My recent post on shopping the J. Crew Warehouse sale sparked a great discussion on the plethora of approaches to shopping ethically. This topic is particularly relevant now, as the Holidays and all their consumer temptations approach, because it's easy to get caught up in our decorative and gift giving aspirations (not to mention crazy sales) and lose sight of the commitments we've made to be conscious consumers.
There are a handful of relevant questions every conscious consumer should ask before making a purchase. We may choose to prioritize some questions over others depending on personal preference and stage of life, but I believe the amalgamation of responses will help guide us to a lifestyle that is better for everyone.
This is a companion piece to 6 Myths About Buying Ethical Clothing and What is Ethical? 7 Terms You Need to Know.
1. Will it make a real and lasting impact on my wardrobe?
This isn't a question of whether you "need" something or not, but whether you know that the item is timeless and "you" enough to be a staple in your wardrobe. If you ask this question first, you'll be able to avoid low quality, trend buys and save yourself some money in the long run since you won't have to replace the item as often.
While this question obviously applies to things like winter coats, denim, and work attire, I think it's useful to ask it about every single thing you consider purchasing. Don't buy the fuzzy sweater just because it's in, but by all means consider it if fuzzy sweaters are the foundation of your personal style! (I own a fuzzy sweater and it's starting its third winter season with me this year.)
2. Is it durable and well made?
This is the most boring question to me, because I associate it with all those style books and capsule wardrobe posts that advocate only buying neutrals without a lot of individuality. Nevertheless, it's a really important question to ask, because you don't want to have to keep buying and re-buying clothes, shoes, and accessories that are shoddily crafted, not to mention that buying poor quality products from social enterprises does a disservice to the makers. You'll waste money over time and you'll be sad that the things you love disintegrate so quickly.
Check the seams, buttons, and materials label on items before you purchase to make sure they seem well made. Lower quality products often have side seams that warp and bend in the wash or buttons that are sewn on with just a few loops of thread. I also try to avoid polyester/cotton blends with too much polyester - they're more likely to pill after one wash. Be wary of rayon blends, too, because they often require more maintenance to keep looking new.
3. Does my purchase contribute to demand for new goods? Is that a good thing?
If you're shopping at a retailer known for labor or environmental violations, the last thing you want to do is contribute to demand for new goods from that company. This is the question I asked at my recent excursion to the regional J. Crew Warehouse sale. While I was purchasing products from a company without firm or well-regulated Corporate Social Responsibility standards, I was buying end-of-the-line products that wouldn't be produced again. Beyond clearance, beyond outlet, these were goods that either never made it to store shelves or were past season. I considered questions 1 and 2 and then made purchases that checked off all the boxes.
If you're purchasing from a fair trade or sustainable company or from a social enterprise that gives back, contributing to demand for new product is exactly what you're trying to do, so you can feel confident in your purchase making a positive impact.
4. Is the company or product sustainable?
Sustainability is a trending word in the conscious consumerism discussion, because we're realizing that it'll take more than a few fair trade companies to turn the industry around. We can think of sustainability in two ways: 1. are fabrics and processes environmentally sustainable?, 2. is the overarching model concerned with efficiency, transparency, and respect for its workers?
While companies like Everlane tend to focus on the second question, ZADY* (and now Krochet Kids'* new Kickstarter campaign) realizes that we'll need to answer "Yes" to both of those questions for a more sustainable future. We must remember to strive for progress, not perfection, and reward companies that are taking steps, however small, to make the industry more sustainable. That means that shopping at Everlane, ZADY, and even H&M (the largest buyer of organic cotton in the world) can all be fine decisions as long as we keep the other questions in mind before making a purchase.
*denotes affiliate links
5. Can I afford it?
Price point is the elephant in the room in the ethical clothing conversation. The fact of the matter is that fairly sourced items are going to cost more. But we still have to be mindful of our budgets and make sure we're not hurting our families' or our financial security when we shop. An item may tick all the boxes, but if it's not something you can fit in the budget, you'll need to put it back on the rack. This is a difficult one for me, because I want to support all the companies I love, but I simply can't afford to do so.
If you love a brand, advocate for it. Share new products and lookbooks with friends. But don't buy something if you can't afford it. Keep in mind that even lower priced goods sourced from thrift stores or consignment shops like thredup may not be affordable if you've already gone over your clothing budget or if you really can't find a long term use for the thing you're been eyeing.
There are lots of other specific questions to consider when making a purchase, but the ones listed above are broad enough to get you started. It's not always about redirecting all of your spending to fair trade certified products. You have to make decisions that are right for your lifestyle, preferences, and budget, too.
Let me know what questions you ask before purchasing a product in the comments.
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For more on this topic, read 6 Myths About Buying Ethical Clothing and What is Ethical? 7 Terms You Need to Know.
Image Attribution: Creative Commons License, by Nan Palermo on flickr; Graphic added by me