In part one of this post, I provided loads of information about how the majority of the clothes we wear are made; it’s not pretty and not surprisingly, cheap merchandise comes at great expense to people and the environment.
In exchange for reading through that heavy post, I promised I’d bring positive solutions to part II…so here they are!
Cleaning Up Your Closet
In the 1930s, the average American woman owned just nine outfits. Fast forward to today and the average woman purchases around 60 pieces of new clothing and shoes each year. Just between 1999 to 2009, the volume of clothing purchased by Americans grew by 40%. While the amount we buy has increased, recycling rates have not. This excess leads to average of 54 lbs of recyclable clothing and shoes thrown out by each person, each year. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that out of all reusable materials, textiles have one of the lowest recycling rates and the U.S. trashes around 85% of all textiles produced.
Just like detoxing your beauty routine doesn’t mean you have to look like a greasy hippie (unless that’s what you’re going for – #savewater), creating a more sustainable closet doesn’t mean giving up your style. It does mean buying a lot less, but I guarantee that you’ll invest in pieces that you will love and cherish for years. The fabulous designer and eco-fashion pioneer, Vivienne Westwood, says it best:
New clothes are fun. I promise, I know from first hand experience that it’s going to be tough to walk by an Urban Outfitters and not walk in to see what’s on sale. But when we make more informed buying decisions, we shift our behavior as consumers, recognizing the external forces that make us feel like we don’t have enough. There is a way to have a stylish closet, support clothing retailers with good ethics, and have a new outfit for every special occasion in your life. I now stick to what I truly need and do my research before purchasing. I find that I have a lot of basics with a twist that can be dressed up or down. My style has evolved and improved since I’ve been more intentional about what I add to my closet. I pair a classic item with a quirkier, vintage one. Here are some tips that have helped me create a closet that reflects my values and save money:
Host a clothing exchange
If every woman in America swapped rather than shopped for just 30 days, it would save one billion pounds of landfill waste. My friends and I have seasonal clothing exchanges and we are all frequently surprised at the gems we’ve discovered that were hidden away in each other’s closets. There are also large scale clothing exchanges that happen; check out meetup.com for clothing swaps in your area.
Supporting local shops and designers means a more transparent supply chain. If you want to know the origins of the textiles, you can just ask the designers. Look up eco-boutiques in your area or check out the awesome online retailers (see some of my favorites, below). There’s a great artist and design fair, Unique LA, that takes place twice a year and features local and some eco-friendly designers. Check them out here!
Be honest with yourself and only buy items that fit well and that you truly love. Soon after I started to plan each clothing purchase, I realized how many times in the past I would buy something even though I didn’t really like it. I’d rationalize the purchase, saying “well, it’ll fit after I lose 8 lbs”, or “it’s on sale, so I’ll just get it”. And that’s how I ended up with a closet brimming with stuff, but never anything to wear. Now, I pay attention to how I feel; if it isn’t 100% flattering, I will not feel confident in it, and I know I won’t wear it very much.
Let a professional re-imagine your closet; for free
Look at blogs and websites for ideas. I like to dream on Net A Porter for high-end looks that I can recreate with what I have in my closet. Have a crisp white button-down? Find one on your favorite fashion bloggers or brands to see how it’s styled and recreate it with similar items you probably have in your closet.
Make like Cher and digitize your wardrobe
How many times have you bought something only to get home and realize you already own something way too similar that you forgot about? Well there are apps to prevent that from happening ever again. Remember Cher’s automated outfit chooser in Clueless? Well, duh, there are apps for that IRL, guys. Check out these closet organizer apps that make it easier for you to mix and match pieces, creating new outfits with what you already have. Many of the apps let users view each other’s closets and dish styling advice.
One item in, one item out
If I take something home, whether new or used, I have to get rid of something I already own. This has probably been the most helpful commitment to not only recycling my clothing and preventing waste, but also, to decluttering my closet. If I’m not willing to part with anything I already own, then that probably means that I don’t really need whatever it is I’m about to buy.
5 Tips for Thrift and Vintage Shopping
1. NEVER go looking for something too specific
Limit to one requirement; skinny jeans? Okay, you’ll probably find a pair. Grey-washed skinny jeans? You’ll probably leave frustrated. I often browse if I just need a closet perk and stay open to finding unexpected gems.
2. Look for off-season wear
You’ll find the least picked-over sections at markdown prices. Be ready to buy a heavy coat in the middle of July.
3. Do a quick scan of the “featured” items
This includes items on mannequins, in windows, hanging up on the walls, and designer pieces kept behind the counter. This is where you’ll find mid to high-end designer stuff. One of my prized possessions is an A.P.C. black bomber I picked up for $40. You may strike out but try again on another day. That’s the fun of shopping second hand!
4. Be a label snob
Try your best to pass on the “fast fashion” brands. Places like Crossroads and Buffalo will resell Forever21 and other cheap brands for almost as much as they are new (which still, isn’t much). This also sends the message to the resale buyers that you, with your discriminating taste and strong ethics, would rather buy well-made pieces that have longer wear than buy some 21 year-old’s doudy ex-clubbing wear.
5. Look for quality
If someone asked me to describe the qualities of a well-made garment a few years ago, they would’ve received a blank stare. Now that I buy for quality, I examine pieces before purchasing, both new and used. Now that I check, I’m amazed at how many times I’ve seen seams already unraveling on new items, still on the rack. Allow for some gentle wear and tear on good-quality used items. Most of the time it can be hemmed or cleaned, or taken in/out by a tailor. Test the zippers – they should glide without any catching. Look for high-quality linings in dressy items like jackets and pants. Here’s a great guide to help you find clothing that will last.
My favorite consignment and vintage shops in L.A.
I’ve made this list to feature relatively affordable consignment shops. If you’re seeking high-end shops (think vintage Chanel – maybe one day…le sigh), check out this great list!
Playclothes – Well-curated, truly vintage clothing, arranged by decade. Expect to pay $30-$80 per piece.
Crossroads in Silverlake – Great finds from low to high-end brands. Plenty of LA-based designer samples end up here.
Hutch – A tiny, hidden gem vintage clothing and furniture shop; unique items that are reasonably priced
American Way Burbank – Clothing and furniture. Everything here is true thrift store pricing, which means hit or miss, but if you’re willing to search, you could find true vintage items for under $10 bucks.
Melrose Trading Post – A boho lover’s bazaar every Sunday. You’ll find used/vintage clothing, along with upcycled/used furniture, art, music, and some weird stuff you never knew you needed.
American Vintage in Echo Park – My husband geeks out over their vintage menswear. He’s found Redwings and an official military-issued peacoat.
Jet Rag $1 Sundays – I’ve yet to brave this event, but I’ve heard good things about it from others. Be ready to dig through piles and piles of clothing for one or two gems, but at a price you can’t argue.
Need something new?
These are some of my favorite sustainable clothing brands! The following meet some or all of the these criteria: Made in U.S.A or if made internationally, transparent about how clothes are made and textile origins; partnerships with local artisans are fair and sustainable. Eco friendly textiles: uses renewable materials, eco-friendly dyes and treatments or reuse/recycling existing materials into their pieces.
Nisolo Shoes – men’s and women’s shoes
Zady – chic, timeless women’s basics
Gustin Denim – men’s selvedge and raw denim
Alchemy Goods – upcycled bags and totes
Raleigh Denim – men’s selvedge and raw denim
Nudie Jeans – men’s selvedge and recycled denim
Raven & Lily – women’s clothing and accessories with a global vibe
Reformation – on trend women’s apparel
Alternative Apparel – athleisure basics
Della – bags and accessories
Baggu – bags & accessories
Ethica – collection of clothing, shoes and accessories from sustainable brands
Le Souque – accessories and home decor from indie eco designers
Naja – gorgeous lingerie
Veja – ethical athletic shoes for women, men and kids
PACT Apparel– women’s, men’s and kid’s basic undies and intimates
Mayamiko – on-trend, fun apparel
I try my best to purchase new clothing from ethical brands like these, but sometimes it’s just not possible because of fit or cost. For instance, I buy a lot of my basics from Madewell which is owned by J.Crew which isn’t the worst as far as social responsibility, but it could do more. However, their denim and shoes are great quality and fit my body really well; they are timeless and I have pieces that still look great after five years of wear. Just like green beauty, no need to panic and throw out everything. Just try your best to make small changes; believe me, they do matter!
I hope these tips and lists have been helpful. Any other tips I’ve missed? Share! I’m always on the hunt for more shops and ethical brands to support.
“Less than 10% of what we’re wearing… was made in factories where people were paid a living wage and working in safe and legal conditions.” – Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed:The Shockingly High Price of Cheap Fashion
In the same way that most people are unaware of what’s in their beauty and personal care products, consumers know very little about where their clothing comes from, and that’s no accident. The glossified global fashion brands do everything in their power to prevent consumers from thinking about the exploitation of resources and people and how consumer dollars directly support these awful practices. This post is titled “quit fast fashion” for a reason – it’s a bit like dropping a toxic habit that, as Western consumers, has been ingrained in us, especially millennials bombarded with messages of consumption EVERY.WHERE.WE.TURN.
There’s a great Norwegian webseries where three very entitled fashion bloggers are sent to live as textile workers in Cambodia. Even though there are some very #1stworldproblem moments, it’s really genuine so at least watch this one episode. It does a great job of revealing how Westerners have the luxury of never thinking about where their possessions come from. And if they are considered, the people who make them are “others”, happy to have an income and a job. Documentaries like this help to dispel that myth.
In my twenties, my closet consisted of a few nice, classic pieces, but mostly cheaply manufactured, trendy crap from fast fashion stores like Forever21, Urban Outfitters, and H&M because I thought it was all I could afford. When I started to look beyond the damage it was doing to my wallet, but also at the undeniable link between the fashion industry and climate change, I made a conscious effort to purchase clothing that is sustainably-manufactured with social equity in mind, and generally buy less of everything. Yes, I now pay more for my clothing, but in the end, I consider my purchases that much more thoroughly.
What made me reconsider my habits?
I now understand that each time I pay less for my clothing, people and environment were exploited. And when I give the company my money, it’s like I have just proclaimed, “yes, I want these practices to continue.”
We’re coming up on the two year anniversary of the horrific collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh. 1,138 people died and another 2,400 were injured. I remember being horrified after reading the news coverage of this completely preventable disaster that happened on the other side of the world, but I also felt strangely close to it: I was partially responsible because of my (over)consumption. And here’s the worst fact which, I believe, was lost in the media’s fixation on the death-toll goriness:
The day before the collapse, the building was classified as dangerous and owners were advised to shut down operations until repairs could be made. Instead, workers were directed/threatened to return to work in the partially-collapsed building.
Mahinur Begum, a survivor of the Rana Plaza disaster, now an activist for garment workers’ rights. She and the rest of the group were arrested.
Fulfilling the orders for Western corporations’ cheap merchandise was considered more important than preventing harm and loss of life. It makes me sick to realize that this is the consumerism and greed-driven climate that I’ve supported, or at least idly stood by. Again, this tragedy was 100% preventable. There were 28 Western brands identified as having production orders placed at the factory. Almost two years later, some companies have yet to pay their share of settlements to the survivors and those injured in the disaster. Adding even more insult to a grim situation is that the funds are owed by some of the world’s richest companies.
The manufacturing process is outsourced to a complex supply chain of sometimes hundreds, even thousands of factories. It’s a murky system where merchandise for just one apparel brand can touch a multitude of factories and is incredibly challenging to enforce regulations. However, this often works in favor to companies because they can claim ignorance about violations of labor and/or environmental regulations. Corporations “manage” a broken system with a few audits here and there and require that factories agree to a labor code of conduct, but it’s obviously not in companies’ best interest to completely overhaul a system based on what is modern-day slave labor. Consumers also assume that because they pay more for a garment, that ensures ethical practices. Wrong. Most luxe brands just have a ridiculously high mark-up and source from the same farmers, textile and cut and sew factories as fast-fashion retailers.
That $20 dress exists because a lot of women were exploited
It’s probably not surprising that 80% of garment workers are women. Apparel manufacturing hubs are located in (surprise, surprise) regions where women lack basic human rights which makes them even more vulnerable. Many women are migrant workers and countries like China, Bangladesh and Thailand do not extend basic labor rights to temporary workers. Women work overtime without pay, are sexually harassed, discriminatory practices against pregnant women take place, and suffer from fertility problems because of exposure to high concentrations of chemicals. Any efforts to unionize are quickly squashed/threatened away by factory supervisors and owners. Essentially, corruption reigns in this industry, worker protections are a joke, and often times, workers who do speak up for better conditions are fired. These are not one-off incidents – these are widely-accepted and well-hidden practices which occur across the world in facilities that have met corporate labor standards. The current state of business’ supply-chain management is very reactionary; putting out fires (sometimes, quite literally), rather than taking measures to prevent harm from happening in the first place.
The apparel industry uses chemicals and your body
Retailers like Mod-Cloth, Forever21 and Zara receive new styles every day. Where there were once two fashion seasons, Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter, there are now ‘micro seasons‘, where brands churn out trends, making consumers feel out-of-style after one week. To churn out styles so quickly, it means more production, which means more industrial factories in places like India, China and Mexico where environmental regulations are lax, at best. The World Bank estimates that 20% of the world’s industrial water pollution comes from textile dyes and treatment. Around 25% of all chemical compounds made are used in the textile industry. These industry hubs are in countries with little-to-no environmental regulations (that are actually enforced) and toxic chemicals used in textile treatment processes can be dumped in waterways and those factories can pump out an often unchecked amount of emissions.
However, because of consumer demand and transparency requirements, things are improving. As a result of a Greenpeace’s campaign exposing that H&M and Zara, among other global apparel brands, were selling clothing with hormone-disrupting chemicals, huge retailers have signed on to an agreement to eliminate toxic chemicals from their manufacturing processes. H&M has pledged to eliminate toxic chemicals from its supply chain by 2020.
Illegal wastewater discharge from denim dye houses and factories in Xintang, China
The Pearl River in China runs indigo due to the chemical-intensive dyes in wastewater discharge. 40% of the jeans sold in the U.S. are manufactured in Xintang, the “Denim Capital of the World”, so you most likely have an article of clothing in your closest that was a part of a supply chain in this region. Many regions worldwide are in severe drought or suffering from water contamination from industrial pollution. Each year, in China alone, 2.5 trillion liters (yes, trillion, with a ‘t’) of wastewater are dumped into rivers. The country is dealing with the grim public health consequences of unregulated dumping; residents along rivers suffer higher rates of cancer and one in five people lack access to clean drinking water. This is water that could be used for things like oh, you know, drinking, bathing, and growing already threatened crops in places like Mexico where 70% of the waterways are polluted.
The realities of resource scarcity, mainly water for water-intensive treatments and growing cotton, are hitting the bottom line of massive retailers in a significant way. Even the brands themselves are confronting these issues because it’s hitting them where it hurts. This is a positive thing; many companies are rethinking the design and production of their garments, encouraging innovative treatment processes like water-less dye processes, and using more renewable materials for their textiles that aren’t as water and chemical intensive.
If your moral compass is even slightly active, please, for the love of your fellow human beings, stop giving Forever21 your money
There is a special place in fashion hell for this store. They commit egregious social justice crimes. The retailer has declined to join industry working groups to stop child labor and it’s one of the few retailers still sourcing cotton sourced from Uzbekistan, a country notorious for “drafting” children to work in cotton fields. The retailer faces multiple sweatshop labor scandals every year and has done nothing to reform labor conditions along its supply chain. After a 2001 lawsuit filed by women forced to work in sweatshop conditions in Los Angeles (Forever21 maintained that it all was perfectly fine. WTF?), it outsourced the rest of its production. Check out this documentary, Made In LA, about the women and the Garment Workers Center’s struggle to hold Forever21 accountable and sponsor a boycott. Ripping off the work of designers is also a part of their business plan. The’ve faced more than 50 copyright lawsuits and pay the settlements rather than apply for licenses. And all of this from a company that wears its Christian roots on its sleeve. I guess the execs missed like 90% of the Bible that talks about treating everyone with dignity and respect.
So, now that I’ve completely ruined your day/closet/joy from retail therapy, you’re probably overwhelmed. And I haven’t even scratched the surface of the atrocities that happen in this industry. Please, check out some of the many links I’ve provided for more information and spread the word. Here’s how you can take action:
Research brands before you shop
The 2010 California Transparency in Supply Chains Act requires multi-million dollar companies to disclose their efforts to stop and prevent trafficking and slave labor in their supply chains. Look for the company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) or sustainability programs and judge for yourself. Have they published any reports about the successes and challenges faced after implementing their labor and environmental policies? If it’s just a mission statement and nothing else, I would stay away. And if the company doesn’t even have a sustainability/CSR section, then definitely never shop there. Lack of transparency is a huge red flag and usually indicates lack of company ethics.
Send the message to brands where it hurts: profits and brand reputation
Disappointed with what you’ve found/not found? First step- stop shopping there. Next, tell the brands via social media or through a petition why you’re no longer a customer and what they need to do to earn back your trust.
Clean Clothes Campaign
Make It Last
Sustainable Apparel Coalition
Thanks for hanging in there; I know this was a heavy post, but a necessary one. In part II, (next week, happy stuff, yay) I’ll give you ways to clean up your closet, support local and sustainable brands, and offer my savvy vintage/thrift shopping tips!