Fashion Karma: 7 Steps To Shopping Ethically

This article was last updated on April 16, 2022

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As the death toll from the factory collapse in Bangladesh spiraled ever upward (final count: more than 1,100), it’s become impossible to ignore the connection between what we buy and wear and what happens in the garment factories that make our clothes abroad. The collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex is the deadliest accident in the history of the apparel industry, but it’s certainly not the first or, sadly, the last. 

Another Bangladeshi factory fire caught fire just a couple weeks later, killing eight. Then a week after that, a ceiling collapsed in Cambodia on workers making Asics shoes, killing two. We wrote in April onreported conditions in a Zara factory that smacked of slave labor. Meanwhile, apparel factories are reported to unleash so much toxic effluent into Chinese rivers, you can tell what colors are in season by looking at the rivers. 

When we first reported on the Bangladesh factory collapse, many of you were rightly appalled and asked the question, “Yeah, but what can we do?” No more burying your head in the back of the closet. We’ve come up with seven steps to take to be a more conscious shopper when it comes to environmental and labor concerns (political views of the retailer we’ll save for another day). And thankfully, you don’t have to dress exclusively in potato sacks or tie-dyed yoga pants. Read on for how to get your fashion karma and wear your platforms, too.


1. Educate Yourself
Things move so fast in the fashion world, it can be hard to keep up. While last month was the second time Zara has been called out for terrible labor conditions in a factory making its clothes, it was also one of the large retailers who just signed a legally binding agreementto finance fire safety and building improvements in Bangladesh, along with H&M and the parent company of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger. The chatter around ethical fashion is already starting to fade, so add the blog Ecouterre to your bookmarks. It’s been obsessively cataloging industry news, green fashion events, and the newest ethical designers hitting the scene for years. From there, you can make more informed decisions about which stores you choose to patronize. 

And for a deep and fascinating dive into the loosely regulated fashion industry, pick up a copy of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion — it’s like The Omnivores Dilemma for clothing.


2. Pressure Apparel Brands To Reform
It’s not enough to just talk about this over brunch with your girlfriends — you gotta let the fashion industry know your opinion! After the historic 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire (the 146 dead seems paltry compared to the Bangladesh building collapse), it was public outcry and subsequent new regulations that reformed the industry. So,mad at Gap and Target for refusing to sign the Bangladesh accord we mentioned above? Tweet, email, or call them up. Think the entire industry needs overhaul? Sign one or all of these petitions. Want the government to regulate how we get our apparel? Call up your representative.


3. Go For Quality, Not Quantity
You’ve talked the talk; now it’s time to shop the walk. One of the factors contributing to terrible labor conditions is paying insanely cheap prices for throwaway clothes. How could anyone make a living wage making $15 shoes? Think about it. 

Instead, do as the French do, and build a wardrobe of classic staples that will last for years. We’re not necessarily saying that anything under $300 is unethical — we’ve all got a H&M piece or two that we’ve cherished for years. It just means shopping thoughtfully, carefully curating your closet, and resisting the siren call of a $10 meh top because, “It’s so cheap, why not?” There are now 1,100 reasons why not. 

And really, it’s much more satisfying to buy one beautiful $150 dress you can wear often for years, than five cheap dresses that fall apart by the end of their first night out.


4. Go Vintage Or Used
Next stop on your shopping trip? The vintage and/or consignment shop. You can stock up on plenty of trés affordable items with a clear conscience — it’s like recycling for the fashionable. And where else could you get just the right cutoff Levi’s? Absolutely nowhere. 

The bonus with vintage is that if it’s from before the ’90s, you can be almost sure it was made lovingly in the U.S., and thus, has superior craftsmanship and fit. Speaking of made in America …


5. Play It Safe: Shop Local
Go to almost any brand’s website, and you’ll find a section describing the regular, outside audits performed on the factories producing their clothing in Asia and South America. And there are factories in China producing high quality work for ethical companies, like Edun. But it’s become a common practice for approved factories to subcontract out work to nearby, very-unapproved factories. The result is that many brands can’t be sure where the apparel is being made and under what conditions.   

If this makes you nervous, you could incorporate more U.S.A.-made clothing and accessories into your wardrobe. You’d be surprised by the brands who manufacture here in America. Hanky Panky, the aptly named American Apparel, Alexander Wang, J. Brand, and more manufacture where you know the workers are paid a fair wage, there are no children working the looms, and the building is up to code. 

If you’re shopping on the go, it’s a good idea to rely on a few apps to guide your trip. Social Impact helps you locate fair-trade businesses within a 40-mile radius. Good Guide is another app that allows you to scan barcodes to quickly retrieve info about the brand and learn whether the product was made safely, ethically, and with eco-friendly practices.


6. Give Back Whenever Possible
There are some amazing brands that give away to a relevant charity every time you snap up a design. TOMS comes to mind, but also classy clutches and sunglasses from Kayu, funky backpacks from State, and sweet high-tops from Inkkas. Treat yo’ self, and treat a child in a developing country to eye surgery at the same time.  

Other brands have fair wages and supporting traditional craftsmanship baked right into their mission. Every season, A Peace Treatychooses a different region in which to create their beautiful scarves and accessories.Nisolo (those loafers!) provides jobs to shoemakers in Peru with the goal of alleviating poverty. If nothing else, check outLemlem’s beautiful woven pieces, which support artisans in Ethiopia — it was created supermodel by Liya Kebede, and she obviously knows her stuff.


7. Choose Eco-Friendly Manufacturers And Brands
Finally, if you want to go for ethical gold, designers are shattering the status quo, and we don’t just mean with their breathtaking designs. Feral ChildeGretchen Jones,BodkinSamantha PleetLoomstateH&M, and more go above and beyond when it comes to organic and sustainable materials, non-toxic dyes and finishes, and conscious sourcing and labor practices. 

If only there were one place to find all these brands, you say? Lucky you, there are. Some go-to boutiques for edgy and not-at-all-granola fashion include Shop EthicaASOS’s Green RoomAmour VertBeklina, and Kaight, which also has a storefront in — where else? — Brooklyn. 

If you’re more a browser than a target shopper, the Avoid plug-in will wipe any products from your browser that may have been made by minors, so you can click and shop with a little more peace of mind.

Illustrated by Zhang Qingyun

Click HERE to read more from Refinery29.

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