7 Common Misconceptions About Sustainable Fashion

January 19, 2020

Wearing a thrifted vintage Laura Tyler shirt for $4. In this post, I discuss some common misunderstandings of sustainable fashion and offer practical tips to consume more consciously. | sustainable fashion | thrifted outfit

If you’ve been around for a while, you might know that my blog actually started as a fashion blog. My posts used to uniquely be personal style photoshoots, and I was active on outfit-sharing platforms like Chictopia and Lookbook, where members would give each other “chic votes” and “hypes” (LOL).

I remember how it used to be common to go shopping for clothes as a social activity, and how popular fast fashion stores were (and still are). Up until a few years ago, I was a huge fan of Forever 21, and regularly went shopping with friends and family when I didn’t need anything in particular. Now, I’m noticing that a lot more people are trying to become more conscious consumers (myself included)–whether that means buying less in general, or buying from more ethical brands.

To be clear: I don’t want to shame people who shop at fast fashion stores, especially if affordability is the main issue. I’m also not trying to convince you to stop buying clothes altogether, or to shop uniquely from expensive ethical brands. Sustainable fashion is a very nuanced and complicated domain; it’s impossible to get things 100% right. I myself am far from being a completely ethical shopper, though I’m trying to do what I can.

What I want to do in this post is to simply share more about sustainable fashion, especially since there are many misconceptions around the topic. I also want to encourage you to try to consume fashion more consciously.

So, I’ll be debunking some common misconceptions about sustainable fashion, and with it, I’ll list some practical ways to approach fashion from a more environmental and ethical standpoint. Again, I’m not 100% perfect, and I do make mistakes–I’m not trying to admonish anyone in this post. I do, however, want to do my part to educate people about sustainable fashion.

What is Sustainable Fashion? 

Before I dive in, I want to first clarify what sustainable fashion actually is. Practicing sustainability generally means avoiding depletion of natural resources. In fashion, the main target is overconsumption, though labor ethics and viewing your wardrobe from a long-term perspective also play a role. The way I see it, sustainable fashion focuses on 4 main aspects:

  • The place of purchase: Can I buy this piece used? Can I rent the piece if I only need it for an event?
  • The reason for purchase/the lifespan of clothing: Will I wear this piece regularly? Do I plan to wear this piece in the long term?

If you need to buy new clothing, and can’t find what you need used:

  • The production of clothing: Were the workers treated fairly and paid a living wage? Does the production process use resources efficiently, avoid hazardous chemicals, and mistreatment of animals?
  • The actual clothing: Is the material high-quality and made to last? Are the materials environmentally-friendly and biodegradable (able to break down naturally, like cotton)? Do they use animal products in the clothing, like leather or fur?

There are a whole host of other factors in sustainability, but these are some of the main questions I encourage you to ask yourself before buying a piece.


Bag is from Poshmark, an online secondhand shop. Shoes and overalls are new, so not great sustainability-wise, but I plan to wear them until they break!

7 Common Misconceptions about Sustainable Fashion

1. Fast fashion can’t be sustainable.

This one might have you scratching your head. How can fast fashion possibly be sustainable?!

I mentioned earlier that there are 4 main ways to approach sustainable fashion, one of them being the reason for purchase/the lifespan of the clothing. While the production of fast fashion may not be sustainable, you can try to make your fast fashion pieces last a long time, and buy only what you’ll regularly wear. If your clothing breaks, consider mending it, using it as cleaning rags, or finding a clothing recycling program.

This doesn’t address the labor issues of fast fashion, but it does address the other main problem–the general waste the industry produces. Fast fashion encourages us to buy cheap, trendy pieces that are made to only last a season. After that, the clothing might break, or go out of style, and it often sits unworn at the bottom of the closet–which is a waste of resources.

If fast fashion is one of your only options (maybe it’s an affordability issue, or lack of access to secondhand stores), buying pieces you’ll actually wear and keep for a long time is a way to live more sustainably.

2. You don’t have to worry about sustainable fashion if you donate your clothes.

Donating your clothes is great, but many people use it as a way to justify overconsumption. The truth is that only 20% of clothes donated to thrift stores is actually sold–the rest is thrown away or sold to third-world countries, where it puts local textile workers out of jobs.

Buying and donating is still consuming. That’s why it’s important to really think about each of your purchases, and whether you’ll be using it in the long run.

Wearing a thrifted vintage Laura Tyler shirt for $4 and face earrings. In this post, I discuss some common misunderstandings of sustainable fashion and offer practical tips to consume more consciously. | sustainable fashion | thrifted outfit
Shirt is thrifted vintage for $4. Earrings are new from Amazon, so not great again, but I also plan to wear these until they’re broken! (they were a set of 3 pairs for $10 on Amazon vs. $10/pair on Etsy). Also, this photo and the first photo are by my talented friend Hana.

3. You have to be rich to afford sustainable fashion.

This is probably one of the biggest misconceptions out there. Yes, sustainable brands are more expensive than fast fashion. But, buying from sustainable brands isn’t the only option there is. Before buying new, even if from an ethical brand, consider looking for what you need secondhand. Thrift stores, eBay, and apps like Poshmark and ThredUp make it a lot easier to find used clothing at a more affordable price.

While I try to be a conscious fashion consumer, I personally have never actually bought from a sustainable brand, simply because I’d rather go digging in thrift stores and pay less. I will admit, however, that I have caved and made purchases from less-ethical sites if I did need a functional piece in a short amount of time, and on a budget (like winter soft-shell pants). Still, I’ve been able to find many staple items secondhand, from running shoes on eBay to black professional pants.

If you do need to buy new and want to go through an ethical brand (while on a budget), my friend Diane from Oui in France has a post on how she affords the sustainable brands she loves. Some of my favorite tips are cutting back in other areas and buying only what you need.

4. Buying from sustainable brands solves all the ethical & environmental issues related to fashion.

The first misconception was that fast fashion couldn’t be made more sustainable. The reverse is also true: sustainable fashion can actually be unsustainable, depending on your habits. If you buy a ton of clothes you don’t actually need and won’t wear regularly, you’re still overconsuming, even if you buy from ethical brands–those clothes are still the product of resources and labor that weren’t efficiently used.

Basically, sustainability is a mindset; it’s not only about the production of the piece, but also how you use your purchase.

5. Brands that claim to be ethical are actually ethical (watch out for greenwashing!).

On a similar note, some “ethical” brands might not be as ethical as you think. Sustainability is an aesthetic and marketing tactic now, and some businesses use that to take advantage of well-meaning consumers (known as “greenwashing”). Before shelling out your hard-earned money on clothing that claims to be sustainable, do your research. Good On You has a directory of thousands of brands that they’ve investigated and rated for the following categories: planet, people, and animals.

One of the biggest supposedly-sustainable brands is Everlane–many slow fashion bloggers love and support Everlane, but it’s actually rated “not good enough” on Good On You. This is because there’s no evidence it pays its workers a living wage, minimizes textile waste, or implements water reduction initiatives in production. It also uses animal products like leather, wool, and exotic animal hair in its clothing. I’m not trying to call out or shame people who like Everlane; I just want to call out Everlane for not being as “radically transparent” and sustainable as it claims to be.

Of course, Everlane is probably better than a fast fashion brand, but I know that I personally wouldn’t want to pay such a high price (~$70 for a pair of pants, ~$80 for a sweater, ~$20 for a t-shirt) for a clothes that aren’t proven to be ethical, especially given Everlane’s branding as such a sustainable company. If you want to learn more about Everlane and why it’s not as eco-friendly as many people believe, see my post: Is Everlane *Actually* Ethical and Sustainable?

Wearing a thrifted suede jacket and turtleneck ribbed sweater from a flea market. In this post, I discuss some common misunderstandings of sustainable fashion and offer practical tips to consume more consciously. | sustainable fashion | thrifted outfit
Thrifted suede jacket for $5 and 2 euro turtleneck sweater from a French flea market.

6. Buying from thrift stores takes away clothes from the poor.

Some people are hesitant to thrift because they think they’re taking clothes away from people who can’t afford new items. I mentioned earlier, however, that only 20% of the clothes donated to thrift stores actually gets sold.

Of course, it’s important to be aware of the socioeconomic issues brought on by the rise of thrifting. Communities have observed a rise in prices at secondhand shops–it’s unclear whether that’s due to inflation or the gentrification of thrifting, though.

I’m not sure that this is the biggest issue given how much stock in thrift stores is unsold, but there are ways to reduce the possibility of taking clothing away from the needy:

  • Again, avoid overconsumption. Only buy what you think you’ll wear regularly (this is something I struggle with sometimes at thrift stores, as some items are too cheap and cute to resist, even if I’m not sure how I’d wear it).
  • Refrain from buying items for the purpose of reselling them. If you’re especially concerned about taking high-quality items away from poorer communities, it’s probably a good idea to not buy items only to sell them at a higher price.

7. Thrift stores are 100% ethical.

This last misconception really just illustrates how freakin’ tough it is to live 100% ethically (it’s impossible). Thrift stores are not totally ethical, especially corporate ones. Goodwill, for instance, has come under fire for paying its workers with disabilities sometimes less than $1/hour, all while its executives enjoy cushy six-figure salaries.

If you’re looking at it from an environmental perspective, thrifting is still better than buying new, even from a sustainable company, as you’re simply buying what already exists–there’s no need for extra labor and resources to make the clothing.

That said, if you want to thrift as ethically as possible, try to avoid corporate thrift stores and go for local ones instead. You can also research thrift stores connected with charities to be sure that their profits actually go to good causes.

Wearing a thrifted Tobi romper with a skirt on top. In this post, I discuss some common misunderstandings of sustainable fashion and offer practical tips to consume more consciously. | sustainable fashion | thrifted outfit
Thrifted romper for $5, with a skirt on top that was originally my aunt’s.

Final Thoughts

I hope you learned something new from this post, and that you have a better idea of ways to be a more conscious consumer. I want to reiterate that it’s impossible to be 100% sustainable, and that it’s okay to make slip-ups every now and then. All that matters is that you try to do what you can, and to strive to improve on what you’re already doing.

I had a handful of not-so-great purchases last year, and it’s my goal to limit those this year. For instance, I thrifted a few things I haven’t really used; it’s my goal to make sure I only buy what I’ll actually use this year.

What are your goals for sustainable fashion this year? What are some misconceptions that you’ve observed?

For more posts on sustainability:

Is Everlane *Actually* Ethical and Sustainable?
Wastetarianism: An Alternative to Veganism
6 Ways to Reduce Waste While Eating Out

As I mentioned, I’ve been trying to be a more conscious fashion consumer. As a way to look back at my clothing purchases from 2019 and see how I did, I made a video of all the clothes I bought last year. Feel free to check it out–it’s basically a thrift haul with discussion on sustainability. I try to be transparent and share my slip-ups, along with my more sustainable purchases. 

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6 Comments

  • Rachel G January 23, 2020 at 3:04 pm

    A lot of great thoughts here!! I think where I’m strongest in sustainable shopping is simply….not shopping and in making clothes last a long time. I’m good at laundry, taking care of any stains, I sew well enough to make small repairs and alterations…I haven’t bought almost anything to wear in about 3 years. Granted, a lot of that is because I’ve been pregnant a large percentage of the last three years and I had no interest in buying new clothes when my shape is just changing all the time. ha! I didn’t buy maternity clothes, I just made my wardrobe work …and wore very few different outfits by the end.
    We don’t have second-hand stores where we live, but there’s a pretty strong culture of passing clothes around in the community to families who have a person in approximately that size. We do have an H&M and that’s where I recycle any clothes that are just too terrible that I wouldn’t pass them on (toddlers are hard on clothes, I have discovered).

    I think it’s good to think about the ethical concerns involved in thrifting. I agree that I feel that something seems a little bit questionable to me in the thrifting solely for the purpose of reselling at a much greater markup…something I see quite a bit of online. When I moved to the USA and suddenly needed a winter wardrobe, thrift store prices were very, very helpful. We had a tiny little local thrift store, which is how Angel and I furnished most of our home, and we passed on all of our thrift store furniture when we left. I think we definitely buy even less since we moved abroad…

    • Lily Fang January 27, 2020 at 4:08 am

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Rachel! That’s awesome that you were able to make your normal wardrobe work as maternity clothes–maternity-specific clothes seem a little unnecessary to me, as you’ll need them only during a very specific period of time.

      That’s also awesome that your community passes clothes around! I also didn’t know about H&M’s garment recycling program–will definitely keep that in mind for the future 🙂

      And yes, thrifting to upsell might be common now, but I agree that it could take away resources from people who can’t afford them otherwise. That’s awesome that you and Angel furnished most of your home from your local thrift store. Furniture at thrift stores is THE BEST–I got an amazing armchair once for only $15!

  • Kezzie January 27, 2020 at 11:07 pm

    I really enjoyed this post! Your video is cool! Your tips are really good and really clear. I have a fair few items from Primark (not bought in the last few years or so) but I’ve generally worn them lots because I really like/liked them and always got annoyed with people assuming they are throw away because they are from there. I have to say that shoes are something I’ve been spending more on in recent years because I do do so much walking and cycling and it’s not good in shoes which are uncomfortable or leave your feet wet.
    Much as I LOATHE Amazon and buy nothing from them (because they don’t pay their taxes properly in the UK and put other small book businesses out of business etc), you sound like you use them quite sparingly and carefully so I wouldn’t beat yourself up too much about the earrings (which are cute!) I really like your playsuit- it’s really nice and stylish and can be worn in lots of ways!

    • Lily January 28, 2020 at 6:04 pm

      Thanks so much, Kezzie! Totally agree that fast fashion items can definitely last a long time. I’ve gotten a few Primark things from charity shops in the UK before, and they’re just as wearable as before. And shoes are definitely a good thing to invest in – no one likes sore or wet feet!

      Yup, Amazon is just as horrible in the US. I’m trying to use it sparingly, and hope to use it less and less. I love the jumpsuit too – it’s so comfy!

  • Maria Koss April 15, 2020 at 7:31 pm

    I agree 🙂 Also for people who can not step away from fast fashion, there is always a solution to take a good care of their clothes, and to wear them longer.

    • Lily April 16, 2020 at 9:44 am

      Yes, exactly! I mentioned that in the post because I think the idea of making your clothes last is under-appreciated.

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    About Me

    I'm Lily, and I run races and go places (& blog about it).
    As a liberal arts grad/endurance athlete/travel enthusiast, I find beauty in many spheres. Consequently, I have no idea where life will lead me. Here is where I document my (mis)adventures and try to offer some helpful advice. Feel free to join me for the ride. Read More

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