There’s a lot of truth to the expression “vote with your wallet,” especially in the digital age, when we have access to products and services from every corner of the world.
As conscientious consumers, we need to hold manufacturers and retailers to a higher standard these days, now that there are so many choices on the market.
This is as true for clothes as it is for food since our clothing is a daily decision and a significant part of our budget. Every shirt, sweater, dress, and pair of shorts you buy has ethical implications, and it’s important to know as much as possible about each purchase.
Today we’re taking a closer look at ethical clothing, what it means to be a compassionate consumer and a few things you should keep in mind when buying and wearing clothes in the 21st century when it matters more than ever.
What Do We Mean By Ethical?
You may have a basic understanding of ethics, which is rooted in the ancient philosophies of Plato, Aristotle, the Romans, and religious studies. Rather than spending years at university studying dense textbooks, here’s what you need to know.
Ethics is essentially the practical application of morality. We determine what is right and wrong, good and bad, then take action (or choose not to act) based on those guiding principles.
When it comes to buying clothes, we want to be conscious of where the clothes are made, how they are produced, the materials used, and other questions like supply chain transparency and conditions for employees at the company.
Sustainability is a cornerstone of ethical clothing, meaning that the clothes are produced with minimal amounts of petroleum, water, cheap labor, and energy. It’s all about getting the highest amount of quality for the minimal investment of environmentally damaging resources.
One of the main arguments for vegetarianism or the vegan diet is that meat and other animal products take a toll on the environment, requiring tons of water, land, and feed. The same concept applies to clothes. Consider the amount of petroleum and clean water required to make synthetic fabrics like polyester, then factor in the shipping, storage, and distribution costs.
On the back end of ethical fashion are factors like proper recycling, disposal, and decomposition. Not only is it extremely demanding on the planet to produce these human-made fabrics, but they also tend to be non-biodegradable, meaning they take years, decades, or even centuries to decompose in nature.
Even if they’ve lived a good life and been through the donation cycle a few times, our clothes still end up in landfills, oceans, or even in forests, fields, and streams. The point is that ethical clothing practices account for the entire product life cycle, not just manufacturing.
Our goal as consumers should be to minimize the negative impact of our choices on the planet, even if it means paying a little more out of pocket or sacrificing a few modern conveniences.
Thankfully, younger generations are expressing a clear interest in ethical clothing, with 60 percent of millennials stating that sustainable practices are important to them.
Google searches for “sustainable fashion” have increased by nearly 50 percent in the past several years, while “ethical fashion” search terms have seen a 25 percent boost as well.
Although only 37 percent of millennials have actually changed their purchasing patterns to reflect this interest in the subject, it’s a good starting point and indicator that we’ll see a more widespread shift towards ethical clothing in the future.
Types Of Clothing To Avoid
Now that we’ve established the basics of ethical clothing, you should know what types of clothes to keep out of your wardrobe moving forward.
The first thing to cross off your list is any clothes from brands considered to be “fast-fashion.” We won’t name names, but you have an idea of the companies we’re talking about.
Many multi-national corporations underpay and overwork their employees in developing countries, using cheap synthetic materials and selling clothes to global markets at huge profits. While you can easily fill your closet with the latest trends by taking the fast fashion route, the implications for the planet and the well-being of workers are extreme.
Do your best to avoid buying clothes from big-box stores and instead shop with small retailers with a clear commitment to ethical production practices.
In terms of materials, you’ll want to steer clear of synthetic fabrics altogether, or at least buy clothes with a higher percentage of natural fabrics. This means reading every label to ensure a good ratio of plastics vs. naturals and avoiding everything made from 100% synthetic.
Names to look for include nylon, polyester, polyurethane, spandex, and aramids. These are all very common and come in numerous variations that you be able to identify by touch and feel.
These materials not only demand huge amounts of natural resources to create, but they also give off toxic fumes in the factories where they’re made and tend to damage the environment surrounding the production facilities.
Things can get tricky when it comes to materials like vegan leather, which have grown in popularity in recent years. While they may not require animal skin to produce, they tend to include very resource-heavy plastics, which are actually less biodegradable over time.
In some cases, you’ll need to weigh the pros and cons of materials like vegan leather and decide for yourself whether or not to buy, based on your own sense of morality. Sometimes, ethical clothing is not so cut-and-dry.
Keep your eyes open for other signs that your clothing may not be sustainable or ethically produced. If the price is super low and too good to be true, it is more likely to have a questionable origin. Be aware of clothing produced in political conflict zones and stay up on the news to know which brands are more notorious for shady business.
An Easy Ethical Clothing Checklist
With a clearer idea of the clothes to avoid, let’s talk about what you can (and should) wear instead! What are some signals to look for that indicate a smart and sustainable buy?
Of course, you can’t do a full supply chain audit of every brand when you’re out shopping. When it comes to making an in-the-moment decision, you need an easy mental checklist to refer to that will speed up the buying process without leaving any loose ends.
Here is an eight-point list you can keep in mind the next time you reach for your wallet and pick up some new threads:
With these criteria, you can quickly determine whether a garment is an ethical choice or just an impulse buy that does more harm than good.
Ethical clothing is a topic that can quickly get overcomplicated with charts, maps, and data crunching, but the truth is that your role is very simple: only buy clothes from companies that broadcast their commitment to ethical clothing and have the practices to back up those claims.
On every major corporate website is a section about sustainability and ethics, but very few of these brands actually walk the walk. Trusted brands will put their certifications on full display in an informative FAQ page and answer questions in a straightforward way.
If you apply the knowledge you’ve learned here and stick to your principles, you’ll have already won half the battle. Do some digging, find the brands that fit your philosophy, and support them openly to make a meaningful difference in the world!