After having a baby this fall and wanting to get back to wearing regular clothes again, three things happened:
One. I went out and bought a few cheap clothing items to get me through the winter as my body adjusted.
Two. I watched the documentary The True Cost, which is about the fashion industry, particularly fast fashion.
Three. After watching the film, I immediately regretted those fast fashion items I had purchased. They were already wearing out, and I not only felt guilty right away, but I knew that those purchases would probably not be worn by next year. (Granted, I only bought a few things and wore them all the time this winter -- a sweatshirt and two pairs of leggings from Target, and a flannel button down shirt. The flannel will probably last a long time, but those leggings and sweatshirt are already worn and pilled. Boo.)
Granted, I am not a big shopper. Not for clothes, anyway. (Take me to a food coop or a farmers' market and that's a whole different story.) I'm more of the type to know exactly what I want to buy, and I'll look for it in my few favorite stores. Browsing through clothes exhausts me.
My main takeaways from the film were that the main effects of the fashion industry are on the environment, and on people's lives, particularly women who put their health at risk through working in dangerous factories, surrounded by toxic chemicals.
Many of these factories are in Bangladesh, where a horrible factory fire killed over 100 people in 2012. The factory conditions are often atrocious, the workers make pennies for their work (and even though their cost of living is much lower than ours, they are still not earning a livable wage), and many women have to bring their children to work with them, where the babies are exposed to noxious fumes. Or the women head to the cities for work, leaving their children behind with family to watch over them.
Environmentally, we are polluting the air and waterways, and we are creating waste from all of the cheap clothing we buy. Though much of the unworn clothing in this country gets donated, most of the clothes cannot be used in the United States, so it gets shipped to countries, including Haiti, where even there the people do not have a need for it. Sadly, it becomes waste.
To me, one of the biggest issues isn't that we're buying clothes or that we're even buying cheap clothes (though neither is great) -- it's that we are buying so much cheap clothing.
I want to do what I can to break the cycle of buying cheap clothing, but I also want to be practical and figure out what works for me. We all have different preferences for clothes and how much to consume, but I figure that every purchase we make has a small impact on the environmental and society.
While it's pretty much impossible to buy nothing, there are steps we can take to make better choices, if we choose to.
Here are five ways to shop smarter and move towards a more ethical fashion lifestyle:
1 | Consume less.
Buying less clothing (and stuff in general) is at the heart of improving the fast fashion industry. When I search through the back of my closet, I'll find clothes I forgot about, and they often become my new favorite pieces. It's helpful to go through everything you own once a season.
2 | Buy used clothing.
Back in high school and college, I was all about shopping for clothes at thrift stores and consignment shops. Any time we went into New York City for the day, we made sure to stop at this place called Canal Jean Company, which had an entire department store sized floor devoted to used clothing. I bought some great pairs of jeans there that got tons of use. And I still own an incredibly warm and cozy Norwegian wool sweater that I picked up for eight dollars many years ago.
Since I'm not big on shopping, these days I find browsing through used clothing quite tedious. But when I announced on social media that I was pregnant, a colleague of mine offered me all of her old maternity clothes. Yes! I jumped on it, and the next time I saw her she handed me a big bag of clothing. I loved having a bunch of clothes to wear, I loved saving money, and I loved that I didn't have to go out and buy lots of clothes that I would only wear for a few months.
3 | Try a capsule wardrobe.
There are lots of thoughts on capsule wardrobes, but basically, you choose a set number of clothing items as your wardrobe for a season, and put the rest away and out of reach. By having less to choose from you have more time to focus on other things, like creative pursuits, and often stress is lowered by having less stuff filling your closet.
4 | When you do want or need to shop, buy fewer items of higher quality.
When I am in search of a new piece of clothing or a new pair of shoes, I am trying to pay more attention to where I shop.
One of my favorite companies, Patagonia, is still a top choice for me. They have great environmental and ethical practices, and are humble enough to admit that for as much positive work they do, they are still part of the problem. They are still a clothing company that relies on sales, but they're doing the best they can to be sustainable and provide transparency to their customers. are a company that encourages sales.
I also look for clothing made in the United States, companies that use recycled or organic materials, and products that are of a high quality that I can hopefully wear for a long time. The True Cost has great lists of sustainable and transparent companies, plus tips on how to shop smarter.
5 | Do the best you can.
The fashion industry is huge, and the companies that are trying to do the right thing are small and just gaining momentum. Instead of feeling guilt, or wanting to pitch all of your clothes away and start all over, we can all do the best we can. We can wear what we already own, buy a little bit less, buy better quality, and think about where our clothes come from the next time we do shop.
Awareness is important. Every small step helps.
May is right around the corner, so we should - the key word is should - be delighting in warm days, long days, short-sleeved shirts, fresh lemonade, and brilliant flowers.
It just hasn't been so consistently, especially the past two nights. The temps here in the Catskill Mountains fell to around 28°F the last two nights, and having already turned off our propane heater for the season, we had to get a little creative around here to keep warm.
When we first saw that the temps were going to drop below freezing for a couple of nights, I thought back to my first backpacking trip, which I took with Josh nearly three years ago. We had driven to the Delaware Water Gap in New Jersey, parked the car, and trudged our huge packs in four miles to a beautiful spot on Sunfish Pond. That night was a cold one. So cold that we could see our breath. So cold it was pretty frickin' hard to get out of our sleeping bags the next morning. So cold that I wished the campfire we built the night before had lasted til dawn (don't worry, we are safe backpackers who put out our fires when we're done). We joked that it was the coldest either of us had ever been.
So on Thursday, here in the Catskills, we started having these really unreasonably, unseasonably cold nights. It was almost unbearable, but I thought back to that cold night on Sunfish Pond, pretended we were doing some indoor camping, and figured out a few ways for us to hunker down and stay warm in April...
1. Hot foods! Of course. We made pasta, tea, coffee, hot water, veggie burgers, and oatmeal. The pasta and oatmeal made me especially feel like we were camping, and they hold their heat for a long time, which is an added bonus.
2. Bake! More hot foods! A hot oven makes a lot more heat than a hot burner on the stove. We made the veggie burgers in the oven, I roasted tomatoes in the oven, and we may have made a few other things that I'm now forgetting. (Just a word of warning: if you use an oven for warmth, you must cook. It's dangerous to just put on an oven for the sake of warming up.)
3. Wear a hat. I've learned that it's best to hold onto those winter beanies until June or July, as you'll never know when you'll need them, and sometimes you'll need them in spring. I pretty much wore a beanie nonstop for the whole two days.
4. Soak in the sunshine. What little sun did come streaming through our windows I tried to capture by opening our curtains wide and sitting right
Now you may be wondering, "Lisa, why didn't you just turn the heat back on? Why suffer? Were you suffering?" And to be honest, we thought about turning the heat back on, but it's a pain in the neck (there's a switch outside that we have our landlord take care of), and we figured we could stick it out for the two nights.
And we did. We survived and have a story to tell. In the moment I was cold, but now it's warmed up and we're happy and defrosted.