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6 Myths About Buying Ethical Clothing

6 myths about ethical and sustainable clothing

The most common negative comments I get on ethical fashion articles I've written for other sites tend fall into one of two categories, either:
Good for you for having enough money to buy expensive clothes. Some of us can't afford to buy a closet full of ethical clothing and it's classist for you to even mention it. Have you no pity on poor people in your own country?
Or:
Have you considered the fact that people in foreign countries will lose their jobs if we stop buying from sweatshops? Better to have a lousy job than no job at all.

Some of them are considerably less harsh and some are too horrific to repeat here, but it's clear to me that the biggest deterrence to acquiring an ethical wardrobe is money. So let me clarify a few things.

Firstly, I absolutely do care about the plight of the poor in my own country. It's despicable that, despite our national wealth, more than 45 million people live below the poverty line. And we've got a few social safety nets, but we haven't really figured out how to help people get a leg up long term, and it's only getting worse. And it's just a matter of fact that low cost, sweatshop-sourced clothing may be the best financial option for a lot of people. If you live paycheck to paycheck and have trouble putting clothes on your back and the backs of your children, please know that I not only feel for you, but I think you need to make the best choice for your family, even if that means making the ethics of your clothing choices less of a priority, or not a priority at all. You are welcome to this conversation, of course, but you may have other things to worry about.

But I also know for a fact that a lot of you can afford to consider your purchases. You're the ones I'm talking to (and I get the sense that, by and large, you're also the ones making the most excuses). Reality check: I manage a local thrift shop and my husband is a grad student. We aren't exactly making it rain over here. But we do benefit a lot from the knowledge that, if something were to happen to us, our parents would be able to step in to support us. We have a social network that makes us feel secure and that helps us make long term financial decisions we couldn't make if we were going it completely alone. We also don't have children to support, so our income stretches a bit further.

I am aware of my relative privilege, but I suspect there are a lot of you in my position who don't realize that it is possible to change your spending habits without breaking the bank. If you can overcome a few prevalent myths, you'll be on your way to making better choices in no time.

Myth 1: It's a given that I will buy at least a dozen new items every season. 


For many of us, it would be a financial disaster to buy more than a handful of fair trade clothing items every 6 months. But, if you've already built a basic wardrobe, you don't need to buy more than a couple new things a year. Magazines and 5 week trend cycles make us feel obligated to keep up with every new fad on the market, but it isn't necessary or even fulfilling. You may have to buy less if you're purchasing from more ethical brands, but that probably won't hurt you in the long run. Plus, in my own experience, fair trade and domestically produced items from small brands hold up better than fast fashion items anyway, so you won't need to replace your staples as often.

Myth 2: I can't dress well with secondhand items.


My go-to advice for people considering their purchases for the first time is to start with thrift shopping. The sticker shock of fair trade and sustainable items will wear off eventually, but in the meantime, try secondhand on for size. A lot of people insist that they can't get high quality items at thrift shops, but I suspect they don't regularly visit them. The thrift market is booming and it's surprisingly easy to find something you like that's in great condition.

And yes, thrift shopping is a more ethical option, even if you're buying conventional brands there. Why? Because you're not contributing to demand for new items and you're ensuring that things don't end up in the landfill so quickly. Additionally, money spent at thrift shops supports local charities.

Myth 3: My specific circumstances (size, profession, location) prevent me from buying from ethical retailers. 


I feel you on this one. The ethical market is still growing and it's not always easy - or possible - to find things that fit well or suit your lifestyle. To you, I'd suggest a few options:

  1. Buy from online consignment stores like thredUP. You may be able to find a greater variety of sizes and styles from secondhand sites online. There are also a couple new consignment shops that sell exclusively ethical clothing: Check out Bead and Reel's Rescued Collection and SLOWRE.
  2.  Search ebay's pre-owned section for brands you like.
  3. Buy well. If you can't find ethical or secondhand options, try to buy things that will last. You'll save money over time and you won't contribute as heavily to demand for sweatshop goods. I do this with shoes, because it's difficult to find well-made, comfortable shoes on the ethical market (though there are a growing number of companies filling the void).

Myth 4: It's actually in the best interest of sweatshop laborers that we keep buying their goods. Otherwise, they'll lose their jobs and it'll be our fault!


This one is complicated, for sure. On the one hand, I don't think it's a great idea to just pull out of countries like Bangladesh or Cambodia, because it's true that thousands of people are employed by garment factories there thanks to consumer demand for new goods in countries like the US. But I also think it's too easy to immediately dismiss the whole ethical consumerism discussion by pretending that supporting sweatshop labor is actually moral.

We should continue to support global manufacturing, but try to find the companies that are better regulating their factories. Everlane, for instance, produces a lot of their tops in China, but they can tell you exactly what it looks like to work at one of their factories. In Cambodia, Tonle employees earn fair wages. If we support Tonle, they will grow and be able to employ more people, which means a garment worker can leave the sweatshop for a safer, better environment.

On a related note,

Myth 5: If wages go up, a lot of garment workers will lose their jobs.


Consider this. In manufacturing centers like Dhaka, Bangladesh, entire families work in the factory, even children. With a wage increase, families may be able to afford to let some members pursue other things, like childhood or education. Entire families wouldn't necessarily have to work, so a few people losing their jobs may not be an issue at all.

This myth also presupposes that profit margins are already set as low as they can go when, in reality, higher-ups make a ton of money. Corporations have the wiggle room to provide better wages to workers and make improvements to facilities even without layoffs or significantly raising prices to consumers. They'd have to set up rigorous systems to ensure that wages are being passed down from contracted garment factory to the workers or set up their own factories, but there's more money to work with than they like to let on.

Myth 6: The market can regulate itself. 


No, it can't. The market is constantly being manipulated by individuals only looking out for their best interests. Regulation is essential; that's why we have a 40 hour work week and child labor laws in place in this country. The market is not some magical, mythical being that sorts things out for us. People call the shots and it's on us to make the market work better for everyone. That being said, we can certainly help the market regulate itself toward better ethics by making smarter, healthier, more loving purchasing decisions.

This list isn't meant to intimidate you or make you feel miserable. It's meant to empower you! You have more options than you might think.

Some places to start:
  • MadeFAIR - a curated boutique with contemporary, wearable pieces at mid-range price points
  • Ash & Rose - an online and brick-and-mortar boutique with a wide range of styles and sizes
  • Synergy Organic Clothing - clothes and yoga gear made from an organic cotton/spandex blend (carries plus size)
  • Dorsu - casual basics and cute dresses made from factory remnants
  • Everlane - modern, minimalist clothing and accessories at lower price points made with transparency
  • Thredup - a huge marketplace of secondhand goods (carries plus size)
  • Sotela.co - a startup specializing in clothing that accommodates natural seasonal weight fluctuations
  • IMBY - a curated boutique of city-chic, Made in USA pieces

More companies and resources I recommend are available in my Shops + Links tab.

The market has expanded immensely since I first wrote this post, so Google Search away for specialty items and you may just find them!

---------

What's holding you back? What's the most common misconception about going ethical among your friends and family?


36 comments

  1. So sorry to hear people have been making such ignorant comments about your support of ethical fashion! I really love how you used this post as a way to combat all of the comments in such a positive way! Obviously they don't know much about you/your blog if they don't realize that you work at a thrift store and are constantly promoting buying second-hand. Which is actually quite the contrary of being classist.
    Anyway, loved this post & I hope you don't mind me sharing with my readers as well! Get 'em, Leah!

    <(') hoda | joojoo azad

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  2. I'm mostly a thrift-store shopper right now, with the except of lingerie (underpants, bras). I'm also trying to sew and knit more of my clothing, rather than purchasing them. I've yet to try buying from ethical retailers partly because I've been buying second-hand for pretty much the entirety of my adult life, and I'm not used to thinking of "new" being an affordable option for our budget. When I do look at ethical retailers, it's less the price (since I know I could plan and budget for something), and more that a lot of the styles, prints, and colours don't suit either my size/shape, my colouring, or my preferences.

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    Replies
    1. Yeah, I feel you on that. I think ethical retailers are starting to offer more diverse styles, but in the meantime, there are always better avenues like thrift and consignment shops.

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  3. I shop mainly in thrift, and currently re-making from thrift shop buys. I am beginning to look to ethical retailers now that they are becoming more available, and like anna above, the styles are not to my taste (I am not saying money is no object here, but I have always preferred to buy an expensive well made item that will last me for years and years over a one-season wear). its a pity you are getting those comments but it just shows how short sighted the varying views can be, especially over the employment area. my own thoughts would also be, -there used be a lot more clothes produced in ireland (where I am from) 20 years ago than now so the garment industry here was priced out of it in favour of paying someone else less for product, and the other thought - the clothing industry also has a negative environmental impact on the water supply etc in these developing countries so rather than encouraging more manufacturing, which degrades the standard of living further,it would be better to encourage less, and better paid clothing manufacturing as well as encouraging diversity of local industry would be preferable. your tv segment shared last week with the money earned by the owners of h&m etc was an eye-opener. (sorry for long comment)

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    Replies
    1. It's really unfortunate that the industry has reached a point where labor is the only place left to cut corners. Profits matter, of course, but they'll never matter as much as people and long term access to natural resources.

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  4. This is so good. So good. Very well-thought out. Wonderful tips Leah! #1 has been a big one for me this year. I am focusing on purchasing less, but purchasing well.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you! I'm really enjoying your blog.

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  5. Love this & your article on seasons & salts blog about there being no excuse for ignoring the impact our purchases have on other human beings was dead on. Thankyou

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  6. Thanks for sharing your idea about buying a secondhand clothes. I really need this because I am looking for a secondhand item. I don't have enough budget to buy a brand new clothes. By the way, I already bought my secondhand shoes on this website http://www.boex.tv/ and it seems that they have many designs to choose there. You can visit it for more details.

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  7. Thanks for writing this! I've been slowly building a list of ethical retailers that sell plus sizes, and there's been so little done on it (for so many reasons, including some of the ones you mentioned above) that while I still think of my list as small I'm fairly sure it's the largest list of its kind online. (http://lydiadickson.blogspot.com/p/ethical-plus-size-fashion.html) I just found you blog today, but I'll be reading to pick up more insights. Thanks!

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  8. Hi, Thank you for sharing this informative content about buying ethical clothing. I had a great time reading your blog. I will definitely share this to my friends. However, I'm looking forward to see more interesting topic about quality used shoes as what BoEx in Germany shared on their blog here: http://www.boex.tv/

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  9. amazing myths really i like it and i will try it

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  10. This is a great post, Leah! I feel like I run into these all the time when talking to people about ethical fashion.

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  11. I loved your article! Ethical fashion provides such a great alternative to fast fashion. It's a shame that people can be snobbish (at times) about buying second hand clothing. I have several beautiful garments that I would never have been able to afford to buy new. I've found some amazing pieces in thrift stores, like a designer suit for $30!

    Sherita @ Astute Promotions

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  14. Ahhhhh! This is such a difficult topic for me. I can totally get on board with you on your first 3 myths, and on your last one. However, Myths 4 and 5 actually aren't really myths (although that's not the way I would phrase them) - I wish they were, but they're not. When I was in grad school, this was one of the issues that I studied very closely. My interest began out of a desire to bring more of a fact-based, academic awareness to "slow fashion." However, much to my disappointment, that is NOT where the research out there led me (if anyone is interested, you can study the effects of the Harkin Bill, among other things, for a quick intro to this topic. There are also some great, large-sample studies out there if you have access to academic journals). I don't think that there is anything wrong with avoiding sweatshop-produced goods, as an individual choice. However, there would be great harm to vulnerable populations employed by these places if they were to be closed WITHOUT having some kind of social safety net in place first that makes sure that unemployed children (and adults) are fed and have shelter. Those kind of top-down policies do not come from purchasing Everlane over Old Navy (although I personally am an Everlane shopper), but rather from petitioning our own politicians to support trade agreements that have these kind of protectionary,human-rights-based clauses built in. And if someone really, really, REALLY wanted to have an impact, they could work really hard in law school and become an international lawyer who gets to negotiate these agreements :).

    I think it is awesome to bring serious expertise to help people thrift better and shop slow fashion retailers, if that is something they want to learn more about! If nothing else, there are legit environmental benefits from doing so. However, I do ruffle a bit when it is implied that people who shop fast fashion don't care about laborers, or children overseas. That is not always the case! Some people (myself included obviously, hah) just don't see it as an effective way to address the issue, and a way that could actually be harmful if carried out on a large scale.

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    Replies
    1. Those are solid points and ones I am already aware of. I wrote this about a year ago, so some of my specific points are outdated a bit now, but points 4 and 5 need to be paired with 6 to get to what I really mean.

      I don't think we should totally divert our spending to "ethical" companies and not do the lobbying necessary to ensure that sweatshop workers are treated better. But it seems to me that the problem is not so much theoretical reform but implementation of that reform. If we demand higher wages and better regulation, but insist that it comes from a redistribution of profits throughout the parent company and from trade agreements that make it possible for local infrastructures to thrive, I don't see why this mentality would be destructive. Of course, it's incredibly complicated, but I think we have to take the long view here and not pretend that this is the best we can do.

      This piece, it's true, can not stand alone as the only thing you need to know about the industry, but it's hard to get people to even care at all, so as a primer, I still stand behind it.

      I also totally agree with you that people who shop fast fashion shouldn't be condemned and I hope I didn't imply that. But if you know that people are suffering and you take zero steps to change that, then I think that's a real moral concern. I believe that universally, no matter what the injustice is. My strategy on my blog has been to be as honest as possible without overwhelming anyone. I will be writing a piece soon on voting for the presidential candidate who is most likely to get behind the types of trade agreements that actually help people.

      If you happen to have a blog or write on this topic occasionally, I think the Ethical Writers Co. would appreciate your expertise. It strikes me that we're essentially in the same boat, wanting change but also trying to reform the reformers along the way. You may be interested in reading my "Buyer Be Wary" series, too. I'd appreciate your insight on those topics.

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    2. While I agree with you recommending legal action I think that you also underestimate the power of the consumer, whether you have money or not. The point of avoiding sweatshops and supporting brands that have sustainable or ethical interests is not to put the sweat shops out of work but to force them to improve their conditions and worldwide to improve the transparency of supply and manufacturing chains. As long as there are masses of people supporting brands that have no readily available information on where their clothes are made they will keep on doing what they're doing. All it takes from people is a bit of effort into researching the brands they are buying from and to ask for transparency from clothing companies. I am a student in Dunedin, New Zealand and have found plenty of affordable (many the same price as chain stores) ethical or fairtrade companies that ship internationally, have a range of sizes and styles, so just get googling!! and do buy second hand, some of the best outfits I've come up with are from opshops!

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  16. Very good post. I'm facing some of these issues as well..

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  17. Hi Leah, I really enjoyed this post, and reading your responses to the comments below. I'm in the process of writing a series about how we could use design-thinking to revolutionise the fashion industry, and I'd be interested in your thoughts.

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    I'm particularly interested in consumers' perceptions of how they affecting the fashion industry with their purchase (ethical or non-ethical). Would you be up for a chat at some point?

    ReplyDelete
  18. Thank you for this very informative post! Just discovered it and your blog while doing research for my own blog post about shopping ethically. I'm so glad that other people are having this discussion and educating people about their consumer options. Look forward to more insights about ethical fashion from your blog!

    Joe

    ReplyDelete
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  27. أن يعطي أنفسهم ما يكفي من الوقت لحزم كل شيء، والتي يمكن أن تؤدي إلى الخطط التي
    تم تأخيرها أو إلغاؤها. مع النقل المحركون، والتعبئة من السهل - خبرائنا قيام بذلك نيابة عنك.
    افضل شركات نقل الأثاث بجدة

    فقط اسمحوا لنا أن نعرف ما يحتاج منا إلى حزمة وسيتم القيام به.
    افضل شركات نقل العفش بجدة
    إذا كنت قد بالتسوق في محاولة للعثور على أفضل شركات نقل الأثاث -
    البحث الخاص بك هو أكثر.افضل شركة نقل اثاث بجدة
    المحركون الأثاث - & تأمين سلامة

    فإن أفضل شركات نقل الأثاث في مانشستر دائما شركات نقل العفش بجدة
    تأخذ الرعاية اللازمة عند نقل أمتعتهم الخاصة بك.

    إذا كنت قد حصلت على البيانو الكبير، والتحف الثمينة أو ممتلكات قيمة أصغر نسبيا - شركات نقل العفش بجدة
    أنه لا فرق بالنسبة لنا. لدينا المحرك الأثاث دائما نبذل قصارى جهدنا في كل وظيفة، مع أي أمتعة
    . بعد كل شيء، انها ليست كل الشركات نقل الأثاث الذي سوف نقدم للقيام بذلك.
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    منطقة أخرى حيث تألق لدينا المحرك الأثاث هو رفضهم المساومة
    على جودة الخدمة التي نقدمها.شركة نقل العفش بجدة
    واحدة من أفضل الشركات إزالة في المملكة المتحدة

    سريع، سلس، خدمة كبيرة - انها لهذه الأسباب المحركون شركة نقل اثاث بجدة
    النقل يستحق مكانه بين أفضل الشركات إزالة في المملكة المتحدة.

    مثل أي صناعة أخرى، لا يمكن لأي شخص أن ترتقي إلى مستوى أعلى.
    شركة نظافة عامة بجدة

    في إزالتها، وهناك عدد من المجالات التي تهم العملاء،
    وإذا كانت الشركة لا إزالة معالجتها ثم فإنها لن تنجحشركة نظافة عامة


    . في السنوات الثلاثين التي كنا التداول، لقد رأيت كل شيء
    . لا يتطلب سوى البحوث الأساسية لاظهار ان بعض الشركات افضل شركة نظافة عامة
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  29. Thank you, I really enjoyed reading this list. One thing that I have really trouble understanding is the extreme wage gap between the factory workers and the models. I'm sure the models could survive on a little less, so the factory workers could make a decent living.

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