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.
Here’s the video version of this post, if you’re a more visual/auditory learner!
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!
9 Common Misconceptions about Sustainable Fashion
1. Quitting fast fashion will take away jobs in developing countries.
A common defense of fast fashion is that it provides jobs to garment workers. This is a common argument people also make when it comes to veganism and vegetarianism. If everyone stops eating meat, they wonder what will happen to all the cows and chickens.
I think some people mean well when they make this defense, but it’s just logically unsound and has undertones of saviorism. If everyone quit fast fashion at the same time, sure, it would be an economic disaster. But that’s a totally unrealistic scenario. It takes time to transform an industry and to change people’s hearts and minds.
Also, the jobs provided are usually hazardous and low-paying. An example of this is the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster, where a factory building in Bangladesh collapsed and killed over 1100 workers, and injured thousands more. You can learn more about the human impact of the fashion industry in the documentary The True Cost, which is free to watch (with ads) on Tubi. The 2020 pandemic also led to many brands canceling orders from factories, leaving garment workers without pay. There was a movement for brands to #PayUp, but several still haven’t paid (I see you Forever 21, Primark, Urban Outfitters, Free People, and Anthropologie).
It’s clear that the fast fashion industry pays no regard to human life—these are not the kinds of jobs we should be defending. Some may say that this is the best job garment workers can get in their countries, but why not try to improve these conditions, rather than just accepting them? If we could get ethical fashion to overtake fast fashion, garment workers could have actually humane working conditions and a living wage.
2. You have to get rid of your fast fashion when transitioning to a sustainable wardrobe.
This is totally counterintuitive. If you like certain fast fashion pieces and wear them regularly, keep them.
Sustainable fashion isn’t really about what brands are in your wardrobe. It’s more about your mindset and habits. It’s more sustainable to keep your old fast fashion and wear it, than to get rid of it and buy new clothes from sustainable brands. I personally still regularly wear a couple old fast fashion pieces.
That said, if you don’t really wear the clothes anymore (i.e. you haven’t worn it in the last 6 months), then you should consider getting rid of them responsibly, which we’ll talk about later.
Wearing an old fast fashion top, shorts from a consignment shop in France, and shoes from the dumpster
3. 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.
4. 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 developing 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.
And when you do need to let go of your old pieces, there are other ways to get rid of clothes more responsibly, including: selling/giving them away online, upcycling/downcycling, or bringing them to a consignment shop.
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.
5. 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.
Want to try Poshmark out? Feel free to use my referral link. You’ll get $10 off your first purchase, if you ever need to buy something.
6. 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.
7. 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. During the pandemic, it also laid off its customer service team without warning, after having reassured everyone there would be no layoffs. Furthermore, former BIPOC employees have criticized Everlane for its discriminatory work culture.
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 for a clothes that aren’t proven to be ethical, especially given Everlane’s misleading 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?
I also have a post on how to tell if a brand is sustainable or greenwashing, where you can learn more about ways to assess a brand’s sustainability.
Thrifted suede jacket for $5 and 2 euro turtleneck sweater from a French flea market.
8. 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.
Keep in mind that most thrift stores aren’t the charities themselves, either. Most charities have thrift stores to make money for their programs. So if you’re thrifting, you’re actually supporting good causes.
Of course, it’s important to be aware of the rising thrift prices, and do what we can to help low-income communities. The gentrification of thrifting has been a super hot topic, but I don’t think the rising prices are the fault of thrifters or resellers. Given the huge excess of clothing, I think we should look more at inflation and corporate greed for the rising prices. Goodwill, for instance, paid its workers with disabilities sometimes less than $1/hour, all while their CEO made $730k in 2018. It’s pretty gross.
While I don’t think these rising prices are the fault of individuals, there are still some things you can do to be especially mindful while thrifting. A few things I recommend are:
- Avoid overconsumption. Only buy what you think you’ll wear regularly. This helps ensure we’re not stuck in this mindset of high-turnover, disposable fashion. 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. But try to resist and be honest with yourself about whether you’ll actually wear something.
- If you’re going to resell, try to avoid buying a ton of high-need items in low stock. This might be things like plus size clothing, professional clothes, winter coats, and kid’s clothes. In some stores though, these might be in abundance. It really depends, so feel free to ask the manager. To be clear, I really don’t think reselling is problematic in general—I actually think there are a lot of benefits, like making secondhand clothing more accessible to those who can’t physically go to stores. But that said, I think there are still things to be mindful of.
- When donating clothes, try to choose smaller, local orgs that you know are doing good in your community, like homeless shelters or free clothing charities. This can help the people who are struggling with the higher thrift store prices.
I have a monster post about the gentrification of thrifting + the ethics of thrifting (and reselling), if you’re interested in diving into this topic more.
9. 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. As I mentioned, Goodwill pays 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 (I know this is hard, and I’ve still needed to go to Goodwill occasionally, so that’s why I said “try”).
You can also research thrift stores connected with charities to be sure that their profits actually go to good causes.
One that I think is cool is Out of the Closet, which funds AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s HIV/AIDS programs and their new housing services, plus on-site pharmacies and free HIV testing.
Thrifted romper for $5, with a skirt on top that was originally my aunt’s.
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 sustainable fashion: