will not only help them last longer but help prevent spreading fibres into the ocean.
Choose better brands
The ethical and sustainable sector of the fashion industry is growing all the time, which is great for newbie ethical fashionistas. A quick Google search will provide some of the most popular UK conscious fashion companies, but here’s a few more accessible (i.e. affordable and stylish) brands I recommend to get started:
Ninety Percent – great for streetwear-inspired, minimal pieces. This brand shares 90% of its profits with charities and its garment makers, and each piece comes with a unique product key that allows you to vote on who the money should go to.
People Tree – one of the first Fair Trade fashion suppliers, and still a great choice for a variety of affordable, ethical pieces.
Lucy and Yak – a fun and comfy brand, known for their colourful dungarees and high-waist jeans. Invest in their affordable, funky organic cotton crop tees for eye-catching and affordable day-to-day pieces,
Monkee Genes – organic (and sometimes recycled) denim without the scary price tag other ethical jeans companies have.
Thought – organic fabrics are key to Thought’s designs. This label offers a good mix of elevated basics in some fabulous colours, plus some funky party pieces.
Saint + Sofia – if you like All Saints then you’ll love this brand! Shop for stylish and edgy pieces in a darker colour palette with lots of mix and match potential.
Organic Basics – this brand is exactly what it says it is: underwear and layering pieces, made from certified organic cotton. The pack deals are brilliant value, and a great starting point for your ethical wardrobe.
There you have it – the complete beginner’s guide to ethical and sustainable fashion. I hope you’re inspired to start on your conscious clothing journey right now. Every small change really does make a difference!
Cover photo was taken by Teresa Dickson.