Let’s assume you already know about the horrible things that happen in clothing factories. You’ve watched the videos of bodies dragged from the rubble of this factory or that, heard stories of child labor, low pay, abuse,babies born in factory bathrooms, women turning to sex work when factory sewing was too terrible, etc.
Let’s also assume this makes you feel like shit.
So then what?
Buy sweatshop-free, they say. Go local! Fair trade! Artisan made! Union labor! Certified organic leprechaun kisses! Buy one baby gorilla skin bag and give one to a baby gorilla in need!
And in the time it takes you to decode what any of that means, you’ve managed to compartmentalize your guilt and buy three dresses from Zara plus some shoes from Nasty Gal and a bag from ASOS to make yourself feel better.
But there’s a better way, people! You can shop more responsibly AND have a badass, functional and affordable wardrobe free of flower crowns and moccasins. You don’t have to go off the grid or braid your armpit hair or get a PhD in economics. All you have to do is pay a little bit of attention to what, why and where you are buying your clothes.
1. Buy Less Shit
In summary, fast fashion is the devil. When the zombie apocalypse comes, they will all be wearing the same peplum tops from Forever 21. This is why their clothes are always tattered and full of holes on The Walking Dead; fast fashion is only meant to last for one wash and not for the long and active lifestyle of the undead.
So instead of rushing out and buying five new dresses from H&M for the weddings you have to go to this summer, get one or two really nice (vintage or ethically made or rented) ones. You can avoid the humiliation of repeat outfits on the Gram by wearing one with a blazer, the other with a cardigan, maybe a large statement necklace, a scarf, or decide that you don’tgiveanyfucks because who are you Cher from Clueless?! Clothes are meant to be worn more than once!
2. Stop Shopping When You’re Sad
Or lonely or upset or heartbroken. Just like how you can’t go to the grocery store when you’re hungry because you’ll spend $100 on hot cheetos and cookie dough ice cream and those Entenmann’s powdered donuts that will be your bitch the second you get in the car.
Most fashion marketing preys on our darkest fears: if you don’t buy this thing, everyone will finally see what a FAT COW/SPINSTER/UGLY WHORE you really are. And if you’re already feeling low, you’ll just gobble up whatever they’re selling in one emotionally hungry bite. You won’t feel any better and you’ll have spent your entire therapy budget on rayon.
Shop from a place of strength and the difference will be palpable. If you shop like a boss bitch, you’ll manifest that shit. If you shop like a fat ugly heifer that will die alone, I promise it doesn’t matter how trendy your clothes are, you’re not going to shine. And nobody puts Baby in a corner!
3. Buy used
When I first started learning about sweatshops, all the activists I knew told me to buy used clothes. Disgusted doesn’t even describe it. Put some stranger’s clothes ONTO my BODY? Hell naw. Grandpa Jim didn’t work every summer herding cattle to pay his way out of small town Montana for me to be sifting through the bins at Goodwill. And Grandpa Timothy would turn over in his grave if he knew that he joined the navy and fled Brownsville, Brooklyn just so his granddaughter could go around looking homeless. I will only buy brand new ostentatiously branded sweaters from Armani Exchange and bedazzled tops from Ed Hardy, thank you very much (I’m from New Jersey, give me a break).
What no one told me is that there is soooooo much amazing clothing floating around the secondhand market. You can look homeless, but only if you want to. You can also you do glam or boho or preppy or goth or pin-up or whatever else you’re into (I prefer angsty adolescent boy chic. I call it sadrogyny). The unfortunate side effect of all of this super cheap clothing is that people feel totally fine wearing something once or twice and then getting rid of it. So you can get an entirely new, great-looking wardrobe at a fraction of the retail cost if you’re willing to wear things that are gently used. PLUS you will have interesting, unique pieces and nobody will give you side eye when you’re out with your friends all dressed the same (#basic).
Ebay is the Mercado Oriental of the internet: loud, crowded, smelly, huge, and full of amazing, cheap things to buy. You can find pretty much anything you want (clothes, shoes, bags, human organs). If you’re willing to sort through the internet equivalent of thousands of people screaming in your face, you can find the best selection for the best price. But to win at ebay you have to have some cojones and a lot of patience. I don’t have an Ebay addiction, I just really like to use it every day multiple times a day. I can stop anytime I want.
Etsy is like a small boutique on that cute side street in that college town where you know everyone’s name and as soon as you walk in they gush about this new piece that you’re gonna love. The selection (both vintage and hand-made) is curated and high-quality and you get all these lovely thank-you notes in your package so you feel like you’re basically best friends with the indie entrepreneur who almost definitely has the cutest bangs and an awesome collection of rings and a record collection from some hip store in downtown Austin or Portland or wherever.
The following online consignment stores are worth checking out too. Nothing is as cheap as a good score on ebay, but you’ll be sure that the items were well taken care of and authentic.
- Bib and Tuck
- Thred Up
- Threadflip (A reader suggestion. Thanks Elizabeth!)
My new favorite way to shop is on Instagram. If you search for #vintage or #thrifting (or something similar), you’ll come across tons of people selling stuff. You can find the link to their website or store or pay them directly on paypal (kind of risky but you cut out a lot of the overhead so items tend to be cheaper).
Friendly note: you should be washing everything you buy before you wear it no matter what. You think just cuz it’s “new” that it’s clean? Sorry, love. You have no idea where that blouse has been, and somebody else’s BO is the least of your concerns. It takes a few good washes for the crazy cancer-causing, hormone-disrupting chemicals they put in fabric to wash out. I would especially do this with underwear or items that go close to sensitive parts.
3. Your Tailor Is God
If the grumpy Chinese woman from Washington Heights that used to hook my clothes up came through the door right now with a tape measure bouquet and an industrial iron and asked me to marry her, I would carry her off into the sunset no questions asked. It is really hard to find a good tailor, but when you do you’ll have to resist the urge to make out with him/her every time they work a small miracle. You just turned those bell bottoms into skinny jeans? Made my mother’s wedding dress into a beret? Took this weird thrift store coat from Auntie Beatrice to Beyoncé? Get your beautiful face over here!
Not only can they take something that’s been haunting your closet for years and update it, they can also take something you bought secondhand and make it fit you perfectly. Because my thighs are two sizes larger than my waist, this is pretty much the only way I can get jeans that will fit me properly. I still look like a strong-hipped teenage boy but at least my pants fit.
Here are some handy tips on what a good tailor can and can’t do.
4. Clothing Swaps
Get a bunch of your most stylish friends, some wine, and have yourselves a good old fashion swap. You can walk out with a bunch of new-to-you clothes for free.99 (minus the cost of wine). And because you’re all friends, no one is going to bring that old raggedy white v-neck with sweat stains or the ancient acrylic sweater with massive pilling (but if they do, you’ll know who your real friends are).
I have yet to try this because everyone knows better than to invite me to something fancy, but I definitely will for my upcoming engagement party to the hot guy from Calle 13. Just have to wait for him to call.
- Rent the Runway
- Gwynnie Bee (specifically for sizes 10–32; finally people are paying attention to the average size of the American woman!)
- Bag Borrow or Steal
- Lending Luxury
6. Ethical Brands
Buying new clothes is the last resort in my book, but sometimes it is necessary. I draw the always-buy-used line at underwear, swimwear and socks (ew). I also look extra hard for lightly used white clothing, but every once in a while I find it necessary to buy that new too.
It seems like every day a new “ethical” brand has popped up on the scene. There is no way I can list them all, but here are some of the favorites.
- Patagonia: These guys are basically the holy grail of ethical manufacturing and eco-materials. It’s too bad they make fleece vests and ski pants and not crop tops or mesh jumpsuits because I would buy the hell out of everything they made. I still try to buy from them whenever possible, but the truth is it’s designed more for my flute teacher from 7th grade than for me. (Update: pretty much as soon as I wrote this, I readthis article about some of Patagonia’s suppliers using forced labor. That they’ve uncovered this issue at all is a testament to their commitment to ethical sourcing, but the fact that they can’t figure out how to fix it is depressing. Even more reason to only buy new clothes when you really have to.)
- American Apparel: Now that the maniac founder is gone, I am really hoping they can pivot their controversial marketing and union-busting activities, because this is one of my go-to spots for on-trend, responsible basics. I’ve visited their factory in LA twice and I certainly can’t vouch for everything that goes on in that building, but as far as ethical production goes they’re pretty far ahead of the pack.
- Everlane: These guys are relatively new to the scene and have gotten a lot of attention for their “radical transparency” approach. They make a lot of their products in China, which used to be the nail in the coffin of any ethical brand, but they release the names and locations of every facility they use. They get a little bit light on details when you ask deeper questions (audits? certifications?) but they’re certainly worth mentioning as an alternative to somewhere like J Crew.
- Zady: The darlings of the ethical fashion movement, these ladies seem to be doing things right. I haven’t bought anything from them yet, but they source from a couple factories that I admire so I think that’s a great sign. Great selection and well-curated.
- Some other companies with good reputations: Alabama Chanin (I have a huge fashion crush on these folks; I haven’t bought anything yet but their supply chain makes me swoon), The Reformation, Imogene + Willie,Cuyana, People Tree, Loomstate, Edun. (In my opinion, what’s really missing is ethical fashion with an “urban” edge. This is my life, not Coachella.)
Here are some other guides you might want to check out. Full disclosure, I definitely see a few companies on these lists that I don’t agree with. So as with everything, use your best judgement.
- Ethical Shopping Guide
- Ethical Consumer Buyer’s Guide
- Sweatfree Communities Shop With a Conscience Guide
- Union Made Apparel Directory
- The Good Guide Apparel Rankings
- Green Pages Directory
- Free to Work
- Ecocult Shopping Guide (reader suggestion, thanks Alden!)
(FYI — I didn’t get any money or free swag from any of the companies in this article. How is that even a thing?!)
What else would you add to this list? I’d love to hear how you shop responsibly. Comment below.