7 Lessons I Learned From A Year Of Ethical Shopping

Earlier this year I watched The True Cost on Netflix, a documentary about the global impact of fast fashion, and in one afternoon realised I had to change my shopping habits. Admittedly it was the most #millennial way I’ve ever made a major life decision, but hey, I’m embracing the world we live in.

The basic rundown: a lot of our clothing is made in developing countries by people who are not fairly compensated for their work and often work in really unsafe conditions. The fashion industry has whipped itself into a profit-seeking frenzy, and consumers have been convinced to purchase and discard more and more every year, developing a skewed sense of what constitutes good value for money.

On top of that, the materials our clothes are made out of are often created in unsafe or unsustainable ways to keep up with the demand for massive amounts of low cost product. And when they get thrown away they create mounds of rubbish, often polluting air and waterways with toxic chemicals.

I’ve been doing my best to shop ethically for nearly a year now. Here’s what I learned.

#1 Decide What Ethical Means To You

Ethical is very in right now, which means a lot of companies are using “ethical” or similar words to market their products. But before you investigate what exactly a company means by “ethical”, you need to know where you stand.

Will you want to make sure that child labour is not being used in any part of the supply chain? Will you also consider the sustainability of materials used in the garments? Does ethical shopping for you mean only buying local, Australian made and grown products?

Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA) is an accreditation body that helps consumers find Australian brands that align with their values. National Manager Angela Bell says, “We encourage people to consider the people who are labouring behind the garment which you see on the shop floor. Be mindful that buying clothing that you know is being made in the right conditions has a positive impact.”

#2 Ask Questions

Most brands that make ethical clothing advertise the fact clearly on their website and social media. But if you fall in love with a piece from a brand that doesn’t make their ethical position clear, you’re entitled to ask for more information.

Bell encourages consumers to make it their business to find out how products are made. She advises consumers ask companies about “protections, accreditations, certifications, or any auditing or checks they have in place to make sure the people involved in the product are being paid appropriately, are working in the right conditions and that there’s no children involved in the production of the clothing.”

In my experience, an email or message on social media asking about how products are made is quickly answered by brands who are either making products ethically, or are making an effort to move towards more ethical and sustainable practices.

#3 Don’t Throw Away All Your “Unethical” Clothing

If you’ve just made the decision to shop more consciously, you might open your wardrobe only to feel it now resembles a line-up of crimes against humanity. But going full Marie Kondo and throwing out all your clothes in disgust isn’t going to help anyone.

Wear your clothes until they’re no longer wearable, repair or repurpose them when you can and donate items that are still wearable, keeping in mind that a lot of donated clothes are going to head to landfill if they’re not fit to be worn.

#4 Shopping Ethically Doesn’t Have To Break The Bank

Ethically made clothing generally costs more than fast fashion sold by major outlets. When you think about the maths, it’s easy to see why: if the chain of people who produce the garment are all paid properly, and if their safety and wellbeing is being invested in, the cost of production goes up.

But ethical clothing doesn’t necessarily need to cost hundreds of dollars per piece. There are plenty of companies that sell ethically made clothing that’s still affordable, even though you might be buying one item for the cost of three at a chain store. When you do pay a little more for a new piece of clothing, spend a few minutes to bask in the glow of knowing you’ve made a fair trade for the time and expertise that went into producing it.

#5 Watch Out For “Green Washing”

Ethics, sustainability and environmentalism can go hand-in-hand. But just like “ethical” is a hot buzz word right now, anything labelled “green” has instant access to a large market of shoppers keen to do the right thing. But you can’t always take these labels at face value when they’re used for marketing purposes.

Take bamboo, for example. Marketed as a green or eco-friendly textile, it is increasingly popular for its lovely soft feel and “naturalness”. The amount of processing required to make it into fabric, however, comes at an environmental cost.

This list of ecolabels used on textiles provides a guide to the logos and labels you can look out for on clothing tags.

#6 Don’t Get Sucked Into Sales

Shopping ethically means not buying more than you need. Even though your favourite ethical brands will still use sales tactics to entice you to buy, it’s your responsibility be savvy and only buy what you need and value.

#7 You’re Not In It Alone

It might seem daunting when you start to learn about ethical shopping, but in these days of the internet, finding out about ethical brands is a matter of a little bit of research.

Ethical Clothing Australia has a list of Australian brands that have met their accreditation standards and apps like Good On You can make shopping a breeze.

Lauren Sherritt is a playwright and freelance writer based in Brisbane. Lauren’s work has been featured online at Junkee, The Financial Diet, Birdee, LifeMusicMedia, lip magazine and Australian Stage.