Nicole's Take on Ethical Fashion

Target Does It Again

A typical Target run for me consists of heading in for paper towels and band-aids but getting majorly derailed the second my hands hit that shopping cart handle. 

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Popcorn? Sure! 

New cups for the kids? Absolutely!
New cup for myself, too, while I’m at it.  

More craft supplies? Of course!

Another graphic tee that I’ll probably wear once and decide I don’t like? Let’s grab three.

An extra pair of sandals that match my other pairs but are a new color? DUH!

Let’s just circle back around to those clothes one more time…this dress looks cute. I think it’ll fit. I cannot leave this sweatshirt here - it says “BUT FIRST COFFEE”. I have to have it, right? Alright, alright - the NASA tee just jumped into my cart. I’m sure I’ll bring some of it back after I try it on. 

So. Much. Stuff.

Does this sound like anyone else’s Target run? Buy now, try later, maybe return. It’s not completely Target’s fault - though I’d like to pass the blame. This is not solely my personal problem, as it seems it’s a fairly normal first world problem linked to consumerism. Basically, we like stuff: new stuff, more stuff, any stuff will do as long as we can consume. According to Statista, the women’s and girls’ apparel market in the U.S. alone was close to $117 billion in 2017. The projection of the U.S. apparel market as a whole for 2025 is approximately $390 billion. That’s a whole lot of money spent on what we wear. 

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How does this lead us to the topic of “ethical fashion”? It’s such an intimidating term to some - honestly, it intimidates me at times. Some have probably never even been introduced to the idea of ethical fashion. The purpose here is not to bombard you with scary or disheartening information. My goal is to give you a high level explanation of my understanding of ethical fashion and detail what brought me to my new consumption habits. In next week's blog, I'll detail more of how and where I shop now. 

What Is Ethical Fashion?

So, what in the world is “ethical fashion”? Essentially, it’s a blanket term used by lots of different people and can have lots of different definitions. Yay, clarity. [sarcasm] I’ve researched and come to my own conclusions over the past several years, so this is my interpretation of ethical fashion. I believe ethical fashion encompasses brands that are working hard to break the cycle of fast fashion through ensuring safe working conditions, offering a living wage, partnering with artisans to support local economies, ensuring sustainable practices and overall focusing on the fact that how a garment is made matters greatly. 

Whew. That’s lots of words to define one term, and interestingly enough that’s my personal definition. If you’re vegan, you’re going to have a completely different view of ethical fashion and probably not like my thoughts on how Sseko is ensuring less waste by using all parts of the cow from leather to horn to craft beautiful accessories. Each person has their own definition of what they find "ethical" - though I'm sure there are many basic tenants of treating garment workers and the environment "ethically" upon which we can agree. 

potential definitions of ethical fashion

Some people seek fair pay for garment workers in their ethical fashion, but one of my favorite brands, ABLE, is taking things a step further and publishing their wages. Their goal is protect the workers who make our products by ensuring they're paid enough to support their families. They're prompting others to do the same.

Others seek elements of sustainability in their ethical fashion, so they try to find clothing items made from recycled fibers or organic materials. Pact is a fabulous company using all organic cotton and using some wind-powered factories. The organic cotton is an important piece other consumers want in their ethical fashion definition because it means the garment workers aren't handling toxic cotton products which impacts their health greatly. Non-organic cotton is treated with heavy chemicals, which in turn can make many garment workers very ill. 

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Satva uses organic cotton as well as recycled polyester in their products. They seek to create relationship between the farmer and the garments, which is a huge unknown in most consumer relationships. I really have no clue where the raw materials originated for a large portion of the clothing in my closet.

Made in the USA. This is a big one for some consumers. They want to support their homeland and the economy within it, so it should be considered ethical, right? Maybe...is the short answer. My experience is that if a company is operating with fair wages, sustainability and/or ideal conditions, they're going to let you know somehow, someway. Head on over to their website and see if they give you a breakdown of who makes their products and where they're made in the U.S. This article in the Los Angeles Times from a little over a year ago gives an interesting look at some the factories in Los Angeles. I wouldn't necessarily classify their situation as ethical. If you really want to know, e-mail the company and see how they reply. 

These are just a few suggestions of what some may be looking for as they define "ethical fashion" for themselves. This is not an exhaustive list but a good starting point. Ultimately, you must decide what's driving your consumption habits and what type of companies you want to support with your dollars. 

Reality Check

I’ll be flat out transparent and admit that I went shopping with my mom for her birthday last week and walked away with way more than I needed, and I have no clue how or where any of it was made. My closet is not entirely made up of garments that have been produced in conditions I’m comfortable with, and that’s somewhat okay with me…for now. I consider this a long journey. It’s taken me years to even understand how I define ethical fashion and what that looks like for my consumption habits. I have closet goals in mind for sure, but it makes no sense to throw out an entire closet of clothes in the name of “ethical fashion” and less consumption.

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Let's just do a quick assessment of this outfit. (I'm on the left!)  I would LOVE to tell you it's 100% ethical according to my definition. Nope. My shirt is the one item that doesn't quite fit into my ethical fashion box. I bought it at GAP because I wanted something new for this photoshoot. I don't love that I felt I needed something new, and I don't love that I wasn't able to score the actual top I wanted from ABLE. I didn't have enough time to order it beforehand, and honestly, it was a tad out of my budget. 

My jeans are definitely ethical and come from ABLE as well! These are one of my favorite items in my closet, and I love knowing by someone who is being sufficiently compensated for their craft. My sandals and jewelry are all Sseko, which is another one of my favorite brands. Sseko employs women in Uganda, equips them with the skills necessary to craft their products and sets them up for success as they can earn an income and/or save money for University. Sseko also ensures their raw materials are sourced locally to Uganda and efficiently used to cut down on waste. 

So, is this outfit 100% ethically sourced? Nope. But I'm a work in progress as is my closet. 

The True Cost of Fast Fashion

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One of the phrases that may have raised an eyebrow earlier is “fast fashion”. I learned this term while watching The True Cost documentary during a nap time one day, and I haven’t been the same since. I shed many tears watching this documentary explain the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh where over 100 garment factory workers were killed and thousands were injured. Structural weaknesses had been noted in the building just days before the collapse, but the workers were still required to show up for work and produce garments despite the conditions. This was not the first nor the only tragic incident to kill and injure workers in the apparel industry. We just usually don’t hear about them in the media - it’s not good for business apparently. 

The idea of “fast fashion” is that we’ve moved from having a fall/winter and spring/summer fashion rotation into mini seasons in-between. We’ve got all kinds of new trends, outfit inspo, and liketoknowits smacking us in the face on a daily basis. Start paying attention to how quickly your favorite stores rotate inventory or replace the old with the new. Start paying attention to all of those e-mails in your inbox asking you to check out the sale or sign up to receive exclusive access to the new deals. I say these things because I fall prey to this all the time. 

The True Cost examines the relationship between this fast-paced materialistic consumerism we’ve created and how it affects the individuals who are actually manufacturing the garments we’re buying. It is by no means a light-hearted documentary, but I believe it is an extremely important work to view if you have any interest in this topic. The idea of “slow fashion” has been gaining traction in recent years to combat the rise of fast fashion. Slow fashion would be just the opposite: taking time to research the maker, the quality of the garment and investing in pieces that last from season to season. This takes more time, effort and usually money because the pieces have been hand made by someone who is being paid to craft garments in a safe working condition. Slow fashion is not fast, and it is not usually cheap. 

My Journey to Ethical Fashion 

After giving birth to my first baby, I found myself in a specific shopping cycle. Grab some stuff haphazardly because a dressing room experience with a small child was no fun and take it home to try on and either keep or hit the ever-growing “return” pile. A lot of times, I would return something only to go back into the store and put more things into my cart to take home and try on again. See the pattern? 

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Here’s the frustrating part – I usually would have one thing that was “eh” that I didn’t feel like making the effort to return, so it got to find a home on a hanger in my closet. This leads to buildup of lots of “eh” pieces of clothing that get worn maybe once before I decide to never wear them again. This, my friends, is wasteful. Let’s assume I do this twice a month with three pieces of clothing – that’s six items of clothing per month, which equals 72 items for the year – some of which were just “eh”. Let’s say each item cost $12 on average – that’s $864 on pieces of clothing that I just threw in the cart hoping they’d work. Not purposeful. Not planned.

366 Days of No Shopping

Around this time in my life, a friend suggested a challenge of 366 days of no shopping - thanks, leap year. We had to stop purchasing clothes, shoes and accessories for an entire year, and we. did. it. There were a few ground rules: gift cards were acceptable if we were given for a holiday or birthday or already had in our possession and clothing swaps were fair game. This entire year of having to hold myself back from buying anything certainly squashed that bad Target habit…for a little while. Every now and then, I get bit by the consumer bug and slip back in to my old ways, but I’ll be honest that one year of no shopping was a hard reset for the way I approached purchasing clothes. 

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The True Cost Documentary, my one year of no shopping and the influence of some sweet friends of mine who were already immersed in the ethical shopping world, brought me to where I am today. I’m a minimalist wannabe wrapped up into a capsule wardrobe hopeful who is still struggling to not buy the trendy (or as my husband calls it “farm-like”) overalls I saw at GAP the other day. Spoiler alert: I did not win that battle. I own the overalls. See Exhibit A where I pose awkwardly with my favorite perfume.

My apparel consumption goal is now focused on knowing who made the garment and how it was made. I desire transparency in companies down to wage knowledge, working conditions and environmental sustainability. Notice I said goal - this is my desired result or my aim but not always my reality. 

Let's Work on our Ethical CLosets Together

Is your head spinning yet? I’m an “all or nothing” kind of gal, so when I was first presented with this idea of ethical shopping, I wanted to start with a clean slate. Don’t go throwing out your wardrobe just yet. In next week's blog, I’m going to give you some tips for how to start slowly easing into this world of ethical shopping and point you in the direction of some of my favorite movements, companies and people to guide you on this journey. I’m here, too, walking this line imperfectly, so let’s try together.