I’m currently coming to the end of the brokest year of my life. I’ve technically had less money coming in before - when I was a student, or when I lived in a little fishing village in Kenya with no pay for a year. But I’m a grown-up now, and a homeowner in one of the least affordable cities in the world. A grown-up mother of two little boys at that. Which means I need things like food in the fridge at all times.
My principles around ethical fashion have been put to the test this past cash-strapped year. There’s a premium to be paid for ethical fashion because the clothes reflect the true cost of production. Fast fashion is only cheap because humans beings and the environment are footing the cost somewhere.
When you have a monthly clothing budget that’s close to zero dollars, the bright lights and on-trend palletes of the fast-fashion world twinkle a little brighter, beckoning you in for the dopamine rush that comes with a dirty little purchase.
All that time I’ve spent not shopping has given me space to think about how we can continue to minimise the impact of our fashion purchases, even when there’s not a healthy budget to throw at it. Here are a few of my key reflections:
Just. Stop. Buying.
This one is crazy. I’m so addicted to consuming that simply not making purchases for extended periods of time was actually a major thing to get my head around this past year. Something felt like it was missing, and it was: the dopamine rush that comes with buying things.
Plus we’re being bombarded with messages from retailers convincing us that our wardrobes are no longer fashionable, so that they can sell more crap to us.
Buying new clothes that I feel great in makes me genuinely happy. I’m assuming it’s something I’ll always love doing. But this past year has been a really great (albeit forced) exercise in curbing consumption for the sake of consumption.
Choose your weapon
There are multiple ways to come at the challenge of reducing the impact of our fashion and lifestyle choices.
Aspects of clothing production that you may want consider include: whether a garment is made from sustainable materials; whether they were made locally which supports smaller, local businesses; the payment of fair wages and employment standards along the supply chain (no slavery or child labour); respect for animals; low carbon emissions; whether the brand is able to trace the garment (and fabric) from the raw materials all the way to finished product (transparency).
That’s a lot to consider, and the pinnacle of ethical fashion is a brand that ticks all of those boxes. It’s up to you as a consumer to get a feel for what the most important aspects to you are personally, and start there.
Ticking one of the boxes with each of our purchases is better than not doing anything at all. And if you’re able to tick more than one of those boxes with a purchases – even better. Well Made Clothes is great online ethical fashion marketplace which lets you shop by "values" such as sustainability, waste minimisation, local production and transparency.
Loved clothes last
Because I’ve bought almost zero clothing in the past year, I appreciated more than ever my existing garments and accessories that are high quality and timeless in design. They still look and feel great on, the shape hasn’t been compromised with wear and they don’t look sad or dated.
If you’re on a budget, or you’re just not quite on board yet with the ethical fashion movement – committing to purchasing quality clothes that will last (regardless of how they were produced) is a good first step in the right direction. I’m a firm believer that making even one small change to the way we consume is a good thing, and buying quality is a rejection of fast fashion.
Yes quality clothes cost more up front, but it’s all about the “buy less, choose well, make it last” life. True story: I once bought a pair of pants from an online fast fashion retailer for $45. I got ONE wear out of them before they ripped. That’s $45 per wear! That’s the equivalent of buying a pair of trousers for $4500 and wearing them 100 times. Not even Gucci charges that.
Cheap fashion is false economy because you’ll ending up spending over and over again as the clothes break, or just start to look sad. Plus staggered payment plans like After-Pay makes it a little easier to make the upfront outlay in cost.
Pre-loved is queen
Buying secondhand is cheaper than buying new items of comparable quality so it’s an affordable way to invest in quality pieces that you’re going to love and wear for a long time. You’re essentially swapping out a used product for the creation of a new one, so no virgin materials have gone into creating your purchase.
It’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card, we can’t ignore the fact that precious resources were used to create the garment, and someone was employed to originally manufacture it. So shopping mindfully is still important when buying pre-loved.
However research by WRAP in the UK shows extending the average life of clothes (2.2 years) by just three months of active use per item leads to a 5-10% reduction in each of the carbon, water and waste footprints. Looking to already existing resources to fulfil our needs is an easy step we can take to reduce the impact of our wardrobes.
If trawling op-shops for those rare finds isn’t your idea of fun, there are a bunch of higher end, well curated pre-loved stores in NZ like Recycle Boutique, Tattys and Emporio U. Scotties has a recycled section too.
Body products and underwear are easier to commit to on a budget
Because of the smaller outlay required to purchase bodycare compared with clothing, I did manage to stick to my guns when it came to my beauty regime, keeping to cruelty free brands and natural (mostly) organic ingredients.
There are a bunch of great NZ and Australian underwear brands too that are producing ethical and eco-friendly lingerie. Again, this is something that requires a smaller outlay in cost, even when you’re investing in really quality pieces. Check out brands like Nisa, Hara, and Nico. Pansy is an amazing US brand (with the dreamiest insta feed ever), and they're also available on Well Made Clothes.
Get familiar with high risk countries
If you’re finding it difficult to invest in high quality, ethically produced clothes because money is tight or you’re just not quite convinced yet, you might be interested in understanding which countries are considered to be at high risk of using slave labour to produce clothes.
Fashion is a high risk industry for forced labour (slavery). According to the Walk Free Foundation and the ILO there are an estimated 25 million forced labourers in the world, two-thirds of whom are in the same region where the majority of the world's garment production take place: the Asia-Pacific.
According to the 2018 Ethical Fashion Report most of the world's largest garment exporters - China, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam and Cambodia - are all rated "high" or "extreme" on the risk of forced labour. The ILO estimates that 18 million child slaves are currently involved in the garment manufacturing sector.
There will of course be excellent factories paying fair wages in these countries too. The fashion industry is a significant provider of jobs globally, which encourages economic growth and generates revenue from tax. But it’s worth asking questions of brands to get a little more information if you see a high risk country listed on their label.
Don’t forget that when a garment is made somewhere low risk like New Zealand, the risk rating doesn’t necessarily apply to production of the fabric itself. Cotton for example could be made in Uzbekistan using forced or child labour, then turned into a garment in a country like New Zealand where garment workers are paid well.
The the 2018 Ethical Fashion Report states that cotton production carries an especially high risk of child labour with almost every major producing country being impacted. Those countries include China, India, Brazil, Pakistan, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and the US. Turkmenistan is of particular concern in this respect, with slavery and child labour being widespread and state sponsored. Australia is currenlty the only exception.
Whatever your barriers are to investing in a truly ethical wardrobe - be that lack of funds or lack of motivation - just make small changes and don't be discouraged because you can't do it all. My wardrobe is not 100% ethical, but I'm going to keep doing what I can, with what I have.