Compassionate Fashion: How A Shopaholic Fashion Writer Is Learning To Be A More Conscious Consumer

This post has been a long time coming. I decided to write it on April 24th, 2013, but I didn’t know how to write it; all I knew was I needed to change the way I thought about fashion in a big way, and fast.

April 24th was the day that Rana Plaza, a clothing factory in Bangladesh, collapsed, killing over 1,000 people. The building was not designed or certified to be used as a factory, and even though the workers — the vast majority of whom were women — had reported massive cracks forming in the ceiling the day before the collapse, their supervisors told them they would be fired if they skipped work. So they returned to Rana Plaza to sew cheap dresses and tops that would be sold by companies such as Mango and Walmart, and they died.

One of my Facebook friends summed it up in nine words: “America, your addiction to cheap T-shirts is killing people.”

As a clothes hoarder, fashion writer, frequent shopper, and feminist, I felt an intense wave of guilt in the wake of this tragedy. I avoided writing anything about fashion for almost a week (which was not ideal, as I’m one of The Frisky’s style writers). I looked at the $15 polyester dresses hanging in my closet and saw blood on my hands. I called my best friend and explained, through tears, how lost and guilty and confused I felt. “I genuinely love fashion and clothes,” I said, “but the industry is so fucked up. I don’t know how to continue on my career path in a way that feels right.”

I finally decided that I needed to open up a dialogue with Julie (our style section editor) about my existential crisis. When I told her how I was feeling, instead of being all, “suck it up and do your job!” she listened and empathized. She reminded me that while the fashion industry is really fucked up, most factories are not as terrible/dangerous as Rana Plaza was, which helped me let go of a bit of my guilt. We also discussed how there obviously needs to be major improvements and much better oversight of the global fashion economy, but pulling manufacturing out of these impoverished countries is not actually the best solution — millions of people, mostly women, rely on their garment industry jobs to feed their families.

We decided to start our Compassionate Fashion¬†feature to highlight companies who were doing business in an ethical way, and I vowed to educate myself and make some serious changes to my personal shopping habits and the way I interacted with and promoted the fashion industry. Now that I’ve had a few months to overhaul my life, here are eight ways I’ve been walking the walk as a more conscious consumer…

1. Read Overdressed. Seriously, if you want to get a comprehensive understanding of the current state of the garment industry, this book is a must-read. Elizabeth Cline lays it all out, charting the course of “fast fashion” from the perspective of American garment makers, overseas garment workers, fashion designers, clothing company CEOs, and shopaholic consumers. It’s depressing, but totally enlightening. Thanks to this book, I finally felt informed and empowered to make the best shopping choices for me. It set the scene for my shopping habit overhaul. Check out our fascinating Frisky Q&A with Elizabeth for more info.

2. Hold companies accountable. I was so disappointed to hear that TopShop had refused to sign the Bangladesh Safety Accord. You guys, TopShop is my jaaaammm. Their Vegas store is my second favorite Sin City attraction after Celine Dion. I freakin’ love TopShop. But I will not be shopping there until they show a commitment to keeping their garment workers safe. Some people would argue that the Safety Accord is more of a symbolic gesture than a practical one, but you know what? Either way, TopShop has demonstrated that they do not share my values, and therefore they will not be getting my money anymore. And I emailed them to let them know that.

A great resource to find ethical clothing companies is the Shopping Directory on the Overdressed website. It’s where I find many of the designers I feature in our Compassionate Fashion posts.

3. Buy stuff that’s made in America. One thing I learned from reading Overdressed is that clothing companies who want to keep their manufacturing based in the United States are fighting an uphill battle. These days, it’s much, much easier (and infinitely cheaper) to export production to overseas factories. The clothing companies who keep production here create jobs and abide by American labor standards. They deserve our respect and our business. I have become an enthusiastic customer of companies like Karen Kane, which produces the vast majority of its clothing in the USA. American-made clothing often costs more (because of that pesky minimum wage thing), and it takes a bit more effort to find a “made in USA” tag than a “made in China” one, but the difference in quality and the assurance of fair treatment of workers makes it worth it to me.

It’s easy to think that finding American-made clothing is impossible and therefore not even worth the effort, but that’s not true. Searching for “made in USA” on the Nordstrom website, for example, brings up more than 8,000 items, including super cute dresses priced around 30 bucks. Awesome.

4. Shop less. The fast fashion industry has trained us, as consumers, to shop much, much, much more frequently than we used to. When you shop as often and as cheaply as most of us do, you don’t expect clothes to be well constructed and last a long time; in fact, it’s almost disappointing when things last, because it takes up space in your closet that could be used for new clothes! One of the best, easiest ways to be a more conscious consumer is to shop less frequently. This has been really tough for me, because in recent years I had become a very frequent shopper. I would wander the racks of H&M or Forever 21 as a way to unwind after a tough day or reward myself after a good day. I shopped multiple times a week, not because I needed anything (ha!), but because I liked shopping and was probably semi-addicted to it. My closet was filled with cheap, mass-produced pieces that I felt no connection to. When I had to get rid of a ton of stuff to prepare for our cross-country move, I was surprised that seeing bags and bags of my clothes head out the door to Goodwill barely fazed me — I didn’t give a shit about any of it.

For awhile, I just stopped shopping cold turkey (it helped that I was pretty broke from moving). I wouldn’t let myself near a mall or a boutique street where I might be tempted. I’ve slowly begun shopping again, but now I shop in a different way. I try to spend my money at local boutiques or on brands that I trust. I don’t impulse buy anymore; instead, I take my time in the store to ask myself if I really love the item, how much I’ll wear it, how long it will last. I’ve only bought a few new items since starting my shopping lifestyle overhaul, but I really, really love each and every one of them. I still enjoy the act of shopping and do it fairly often; I just buy less when I do it.

5. Buy secondhand. I used to be a big thrift shopper, but as the price of new items fell so far that I could buy new stuff for close to the price of used, I drifted away from my beloved Saturday thrifting expeditions and into the mall instead. Learning about the realities of fast fashion was enough to rekindle my love affair with thrift and vintage shopping. It’s cheap, it’s good for the earth, and it’s helped me add some really fun, unique pieces to my wardrobe. Win-win-win.

6. Shift your price paradigm. One of the main points Elizabeth Cline makes in Overdressed is how fast fashion has skewed consumers’ ideas of what a garment is actually worth. We’ve gotten used to paying 20 bucks for a dress and five bucks for a T-shirt, but those prices are not sustainable, and make it impossible to fairly compensate the people who make those clothes. Also, cheap clothes are, well, cheap. They’re not constructed to last — how could they be at such a low price point? — so in terms of quality, you get what you pay for: clothes that fall apart within a few months.

I used to go hogwild for cheap clothes. Part of the fun of shopping was telling people how little I paid for my dress or digging through the H&M sale racks for a pair of $3 shorts. I used to balk at any piece of clothing over $50, and over $100? Forget it. I’ve been retraining myself to look at clothing and price tags in a different way. Instead of buying 5 shoddily made jersey dresses, I’ll save up for one beautiful, well constructed dress that fits me perfectly. And honestly, saving up isn’t as hard as it used to be now that I’ve cut out my weekly trips to H&M and Forever 21 — all those cheap clothes added up surprisingly fast.

7. Only buy stuff you really love. It’s crazy that we have become so desensitized to buying huge quantities of crap that “only buy stuff you actually like” seems like a revolutionary tip, but it’s true. Even if something is cheap, if you don’t love it, it’s not a good deal. Even if something is made in the USA out of sustainable organic cotton, if you don’t love it, it’s a waste. I’ve started subjecting my purchases to the dressing room dance test: if I try something on and it doesn’t make me want to do a happy dance in the dressing room, it goes back on the rack. This is why I love fashion: because when something fits well and feels good, it makes me happy. For too long, I had lost sight of that, and let me tell you: it feels so good to get it back.

8. Know that there’s no such thing as the “perfect consumer.” I’ve taken some practical steps to be a more informed and discerning consumer, and I feel good about that. You know what else feels good? Letting go of the idea that I can be a perfect consumer or change the global garment industry on my own. I’m not ready to move into a yurt commune and pare down my wardrobe to a couple pairs of fair trade hemp pants quite yet, and that’s OK. I still love fashion, and I still love shopping — maybe even more than I used to, actually, because I stopped doing it so mindlessly. When Julie and I talked about how to approach our fashion coverage in light of the Rana Plaza tragedy, one thing we both agreed on was how important it was to help spread information about companies we believed in and companies that were misbehaving. We both still wanted to provide lots of affordable style options for our readers as well as more expensive designer items worth saving up for. There are certain companies I don’t feel comfortable endorsing anymore, but for the most part, we’re in favor of giving you guys all the options (and all the info!) to help you make the best decision to fit your style, values, and budget.

Like cutting down on driving or buying locally grown veggies at the farmers market, making small changes to your clothes shopping habits might not change the world, but they do make a difference. All any of us can do is try. I’m not perfect, never will be, but every day, I’m trying. You’re welcome to join me, in whatever way feels right to you.

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[Photo of shopping bags via Shutterstock]