Ethical fashion on a student budget
By: Daniella Porano
While the term “ethical fashion” can be ambiguous and individually defined, it really pertains to the process of clothing production and the subsequent advertising and retail used to sell products. I think it’s more useful to individually understand and define what dressing ethically means to you. Sweatshop free? Organic cotton? Fair trade? Animal-friendly textiles? How about corporate responsibility in all aspects of a business model, from advertisements to the retail stores? Each person has a different moral code when it comes to socially-conscious fashion
Take a moment to consider the ever-changing nature of the fashion industry and the implications of this constant evolution. Each season, retail chains rotate their entire stock and import new shipments of clothing in mass quantities. As the majority of the large retailers do not build clothes to last longer than a year – sometimes no longer than a handful of washes – the majority of “fast fashion” ends up in landfills as the trends fade.
The problem is the way we’re targeted as consumers. We’ve been groomed to accept that paying twenty dollars for a pair of jeans is normal, a steal even. If you think about the cost of materials, production, and payment to labourers both at the production and retail points, how can this be so? The answer is simple: it can’t – at least, not without exploitation on all levels of production, at the expense of labourers.
This leads to the next issue of sustainable and ethical fashion: the price. I’ve consistently found the constraints of availability and price to be the most problematic aspects when trying to find ethically-sourced fashion. While one of my favourite designers, Stella McCartney, has managed to champion animal-friendly clothing, her designs are completely unattainable to the average student. Aside from high end fashion houses with luxury production shops in France and Italy, where does labour-friendly fashion come from, and more importantly, how can we access it?
While being an ethically-minded consumer with a limited budget is certainly a challenge, it is not impossible. There are many ways to find quality and socially-conscious clothing.
Vintage and thrift stores are incredible; buying pre-loved is always the best option. Not only does it prevent clothes from being thrown out as waste, but it can also be a goldmine for fashion finds that would otherwise be inaccessible. I’ve found amazing clothes at thrift stores, including denim jackets made in Italy, cozy knits made in Britain, and my personal favourite, a vintage Nina Ricci bag. High quality brands of jackets and coats can also filter through thrift stores, an important concern for all of us as winter approaches.
Another important tip is to check labels. Within massive corporations, stores can have a wide range of outsourced labour from all over the world in the same retail location. While some sweaters are handmade in British shops, others may be made in horrendous sweatshop conditions in Bangladesh. Checking labels for where the item was made is important as it can assist in distinguishing fair-paid and quality pieces from exploitation. This does not mean that well-made fashion only comes from the Western world, but in a corporate-dominated capitalist society, the exploitation of developing nations is embedded in many major retailers’ clothing.
Other large stores that sell a variety of brands can be fantastic for ethical finds. For example, I’ve found plenty of American-made designer denim at Winners – always at a quarter of the original retail price. Additionally, there are many adorable small shops and specialty online stores that cater to selling locally produced, vegan, or fair trade products (sometimes all three). Online tools like The Guardian’s ethical fashion directory, the Ethical Consumer website, and the Ethical Fashion Forum help provide resources and in-depth information about ethics in corporations and socially-conscious alternatives. These sites reinforce the idea that you are making a choice every time you purchase an item of clothing, or in other terms, voting with your dollar.
The easiest way to create a formula for ethical shopping is by following the words of legendary designer Vivienne Westwood, “buy less, choose well, make it last.”