How to buy ethical clothes: 10 simple steps to owning a stylish and sustainable wardrobe

Be Curious Fashion Revolution Poster

Ethical clothes shopping article, originally written for Farmdrop

Countless reports reveal how damaging our fashion addiction is to people and the environment. It may be beautiful on the outside, but the inner workings of the industry are pretty ugly.

Fashion factories employ more than 45 million people globally. Fashion Revolution research reveals clothes are among the items most at risk of being produced through modern slavery. Remake highlight that most garment workers are paid far below the living wage, from just $97 a month in Bangladesh to $5 a hour in the USA.

Did you know it can take up to 15,000 litres of water to grow the cotton for one pair of jeans? Meanwhile, more than 100 million new items of clothes are being produced every year and 300,000 tonnes of unwanted clothes go into landfill or get incinerated every year in the UK alone.

So-called “fast fashion” giants can be incredibly slow to put sustainability at the heart of their businesses, preferring to introduce “sustainable” collections that are better for marketing than they are for the people making the clothes or the planet.

But, as consumers, we can use our spending power and vote for change by changing our shopping habits.

Here’s 10 simple ways to fight fast fashion and make a difference:

1. Ask #WhoMadeMyClothes

Women make up a significant 85% of the global workforce in textile factories. They are some of the lowest paid workers in the world. When you’re buying clothes ask the brands you’re interacting with: was this made in a safe environment? And was everyone in the factory paid a living wage? More than 170,000 people asked the question #whomademyclothes on social media during Fashion Revolution Week last year. The answer to this question is more empowering than a slogan t-shirt.

Fast Fashion disempowers women
Credit: Remake

2. Prepare yourself for some awkward responses

The brands who have their ethical and sustainable credentials sorted are going to love you asking these questions and will give you full responses that will help to increase your knowledge. But a lot of people still aren’t rally clued up on these issues, so be prepared for an awkward exchange or response. Simply asking the question can be important nudge in the right direction.

3. Buy Less, Buy Better

The UN rank fashion as the second most polluting industry in the world. Rather than buying three tops for £15 each, consider buying one for £45 and get more use out of it. Ethical clothes shopping often does cost more; this reflects the true cost of using materials that are less damaging to the planet, made in factories that are safe to work in, have better eco-credentials and pay fairer wages to their employees. But, it doesn’t have to cost a crazy amount more (see #7 below).

4. Make the 30-wear promise

Emma Watson and Livia Firth both endorse the 30-wear promise. Before you buy something, ask yourself: “Will I wear it a minimum of 30 times?” You may be surprised at how often the answer is no. But, if the answer is yes, buy it and enjoy it!

5. Embrace charity shops, vintage shops and take part in clothes swaps

The idea of wearing second-hand clothes took me a while to come around to. I also wasn’t convinced about the ethics of buying used high street items. But it’s a compromise I now make because reuse is better than these items ending up in landfill – stats from the Charity Retail Association show charity shops are able to reuse or recycle more than 90 per cent of donated clothing.

Plus, second-hand shops are significantly more budget friendly than buying new (even if they are slightly less so now that it’s becoming more cool to shop in them). Apparently, the average customer transaction still sits at £4.05. So, get to know a conveniently located charity shop, purchase some great items and give back the mistakes you will inevitably buy because they seemed like a bargain at the time. It takes time to tame that fast fashion bargain hunter within.

6. Don’t buy fast fashion on the premise you’ll donate it later

Charity shop shopping isn’t a two-way street. Of course, do donate items you have bought and loved and outgrown. But don’t buy any item you’re unsure about, thinking if you give it to a charity shop afterwards it’s not so bad. It’s terrible. This mindset is part of the reason that 300,00 tonnes – or 73% of the 53 million tonnes of fibres used to make clothes and textiles – are burnt or sent to landfill every single year.

Fast Fashion speeds up climate change
Credit: Remake

7. Shop sustainably online

With so many brands bringing out “eco”, “organic” or “conscious” lines it can be hard to separate the brands for who sustainability is at the heart of their business from those for which it is a marketing sideline. I created BICBIM exactly this reason and our fashion pages are a good place for ethical clothes shopping. Apparently, every time you buy from a small, ethical brand someone does a happy dance. I like to believe this is true.

Side note: returns really hit small brands hard. Try only to order what you really want, and return items when absolutely necessary.

8. Check out great bricks and mortar shops, too

If you’re in London, The Keep Boutique in Brixton and 69B in Broadway Market are both really good shops for ethical fashion. In Liverpool, Mi Apparel has just extended their pop up in the Albert Docs for another six months. Looking for a weekend jaunt? Take the Eurostar (another ethical tick) to Amsterdam and check out clothes from Nukuhiva and jewellery from See Me among other boutiques on Haarlemmerstraat for ethical clothes shopping by the station.

9. Consider what your coveted garment is made from 

As a general guide the best materials are recycled – nylon, polyester, cotton and wool. Also top of the list are organic materials, especially linen and hemp but also cotton. New, great and increasingly popular fibres include Tencel (created from wood) and Monocel (from bamboo).

10. Finally, if at first you don’t succeed…

Don’t quit! And don’t beat yourself up about falling off the ethical wagon. Becoming a conscious consumer is a journey and every positive purchase decision you make has a positive impact.

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