Tip Tuesday: Ethical Fashion

It’s not just expensive: clothing, from fast fashion to everyday wear, is a major ethical conundrum. Barring moving to a nudist colony, or not ever leaving the house, it’s pretty much impossible to get to zero waste fashion. But there are things you can do to help reduce your impact.

We have to wear clothes. But we can be aware of the choices we make when looking at labels. Why is fashion such an ethical nightmare and how can we dress ethically? That’s what I’m getting into this week.

The Problem With Fashion

Take a deep breath and schedule some you time for ten minutes from now. You’re going to need it. Why? Because fashion is the second worst industry on the environment after oil.


Polyester, which we love to hate and hate to love depending on the decade, is one of the biggest culprits when it comes to the environmental problems of fashion. That’s because it is a petroleum (plastic) product. More than 70 million gallons of oil are used to produce polyester each year (Forbes).

This is why fashion, as an industry, is responsible for massive carbon emissions. Fashion produces 10% of the world’s CO2 output (Forbes). It’s not just the carbon emissions, though. Polyester clothes are likely the second largest cause of microplastic pollution.

Polyester is back in full force, though, as evidenced by the fact that from 2000-2016 the world saw a 157% increase in polyester production for clothing.

Does that mean cotton is better?


Cotton grows, it isn’t produced, so it seems like it would be better. But there are problems with cotton that are different, but just as bad, as polyester. Like polyester, it’s impossible to get zero waste fashion out of cotton.

The biggest waste related to cotton is water. The jeans and t shirt you’re wearing right now required 5,000 gallons of water (World Wildlife Federation). But that’s not all. Cotton makes up 2.4% of the world’s crops but uses 10% of the total industrial chemicals used world wide and 25% of the insecticides used in the world. Cotton crops for fashion also use pesticides which are killing the pollinator population.

Fashion: A Cultural Problem

Fashion is an unethical culture. Fast fashion, while not attainable to most, makes us believe that it’s fine to buy new items every season. The average adult woman in the U.S. has $550 in unworn clothes in her closet, or 20% of her clothing. And that’s not unworn yet. That’s unworn ever.

This isn’t an unknown statistic and the industry is certainly aware and yet unlike other industries, the fashion industry has done nothing, on a large scale, to encourage less wasteful practices. Nevermind approach the idea of zero waste fashion. Americans throw out shoes and clothes leading so they end up in landfills. Buttons and polyesters, which don’t break down, infect the soil and water. And no one gets those clothes, even the unworn items, which leads to more production and consumption.It's hard to get to zero waste fashion when the industry pushes materialistic consumption.

A dire picture.

How To Get To Zero Waste Fashion

It’s possible to significantly reduce your fashion-related footprint. Just start implementing some of these practices into your daily life.

Change Your Consumption Habits

Only buy what you need. It’s hard to embrace this at first but if you think about it, you probably rewear most of the items in your closet and leave the rest. I know that I have two go to pairs of jeans. Unless I wear a dress or spend the day in leggings, I’m either my distressed skinnies or classic bootcuts.

To help make this switch, don’t make your jeans the centerpiece of your outfit by buying pairs that are super distinct. Stick to plainer pairs so that you can wear and rewear without feeling like it’s obvious. Plain, classic jeans can be worn without anyone notice. It's one way to get to a personal practice of zero waste fashion.

Chill with the shoes. I used to be a majorly obsessed with shoes. But how many pairs do I really need? I wear my Birks three seasons a year (yup, with cool lookin’ socks in the fall) and the rest of the time I wear hiking boots. Also, I have a cute pair of vintage bowling shoes in blue because they go with anything and allow me to dress up. I also have a few pairs of Converse low tops that I’ve had forever. And my sneakers. Because sometimes I go to the gym.

Before buying a pair of shoes, think about whether you actually need them. Go with multipurpose shoes (my light hikers are fine for hiking but also as day to day shoes) when possible.

Shop organic and ethical. There are lots of brands out there who subscribe to ethical practices whether it’s using organic materials or recycled ones, or paying a fair wage. They can be expensive so here’s the other option: do the most ethical thing and shop used. You can find everything from high end couture to perfectly broken in American Eagle jeans by hitting up your local consignment shop and thrift store. Fashions cycle in and out of style so you can always find something. Or, stick to classic styles. Best yet: develop your own sense of style and buck the trend of having to be “in style”.

Change Your Endgame Practices

Donate or sell. If you have clothes you’re not going to wear, don’t just throw them away. Donate them locally! Find the Goodwill store or donation box or research whether churches and aid organizations in your town accept donations. Always wash items before dropping off and while light wear is okay remember that you shouldn’t donate something you yourself would not wear.

There are garage sale pages all over Facebook these days and a great way to make a little money off of never worn or lightly worn clothing. When it comes to never worn higher quality clothes, consider consignment, where you can make back a bit of your investment.

Your Mission

As the seasons change, look through your clothes and put aside those that you’re never going to wear (and haven’t worn yet). Donate, sell or give them away (do a swap with girlfriends as a fun way to maximize your closet). Before you buy, think about what you actually need. My trick? Unless I go to the store with the specific goal to purchase something (and I never go clothes shopping without a specific list… too tempting) I don’t buy anything. If I really love something I take a picture and I tell myself if I’m still thinking about it the next time I’m at that shop I’ll buy it.

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