How To Shop For Ethical Fashion

For those who want to vote with their dollars for a better world.
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Whitney Bauck
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For those who want to vote with their dollars for a better world.
Photo: pixdeluxe/Getty

Photo: pixdeluxe/Getty

If you're here, it probably means you've decided that how you spend is important when it comes to fashion. Maybe you read about the slave-like forced labor still happening in the industry, or perhaps scenes of unlivable pollution from the film "The True Cost" are lingering in your head. Either way, if you've committed to supporting only brands that are producing and sourcing ethically, good for you.

Now comes the tricky part: figuring out which brands actually align with your values and deserve your support. Unfortunately, doing so isn't always as straightforward as we'd like it to be. But if you keep in mind that being a conscious consumer is about a way of life rather than just one purchase here or there, you'll be able to build the right habits over time. Read on for tips on how to get started.

Decide what your priorities are

As you make decisions about which brands deserve your support, it's important to define what "ethical" means to you. You can begin by educating yourself about the potential issues that arise in the process of making clothing: laborer rights, environmental impact, transparency and social impact.

Laborer rights encompasses the human rights aspect of production, and should consider the safety, health and rights of everyone involved in the raw material sourcing part of the supply chain — i.e. the people picking cotton — to the ones involved in the actual manufacturing of the garment — i.e. the factory workers operating a sewing machine.

Similarly, an evaluation of environmental impact should consider the raw material sourcing and manufacturing processes, asking whether the earth and animals are treated with care during those processes. It should also consider the kinds of packaging used and way that clothing is transferred from where it's made to where it's sold, because those factors both impact a brand's carbon footprint.

Transparency is important because it's the means by which consumers and outside regulatory entities are able to hold brands accountable. So while a given company not disclosing the location of its factories doesn't necessarily mean those factories are ethically dubious, being willing to provide that information is usually a good sign that a brand has nothing to hide.

Lastly, the social impact of a brand deals with ethical issues pertaining to how the brand interacts with consumers and retail employees, and asks what the brand is known for in terms of issues like diverse representation in advertising and non-discriminatory practices in hiring.

Whether you choose to go all organic or are more concerned with the safety of developing-world garment laborers (or both), knowing the issues is the first step to making sure a brand shares the same priorities you do.

Research the brands you love

Once you've decided on the issues that matter to you most, you can dive into researching the brands you already love. Independent brand-ranking organizations like Rank A BrandKnowTheChain, Project Just and Ethical Consumer are all great resources, and many of them even break down their rankings so you can see how your favorite label scored on different issues. Comparing how one brand ranked according to a few different organizations is a good way to get a well-rounded evaluation.

If you're looking to learn more about a label that's not been reviewed by one of the above organizations, as is often the case with smaller labels, researching the history of the brand is a good place to start. If it has a bad track record in the past of using harmful dyes or forced labor, for example, that's probably a sign that the people behind the brand are more concerned with the bottom line than with their impact — and it may be reason to steer clear of them in the future.

If you're having a hard time finding outside information, reading what a brand claims about its own ethics can offer important clues. Of course, every brand is going to paint itself in a positive light, but looking at the literature it publishes about itself can help you figure out what the real priorities are. Does it specifically address where and how things are made, or does it make general claims about “sustainability” without substantiating them? Or does it avoid the topic completely?

If you still can’t find enough info, don't underestimate direct engagement with brand reps via email or social media. Usually, brands who are doing things in the best way possible are happy to share about their sourcing and manufacturing with interested customers.

Get to know the best ethical boutiques

Researching your favorite brands can get depressing pretty quickly once you realize that the majority of Western labels aren’t doing a great job of prioritizing ethical manufacturing. But the fun part comes in finding out about great new brands that are really making a difference in the lives of the people they work with and in the environments they source from. Online boutiques like Accompany, Fashionkind and Ethica curate gorgeous selections from a range of ethical labels, and hashtags like #ethicalfashion, #fashionrevolution and #howitsmadematters can help you find newer ethical labels as they pop up on Instagram and Twitter.

When in doubt, shopping secondhand is always a safe way to go. Besides minimizing the clothing that ends up in landfills, thrift stores often use their proceeds to support charities, which means that not only is your purchase not harming someone, it's actually helping.

Prepare to adjust your habits

Any nuanced discussion of ethical fashion must acknowledge that it's often not as black and white as we'd like it to be, and brands who are doing great work in one sense may have a long way to go in another. But one thing that is absolutely clear is that a commitment to ethical fashion is just that: a commitment.

It's less convenient to shop in a way that considers the impact your purchase has on the life of a seamstress in Bangladesh and a river in China than it is to just consider your own pocketbook and wardrobe. It may require a real shift in the way you think about shopping, necessitating more preemptive research and less impulse-buying and sometimes just plain saying "no" to something you really want because you can’t find an ethical way to purchase it.

But perhaps it's worth it to you to help create the kind of future where child labor is eradicated, tannery chemicals aren't poisoning the earth and blood diamonds are a gruesome relic of the past.

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