How do we define ethical fashion? Is the very term an oxy-moron? Is there a way to participate in the fast-paced and ever-evolving world of fashion ethically? I think all of this is up for debate, but what’s abundantly clear is that our fashion choices—or lack thereof—have consequences.
For lots of folks, the chasm between understanding that there’s a fast-fashion problem and being able to take the steps to change habits around clothing consumption can be vast indeed and understandably so. Limited resources of time, energy, and money can make so-called ethical fashion financially out of reach. Limited availability of size-inclusive options can shut out would-be customers. Homogeneity of brands in terms of style, representation, and leadership can feel exclusive and unwelcoming. Cultural expectations around dress and style loom large and all of this adds up to a whole lot pressure.
In today’s post, blogger Deb Shepherd shares a bit of her own journey with ethical shopping as well as her personal list of favorite starter-brands for newbie ethical fashion enthusiasts.
Here’s more from Deb:
One suitcase, one box, and a life-changing move to the middle of nowhere was the beginning of my minimalism fashion journey. But before that? I was a train wreck, though you could never tell by looking at me. My shopping addiction bought me a cheap but “stylish” facade. Shopping was a coping mechanism that gave me a temporary dopamine fix and the illusion that everything was okay. Dressed in a new outfit I felt officially over my breakup or recovered from a work setback. As I stuffed my closet with more clothes, the last thing I thought about was ethics of garment workers or how my $7 button-up impacted the environment.
Learning more about minimalism and defining my consumer values, I started researching ethical fashion and looking for brands that are striving for environmental sustainability from their fabrics down to their factories. More than environmental sustainability, I came to realize that for me ethical fashion is also defined by a brand’s commitment to being purpose-driven, whether that means being size-inclusive, having diverse and inclusive leadership and staff, paying their workers livable wages, supporting BIPOC designers, or, hopefully, all of the above.
What I’ve also come to realize is that shopping ethical and sustainable fashion brands is a privilege.
Two years ago, I landed a job that gave me the financial freedom to shop for new clothes that fell into my definition of ethical fashion. And even though I wear many of those clothes to this day, I still overspent. When I began documenting everything on my minimalism journey—from getting a studio apartment, to decluttering my closet, and building a capsule wardrobe—but it wasn’t long until I realized that I need to prioritize my finances. In searching for ethical fashion, I had rung up over $1,000 in credit card debt, leaving me anxious and depressed.
If you’re two seconds away from throwing your phone out your window, or driving to Zara, then stop what you’re doing and breathe. I understand how overwhelming it is just starting out. You’re told to declutter your entire life, redefine your values, and now you’re expected to invest $400 on a coverall jumpsuit. Even if it’s perfect and you’d wear it everyday, you don’t have to start out that way. In fact, I encourage you to shop slowly, shop secondhand, and save up for the special items that align with your values.
Shopping ethically doesn’t have to mean plunging yourself into debt. Erin wrote a piece last year about buying and selling secondhand sustainable fashion, and here’s my own complementary list of starter brands for ethical fashion enthusiasts who are just getting started:
+ Grana: This brand is known for their very low (almost like fast-fashion) pricing and for delivering on garments made from high quality fabrics sourced from around the world. Their Peruvian Cotton V-neck shirt is currently on sale for $9, but keep in mind that discounted items are final sale. Regardless, this might be the best brand to at least try out if you’re on a very tight budget and want better materials in your wardrobe.
+ Only Child: A woman-run company based in Oakland, CA create versatile and simple pieces using four primary fabrics: wool, linen, cotton, and silk. Each order is handmade in their studio. The styles are minimalist and the structured silhouettes are understated and fuss-free. I really like how multi-functional the pieces are which makes investing in their clothes feel worth it.
+ Everlane: A minimalist, effortless, and largely neutral ethical fashion brand known for its transparency, high quality products and factories, and affordable price points. At Everlane you can even “choose what you pay” on clothing, shoes, and accessories that are on sale and they tell you the impact of the option you choose.
+ Hackwith Design: A Minnesota-based, made-when-ordered, feminine, and size-inclusive brand. I can’t share enough about how much I love Hackwith Design. Their pieces are size-inclusive and they have a huge selection that still holds that whimsical, draped, and multi-functional silhouette that looks good on every body type.
+ Amae.Co: This San Francisco-based brand is a one-woman-show run by Stacie Lucas who designs the most breathtaking, simple, and versatile pieces in warm rustic colors. I love her tee dresses and seeing how she styles them giving vacation vibes. They go up to a size 14 in her famous wide-leg pants and she is working on expanding sizes in the (hopefully near) future.
+ Universal Standard: This brand has hit multiple news headlines as a leading size-inclusive, racially diverse, and high-quality brand that amplifies realistic body types in their campaigns. I’ve never heard of another fashion brand, let alone an ethical fashion brand, with a size range from 00-40. They even just announced one of the biggest collaborations with Rodarte that includes makes luxury more accessible for all.
+ Matter Prints: A Singapore-based brand that honors textile heritage and supports rural artisans to make their work more sustainable. If you love pattern, ethnic prints, and you’re looking for specific traditional techniques, then I highly recommend checking out this brand.
Remember, you will never be 100% ethical, zero waste, or anything for that matter. Perfection doesn’t exist and isn’t possible. Making small changes in your wardrobe to support brands that genuinely care about their employees, help the environment, and that create clothes that help you feel your best is a starting place. Start where you are and intentionally take steps to building an ethical wardrobe. I’m here to cheer you on.
Deb Shepherd is a 25-year old writer, speaker, and owner of Clothed In Abundance, a minimalism, mental health, and money blog based in Seattle, Washington. She’s the founder of Broke Not Broken a clothing line and podcast that supports and uplifts mental health survivors through the power of storytelling. Follow her minimalism journey on Youtube, Instagram, and find out how to support her work.
This post includes affiliate links. Reading My Tea Leaves might earn a small commission on the goods purchased through those links.