Only organic natural fibers.
Or what about just natural fibers?
Scratch that. But no polyester. Oh wait…
Okay I guess recycled polyester is alright.
Only brands that list their factories.
Only brands that list the countries where their factories are.
Only brands that address factory conditions in their code of conduct.
Only brands that have a code of conduct?
Over the past year I’ve tried to abide by a number of guidelines when it comes to purchasing clothing. I curbed the total number of pieces I added to my wardrobe and I thought long and hard about each addition. Before each purchase, however, there was research. Lots and lots of research. If I wanted to fill a hole in my wardrobe, I went through a list of questions:
Which brands/retailers do I trust? Believe in? Support their mission? Bottom line: can I shop here with a clear conscience?
Which of those companies offers the type of garment I’m looking for (work-appropriate, basics, swimwear, etc.)?
At my price point?
Are they using responsible materials?
In my style? Size?
As you can imagine, the list becomes pretty short after asking the first question – trying to apply the last few filters often leaves me with a very limited set of options. If, as is often the case, I am left without any contenders, I move back through the list, deciding where I can budge. Slowly but surely, my list of non-negotiables becomes very negotiable, the lines I drew in the sand so blurry I start to second-guess their value. I inevitably find myself asking “What’s the point?” and wishing I could blindly trust that no brand or retailer would still be in business if they were doing something truly horrid. Right?
Then I collect my senses (aka my pesky friend awareness), acknowledge that my lack of information doesn’t actually equate to trustworthiness, and forfeit the search altogether.
I don’t like policing this industry. I don’t enjoy having to launch a full-on investigation prior to buying a new shirt. Yet, there are so many layers between me and what’s going on in the supply chain: without being there, without seeing the process with my own eyes, how do I know what to believe?
Playing fashion police is exhausting. Like trying to dance a ballet while voluntarily donning a rigid suit of armor.
You know, if that’s something you’ve ever tried.
As a consumer, what else can I do? How do I keep myself from burning out as I try to shop with my values, instead of mindlessly checking them at the door to the fitting room?
When I decided I needed a dress for market week, or boots to help me get through another New York City winter, the thought of researching brands and finding a style I actually liked was almost enough to stop me before I even started my search. Choosing to shop according to the list I’d fabricated regarding “ethical fashion” limited my options significantly – trying to find something that truly spoke to me and represented my personal style from those options was nearly impossible.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve put something in my shopping cart – sometimes even ordering the item – and let it sit there, either in my cart or on my counter top, for days (okay, sometimes weeks) before deciding no, it just wouldn’t work for me. Or, I’d find pieces from brands I admired and supported – pieces that were perfectly fine, that would have sufficiently filled my functional needs – only to let them sit and languish in shopping cart limbo because I felt neither here nor there about them. Uninspired is the last thing I want to feel when I add something to my wardrobe, because it’s the last thing I want to feel when I get dressed in the morning.
Ultimately I opt to return everything, because in the end it doesn’t matter how perfect an item is from a sustainability perspective: if I don’t wear it, it’s a waste. This is the nature of clothing – it serves its purpose only when it is used, and used often. That’s when you experience the benefit of the materials or the construction – you’ll never see the return on your investment if your clothes remain attached to the hanger. This is the linchpin, the piece that undoes all of my other considerations when buying a garment: if I won’t wear it, the rest of the conversation is useless.
If you’ve come to the conclusion that the stories behind your clothing matter, doing the research to uncover those stories is only the first half of the job. The second half? Share those stories. Maybe that means talking about them with your circle of influence, maybe that means writing to companies to say you support what they’re doing or to ask for more information. Maybe, and this one’s my personal favorite, that means wearing clothes with good stories.
I’m not one to strike up conversations with random strangers about fiber content and living wages, but I will communicate my values through the clothing I choose to wear and the companies I choose to buy from. This is just one of the many things I love about clothes: without saying anything at all, we can speak volumes with what we choose to wear – we’re always saying something.
What do you want to say?
With my stringent guidelines, I finally realized I was trying to say everything at once. I was searching for perfect stories, deep within the belly of a wildly imperfect industry – it’s really no surprise that I was feeling frustrated. How can we avoid this pitfall?
In an industry that’s taking (baby) steps in the right direction, what if, instead of trying to race to the finish, we matched its pace? Take a look at where you are now. Next time you buy a piece of clothing, choose one thing to change for the better. Natural fibers? Awesome. Made to last? Fantastic. Information about the factory? Golden.
As you develop your own list of non-negotiables (because our lists aren’t going to be identical), you’ll also start to discover companies that share your concerns. You’ll build up an arsenal of brands where you know you can shop: brands that satisfy your most basic requirements but also share your sense of style and offer pieces within your price range. Over time, your list will grow. It’s a slow process, but the process is key: by giving yourself the time to make thoughtful changes to the way you buy clothes, you’ll learn so much more about what’s important to you and what options exist – without the added pressure of getting it right on the first try.
So, for now, what’s your one thing?