If you’ve ever peered into your overflowing closet in frustration, you’ve likely questioned your shopping habits. You might have even wondered whether the stuff you own actually makes you feel good or ‘sparks joy.’ Marie Kondo references aside, we should be getting emotional over our clothes. From landfill and microplastic pollution to human rights violations, fashion has a dark side. And while big corporations and governments bear the most responsibility for regulating the industry, we can play a part by learning to shop more sustainably, too.
You might have already read phrases like ‘shop ethically’ or ‘buy more consciously’ floating around the internet. But what do those terms actually mean for you and your lifestyle? On a basic level, they mean supporting better brands that are more socially and environmentally responsible AND align with your values. But it doesn’t restrict you to only buying from sustainable labels — although there’s plenty of incredible ones — that due to using more eco-friendly materials and paying fair wages, can come with a higher price tag.
The good news is there’s plenty of creative ways you can incorporate sustainability into your style and they don’t have to be difficult, boring or break the bank. From clothes swapping to choosing clothes with natural fibres, read on for all your fast-fashion alternatives. Why not try out what resonates most with you? And remember: the more we demand sustainable options, the more it will become the norm.
1. Choosing locally produced clothing
To shop sustainably means letting go of fast-fashion’s convenience, aka having thousands of cheap designs at your immediate disposal. Fast-fashion is actually a subset of globalisation; most of us will never step into the far-flung countries our clothes are produced in. It’s easy to take those “Made in…” labels at face value and think that a whole product comes from that location. However, fashion’s complex supply chain means a garment may pass through multiple countries before it ends up in your hands.
Shopping locally is a great way to support a more transparent way of doing business. You’ll be buying products where the design and production have all happened in the same country, and materials have been sourced close by. By making use of available resources and labour, locally-made designs even have a lower carbon footprint! Supporting local also has the benefits of fuelling your country’s economy, powering employment and preserving local craft.
What’s more, when buying local you tend to receive better quality customer service. In comparison, there’s fewer sales assistant when you step into a fast-fashion store, the transaction can feel more cold and impersonal. A number of fashion graduates start their own labels locally, so you’ll be supporting their talent by making a purchase.
2. Choosing organic or natural fabrics
Synthetic fabrics like polyester, nylon and acrylic are favoured by fast-fashion brands because they are cheap to buy and quick to produce with. Sadly they’re made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource which devastates our environment. That’s why if more people chose natural fibres like organic cotton or linen, we could turn the tide on issues like microplastic pollution or textile waste in landfills.
But which natural fibres should you choose? Cotton, while a popular choice, isn’t often the most ethical or eco-friendly. Some lower impact fibres include hemp, jute and flax (aka linen) because they require much less water than cotton. Hemp even naturally fertilises the soil it grows in! What’s more, by actively choosing fabrics that need less land, water, resources and labour, we reduce deforestation while incentivising local communities to preserve existing biodiversity.
The term ‘organic’ refers to raw materials that are not genetically modified and have greater ethical standards ingrained into their supply chain. Take organic cotton, for instance. Although it doesn’t yield as much as conventionally grown cotton it still reduces the risk of toxin exposure to farmers as no harmful chemicals are used during production. While farmers can grow fibres without pesticides, it doesn’t mean the final fabric is chemical-free; most producers will still treat fabrics with bleaching chemicals or dyes. If you want to go completely au naturale, choose clothes made from non-dyed fabrics or designs using natural dyes. It matters because after your garments have lived a long happy life, they won’t release toxins into the environment as they decompose! At the end of the day, there’s no perfect fabric; read your labels, know what you’re buying and make sure you know how to care for it.
“At the end of the day, there’s no perfect fabric; read your labels, know what you’re buying and make sure you know how to care for it.”
3. Choosing timeless designs that surpass trends
How often have you felt like you have nothing to wear, even with a closet full of options? If this reaction is foreign to you, congrats — you’re a rare breed! But despite our collective indecisiveness, stats imply that we’re buying more than ever before and keeping our purchases for much less time. And even if we’re not throwing clothes away they’re stuck in closet limbo; untouched but not forgotten. Now, we’re not saying you shouldn’t purchase trend-led clothes, but we suggest asking yourself a few questions before you buy to make sure they’ll work for you and your lifestyle.
First, ask yourself if you can and will wear something 30 times. This not only judges how the fabric will fare with time and wash, but also if the style will suit you for years to come.
Second, favour quality over quantity. Buying fast-fashion makes us feel like we’re getting the most bang for our buck by being able to buy many items at once. But notice how fast they can wear out, or how quickly you get bored of them. In the long run, buying well-designed, good quality pieces you love (even if they’re a higher price) helps you to save more and waste less. It’s all about the cost per wear.
One of the tenets of slow fashion is making clothes from better quality materials, with care for how the garment will last and opposing the idea of overproduction. When we unshackle ourselves from trends, we gain the freedom to wear clothes that genuinely express who we are. And being more considerate about what we wear, we can appreciate fewer garments and even save earth’s resources in the process. Win, win, win!
“When we unshackle ourselves from trends, we gain the freedom to wear clothes that genuinely express who we are.”
4. Choosing ethically made clothes
What does it actually mean to shop ethically? In short, buying from an ethical brand means supporting companies who care about people and the planet. While treating workers fairly is key, it also matters that businesses are more forthcoming about their practices so consumers know the whole picture. Responsible fashion can’t exist without transparency and traceability.
While the terms ‘ethical’ and ‘sustainable’ are often used interchangeably in fashion, it also makes sense: fashion can’t be sustainable (caring about the planet) without being ethical (caring about the people in it). However, one USP of ethical fashion uses the same logic as organic food or veganism: it doesn’t harm any living being in the process.
Fast fashion has normalised the use of pesticides during farming, chemicals for dyeing and even dumping waste into nearby rivers. The detrimental impact these processes have on farmers and ecosystems isn’t to grasp as they’re often played down. When a brand produces ethically, it means they put other living beings first. This also prevents an incalculable number of lives from succumbing to the after-effects of fast fashion — disease, displacement and death. We recommend watching The True Cost movie if you need further convincing.
With greenwashing rife as ever, it’s often hard to distinguish which businesses really walk the walk. This is where certifications like Fairtrade come in (FYI different from the entire movement called ‘fair trade’.) The Fairtrade International organisation sets specific benchmarks for how businesses must conduct themselves. Standards include living wages, supporting producers, banning child and forced labour and protecting the environment. Also, since fair trade clothing isn’t mass-produced, it is usually more unique. Artisan-made products, in particular, empower the communities behind the craft by not only paying them fairly but promoting their work to new audiences.
5. Choosing to rent, lease or swap
Part of the reason we’re so tempted to shop from fast-fashion retailers like ASOS, Boohoo and Zara is because they always have the latest trends at your disposal. It’s not realistic to think that everyone enjoys having a capsule closet or likes dressing in neutral shades all the time (a stereotype of sustainable brands — but it’s not true!) That’s where renting, leasing or swapping comes in: you can experiment with your style and trends while being eco-friendly.
Renting is a great option for all those clothes you’ve had to buy that you could only wear once, like outfits for galas, parties or weddings. Renting not only saves resources, but it also gives you more options at a lower budget, while saving you closet space or buyers’ regret! With subscription rental companies where you can lease your clothes for up to a month, you can enjoy those outfits and accessories for longer too.
Swapping is a fun way to not only clear out good-condition items you don’t wear anymore but discover something else to add to your collection. You can swap amongst your friends and family or at a dedicated swapping store. In the end, someone else can enjoy your preloved clothes while you give another person’s items a second life. At the same time, you’re supporting a more circular fashion system while keeping your wardrobe fresh and funky!
6. Choosing to DIY, repair or upcycle
Given its cheap prices, fast fashion makes us forget the effort that goes into making clothes. Considerable time and expert skills go into turning fibres into fabric, as well as dyeing, drafting and sewing. Making or repairing clothes connects the maker to the clothing and embeds value and meaning into the process.
When we talk about a circular fashion system, we essentially envision a world where textile waste doesn’t exist. It’s not to say waste won’t occur but that it will either decompose, be composted, reused for other purposes or upcycled to make something even better. When we think of a product’s end of life in mind, that’s when we can be more mindful of what our clothes go through when they no longer serve us.
By repairing or even upcycling your old band tee into a tote bag, you’re prolonging the life of your clothes. Sewing is a very useful and fun skill to develop, even if it’s to know how to sew on a button or fix a hem. It gives you the means to make something completely unique to your taste. If you’re not dextrous enough to make your own clothes, support brands who use upcycling techniques or use recycled fabrics! You’ll be caring for the planet and incentivising more brands to make circularity a priority.
7. Choosing second-hand, thrift or vintage
Shopping second hand is a great way to keep existing clothes in circulation. Thrift shopping, vintage and preloved all fall under the second-hand umbrella, but serve different purposes. Thrift generally means cheap finds at charity shops, while vintage is anything older than 20 years. In fact, the collectors of rare 60’s Chanel in Paris, Diesel denim in London or Issey Miyake bags in Japan paved the way for pre-loved luxury to be as popular as it is now.
There are misconceptions that put people off second-hand fashion. Some believe styles are outdated, or that wearing other people’s belongings is unhygienic. However, most people that look past those aspects discover styles and silhouettes they love from the past. Good second-hand shops inspect all items brought in for tears, stains and general wear and tear. Better yet, going second-hand means you can avoid excess plastic packaging. In short, have an open mind and think of it as a treasure hunt!
Making fashion more sustainable means keeping clothes out of landfill; shopping second hand truly helps you do that. You get a dose of retail therapy without breaking the bank and keeping garments in circulation. In one swift visit to your local second-hand store, you don’t just bring back garments but beautiful memories – whether it was trying something new, making friends in the store or even the story behind the clothes you bought. Oh, and we’re all about owning unique pieces instead of mass-produced, cookie-cutter designs.
8. Choosing to buy less
You were probably expecting this but it’s true: buying only what you need is the best filter for shopping sustainably. This journey starts by making the most of what you own! Remember, consuming sustainably means buying with purpose and not falling victim to fast fashion’s clever marketing tactics. While this might seem daunting, you’ll naturally buy less if you do any of the above.
If you’re up for a challenge, you could try an entire year without buying, or at least not purchasing anything new. Stopping mindlessly scrolling through shopping apps doesn’t just do the planet some good, it even does wonders for your mental state too. Without the pressure of constantly chasing trends, you might even rediscover your personal style and stick to your budget. And with all that extra moolah, why not purchase a meaningful experience or save for a rainy day?
It’s no secret that we have enough clothes in existence on our planet. However, fast fashion companies keep churning out new designs while ignoring their environmental and social impact. By consciously choosing not to participate in mass consumption, you’re voting with your wallet for a more considerate fashion system. Most importantly, by forgoing impulsive buying we stop seeing fashion as disposable. Instead, we can focus on what it should be: a tool for self-expression that empowers communities and safeguards our environment.
The final say?
So it’s official: whether you’re into DIY or supporting ethical brands, sustainable fashion CAN be inclusive and accessible at any budget. The first step to shopping better is consciously changing the way you think about the things you wear. And don’t beat yourself up if you fall off the wagon now and again — consuming sustainably isn’t about eco-perfection, it’s about taking steps to be better than yesterday.
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With a background in fashion and textiles, Durva is an ardent photographer and advocate of social justice. She enjoys writing about fashion, sustainability, socio-political issues and partakes in the occasional 'who wore it better' banter on Diet Prada.