Failing at Ethical Fashion
I was almost hesitant to share these photos, and for a reason that isn’t readily apparent. It’s not because my hair wasn’t quite cooperating this day, my camera wasn’t focusing properly or because it was really warm in the house and I was eager to get this sweater off.
It’s because this outfit fails at ethical fashion.
If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, it won’t come as a surprise that I care about responsible fashion- I talk about it a lot. I take part in Fashion Revolution each year. The majority of my clothing is secondhand. I sew slowly and thoughtfully- I try to make sure that each of the items I make are ones that will add value to my closet. I don’t technically have a “capsule” wardrobe, but each and every item is chosen carefully and definitely worn more than 30 times. I very seldom purchase anything new, and when I do, I try to buy natural fibres, and search out ethical brands if possible.
I love fashion (no surprise there), but seeking to be purposeful and ethical in a world where fast fashion is the norm, can be hard.
And sometimes when you find a mustard yellow sweater, you buy it.
A few weeks ago, I was visiting a local clothing store with my mom and sister, trying to help my mom find a sweater, and as we were looking, I came across this mustard yellow sweater. I’ve been looking for a long time (a couple of years) for some mustard yellow pieces, since it is my favourite colour, but is extremely hard to find!
Since it was on sale, I bought it.
And then I immediately started thinking about the fact that it is made out of rayon and polyester, and dyed with a toxic mix of chemicals, and was made in China, and other than that, I definitely don’t know “who made my sweater”, and then I started regretting it, because this is not ethical fashion, and how can I call myself an ethical fashion proponent, when I just made a very unethical shopping choice?
But I’ve been doing some thinking lately, and I would like to share a few of thoughts on whether it’s possible to be completely “ethical” in your shopping choices.
I participated in a course that Fashion Revolution was offering a while ago. It was an interesting activity, but the one thing that stuck out to me, was this response by the founder of Fashion Revolution, Orsola De Castro to the question, “Is it possible to have a 100% sustainable or ethical wardrobe?”
I don’t think it’s possible to have 100% clothes that were designed or made sustainably or ethically. I think that is going to be very difficult, but it is possible to make sustainable and ethical choices about all of the clothes you have in your wardrobe. So, somehow, you can refresh with love and turn them into something they weren’t originally. . . You can do things like shop at Primark and H&M, but with the same respect if you were shopping somewhere like Gucci. You’ve got to treat your fiver like it was $500, and choose that piece not because you are “stress shopping at Zara”. We are not stress shopping at Zara: we are “deep love shopping at Primark” or Zara or wherever. . . Because, if we were to commit to 100% not putting one foot wrong, we would be damaging ourselves and our wardrobes immensely, and also the people who actually make our clothes, because there are an awful lot of people making clothes who are waiting for the industry to ameliorate, and what are we going to do in the meantime? Boycott them all? As consumers, we still buy that product. We just buy it in a different way, so we can give a really strong message to the brands. This message might be “Slow down”. This message might be “No, we don’t want five for the price of one; we want one well made piece for the price of five”.
This past year I have started going zero waste in my lifestyle. At first, I thought the concept of “zero waste” was to try and produce no garbage at all. We’ve all seen the pictures of people’s “trash jars” where they are able to fit all of their garbage from the past year (or more) into one glass jar. It’s inspiring to think about living a life that doesn’t result in garbage, but it’s not completely realistic for most people.
I live in a small town, and there is no bulk store. Cauliflower comes wrapped in plastic. I recycle or compost everything I can, but still end up with garbage at the end of the day.
As I’ve been reading more, and started following several zero wasters on Instagram, one thing that keeps coming up is the fact that we are currently living in a culture that is designed to result in garbage. “Zero waste” doesn’t mean that you are producing zero garbage, but is rather a name for a movement that is trying to restructure our global economy to one designed to be circular, where garbage isn’t part of the cycle. Today our products (whether it’s clothing, or food or other things) are designed with waste. It’s impossible to create “zero waste” as a consumer. And even if you think that you are doing a fairly good job, there is garbage that has been created before the product even reaches you. (I work in a shop, and the amount of packaging garbage that is thrown out before a product even reaches the shelf is astounding.)
But again, this quote by Instagrammer Andrea Sanders (@bezerowastegirl) has been bopping around in my head for a while:
“Zero Waste isn’t easy because it’s an infrastructure that doesn’t exist right now. Access to bulk stores, fresh markets and the like are not accessible to most. Everyone makes trash. Period. Do what you can. Never feel guilty because you can’t do something. There is no absolutism.”
And so, it makes me ask: Was this sweater an unwise shopping decision after all? Am I “failing” at ethical fashion?
Our current fashion culture is one that is driven by the need to buy more and more, regardless of how much we already own, but when I purchased this sweater, I wasn’t buying it from a fast fashion perspective.
I have been searching for a mustard yellow sweater for a few years, so it was not a spur of the moment purchase. It was “deep love” shopping, not buying for the sake of buying.
It is estimated that wearing a garment at least 30 times, reduces the carbon, waste and water footprint of a garment by 20%-30%. I wear all my clothes at least 30 times, and despite the fact that this sweater is not made of completely natural fibres, it is well sewn and will last me many years. I also take care of my clothes, and will be hand washing this one to help increase it’s lifespan.
It’s a tricky issue. I can’t say that I’m completely convinced that I should have bought it. Maybe if I had waited a while longer I would have come across something in mustard yellow that would have ticked all the boxes, but then again, maybe not.
I want my wardrobe to be 100% ethical, but that’s not really feasible right now. If 95% of my wardrobe is ethical fashion, then is the 5% that isn’t ethical, OK? Where do you draw the line? Is there a line? How do you balance want vs. need, especially with something as “frivolous” as fashion?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this issue. How do you decide for your own wardrobe?
March 5, 2019 @ 8:29 am
I have the exact same guilt if I slip up and buy retail. My retail slips are usually on shoes or boots which is sometimes hard to source secondhand.
Like you though, if I had been looking for a particular item for years I would be very tempted to buy retail and justify the purchase to myself.
I’m trying my hardest to reduce my waste too and I also find it next to impossible when shopping for food. Everything is packed in plastic, fruit, veg. And if you shop at Costco…forget it. Excess packaging is rampant. I do shop at the Bulk Barn but they only carry so much and very few liquids. Ideally they would have a “liquid” Bulk Barn too.
I think the important take away is not to be unhappy about what you’re not doing, but to be happy about what you are doing.
BTW…love the outfit and that bag!
March 5, 2019 @ 7:34 pm
Thank-you for your thoughtful comment Suzanne. It was very encouraging to read your thoughts on the issues, and I’ve been enjoying your blog posts about sustainable fashion too.
I agree- shoes are difficult- as well as groceries! It’s just not possible all the time, but I’ve been thinking about the saying, “Two steps forward and one step back is still one step forward” and think it very much applies to this issue!
March 5, 2019 @ 10:29 am
You are being hard on yourself! Surely awareness and intention are the first steps on this journey? I have bought maybe half a dozen brand new items in the last year. I needed a new thermal baselayer for winter, and I couldn’t get what I wanted secondhand. I also bought some knickers, from a fair trade brand that uses organic cotton. Before that, silver kitten heel boots, and gold flat boots, from a ‘fast fashion’ store. Both a bit wild, completely non-essential, but they sparked joy and I had been looking to purchase secondhand for several years to no avail. I wear them regularly. I think you are doing a marvellous job, and posts like this are very thought provoking and highlight the unrealistic expectations some may have about adopting a more eco-friendly lifestyle. Xx
March 5, 2019 @ 7:38 pm
Yes- I am hard on myself, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about lately. Your comment about the expectations that may hinder some from choosing a more ethical lifestyle is spot on! That’s why I love that quote by @zerowastegirl. We definitely should all be focusing on what we CAN do not on what we can’t.
Thank-you for taking the time to post your thoughts and join the conversation Porcelina!
March 5, 2019 @ 9:11 pm
Oh my, this post is fantastic. It really, really, and I mean REALLY resonates with me. I’ve been struggling with ethical fashion, reducing waste, etc., but there are some really tough choices that have to be made!!!
First, as for your sweater, I hear you. I did the same thing a couple years ago with a little shawl thing from Forever 21. I still love it, and baby it because I’m afraid it will fall apart at the seams because it’s from Forever 21. Like you, I try to shop second hand, but sometimes that just doesn’t work out. And I like that you mention slow sewing, because even sewing, which we think is one of the most ethical choices, has a lot of negative aspects to it too.
A current struggle for me right now is that I am currently going through an identity crisis, and want to expand other areas of my wardrobe, but I get scared. Like, I see something I like on Pinterest or whatever and then see it in a store and then try it on and I am like “Can I pull this off? I WANT to do this…but I’m scared.” And so sometimes I’m afraid to buy a quality, ethically made item, that as you know costs far more than a fast fashion option, in the event my lack of confidence results in me not wearing it. So sometimes I buy fast fashion to see if I am confident enough to find a quality piece later. Fitting rooms only go so far when it comes to deciding if something will be part of your wardrobe.
I hear your struggle with the zero waste, especially with food. It’s a massive struggle, and going bulk shopping is difficult even for us at the moment in Orange County. But we are doing what we can where we can at the moment. And I think you have to take it slow and keep going.
Sorry to ramble!
March 9, 2019 @ 5:14 pm
Thank-you for rambling! And sharing your thoughts on the issue.
I completely understand the trouble with experimenting with fashion- but not wanting to spend too much on an item in case it’s not really “you” after all. (I’ve still got hats and such that I bought a few years ago when first getting into vintage, that now don’t really fit my style and yet there is no one in my area to sell them to, so I’m just keeping them. . . it’s a conundrum!)
Even though it’s not really encouraging to know that we are all struggling with these issues, I’m glad all the same to know that I’m not the only one! 🙂
March 6, 2019 @ 9:46 am
I don’t think that it is failing at ethical fashion to occasionally shop at a big box store. As the many intelligent people you quoted pointed out–ethical fashion at its core is about choosing your clothes well and making them last—as you do.
Your new sweater is very cute, as is your full outfit. And your concerns are very valid. It is very hard to live while causing as little harm to others and the environment as possible. Our efforts to do so will take different shapes in different circumstances. I think that so long as we are thinking hard about our choices and doing the best that we can, then we are making progress. I enjoy your thoughtful posts on consumption very much, as being less wasteful is a topic that is often on my mind. And something I struggle with, too. We live in a culture that makes living wastefully so very easy.
My own trouble with ethical fashion is that I feel like I sew more than I need to wear. But I buy most of my fabrics second-hand at the thrift store, so if some of the finished garments end up at the thrift store after a little while, I try to not feel too bad about it. I’m giving those fabrics a second chance at being used. And I’m learning skills as I go along that will help me sew more successful garments. And sometimes I just can’t tell if a style will suit me based on the pattern cover!. I suppose we all have to compromise here or there to achieve some level of personal comfort—for me, I have realized that I need the therapy of sewing more than I need to be an ultra-ethical minimalist, as much as I admire those who have adopted that lifestyle. I still try to keep my sewing (and the rest of my life) as sustainable as possible by using and reusing secondhand goods. And I’ve found a great use for my fabric scraps and worn-out clothes—my rats love using them as bedding!
March 9, 2019 @ 5:19 pm
Thank-you so much for taking the time to comment! I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on the issues.
I appreciate what you said about the core of ethical fashion being choosing clothes well and making them last- not just how they are made etc. The root of the entire fast fashion cycle is ultimately the fact that people want more clothing for less money, and so the cycle of cheap throwaway items was born.
I completely understand your dilemma of not knowing whether a pattern will suit you until you make it- that is a problem with sewing-you can’t just try things on!
You make beautiful garments though, so I’m sure any pieces you pass on, are snapped up right away 🙂
Thanks for commenting and for sharing your ideas!
March 9, 2019 @ 9:11 am
I think it’s hard to do anything 100%. I try to buy clothes and fabric made of cotton. I am buying less and trying to use up the fabric I have. And saving the selvage edges to use in my future garden and maybe crochet rugs.
This week, I read that as an average, we throw away 70-80 pounds of clothing each year, about 100 garments. I don’t come anywhere close to that and I’m sure you don’t. But I do what I can ethically.
You’ve done a very good job learning what you can about ethical fashion and teaching us, by word and example. Keep up the good work! I think we’re entitled to a “treat” now and then. The whole outfit – sweater, shoes – looks great on you. Lovely pics, too.
March 9, 2019 @ 5:23 pm
Oigh- I definitely don’t throw away 100 garments a year! 🙁 That’s a very sad statistic! If I threw away 100 garments, I don’t think I would even have anything left in my closet!
I love your ideas of saving the selvedge edges for crochet rugs- rag rugs are such a great way to use scraps!
Thank-you for taking the time to comment and share your thoughts.