I, like many others in this little corner of the internet, spend a fair bit of time thinking about sustainable fashion. While it doesn’t encompass everything I look into or write about, over the years I’ve managed to learn a fair amount about the general world of fashion, where it needs to improve, and what my values are.
This also means that I’ve also developed certain criteria when it comes to bringing new items into my life. For me, this criteria has become natural, but that’s because I’m immersed in this stuff so regularly. It’s only when chatting to friends working in other spheres that I realised what might seem commonplace to me isn’t necessarily so simple for everyone else. After all, we all start from the same place, I just happen to have a little more time and exposure to information in these areas.
So if you’re a little newer to the journey, if you want to help someone along, or if you want to check in with yourself in a new way when it comes to examining our own consumption, here is the checklist I tend to run through when shopping sustainably.
Top: The Natural Edition, trousers: secondhand
First I ask myself: why am I considering buying this? Is there a legitimate space in my wardrobe that this will fill, or is this replacing something that I really can’t wear anymore? And sure, sometimes we do buy the occasional piece because fashion is a form of creative self-expression that we enjoy, or we want to build a long term sustainable closet, but it’s good to examine these motivations too. Since learning more about fast fashion I stopped going into high street stores altogether a few years ago, removing the temptation to buy anything there, and I’ve yet to impulse buy a piece of sustainable fashion either. This is because I usually see sustainable fashion online, and so if I really like something I’ll tend to bookmark it and leave it for a while. If I still really feel like I would like it, then I will think about purchasing it. My MATTER trousers are a great example, I waited 6 months before buying them, and I get a lot of wear and love out of them!
I actually think we can come up against more obstacles when we thrift. I love thrifting with a passion, but most thrift shop clothes are so cheap that we can run the risk of transferring fast fashion habits to secondhand pieces instead, buying without real consideration and ending up getting rid of the item pretty soon because we’re not using it. It’s not just about sustainable consumption, it’s about slow consumption. As I’ve grown up I’ve noticed that my personality type lends itself to impulse buying those unique, charity shop items, so I combat that by checking in with myself and my mental health before I go into charity shops, or even once I’ve picked something up to consider buying it.
Top: The Natural Edition, trousers: MATTER
That being said, if I have some specific things in mind that I might need, I will look into getting them secondhand first. For example, when I was on tour in the summer of 2017 Helsinki ended up being a lot colder than other cities I’d been in for the month previously. Recognising that I didn’t quite have enough to keep me covered (both literally and figuratively) I headed to a thrift store a friend recommended, picking up three polo necks of varying thicknesses which I could layer together. These three saw me through the following weeks in other colder Scandinavian cities, and since then they’ve become my main layering staples through the winter months in years that have followed.
Secondhand has always been my favourite way of shopping. It extends the lifecycles of clothes, it’s significantly cheaper, and it has meant that my wardrobe has become a treasure trove of stories and memories, which I carry with me even as I continue to wear items for years and years afterwards. In fact, I love it so much that I wrote a whole post on how to thrift like a pro, which you can read here.
That being said, sometimes secondhand isn’t the best option for what we need. If I am going to buy something new, then there’s a set of criteria that I tend to stick to for these situations too.
Here’s my methodology:
Who made it & where?
This is, of course, a biggie. It’s important that any brand I consider buying from should not only be transparent and open about this, but also able to give details. I like brands to be able to tell me exactly which factories they use and where they are (ideally with pictures too), and what working conditions, hours, breaks and benefits are available to employees. I want to know if unionisation is allowed, and I want to know how much employees earn. Usually I won’t settle for minimum wage as an answer, as in many countries minimum wage does not equal a living wage (including in the UK and USA), and some countries have no minimum wage at all. Instead, I want to know that staff make a wage they can live on properly. The factories should also be monitored and accredited by external organisations such as Fairwear or WRAP to ensure they’re really upholding these standards properly.
This seems like a lot to ask, but it is also possible to achieve. For example, Lara Intimates manufacture in London and give you the chance to visit their studio yourselves, where you can interact with workers and see exactly how the job really looks for them. When factories are further afield many brands include photos and regular personal visits to their factories, and they can tell you in detail about the employees, including Asquith London and The Natural Edition.
Additionally, if you can find brands who are manufacturing locally to you, (for me that would be in the UK or Europe) then this also means that the carbon footprint of shipping the clothes to you is greatly reduced too, which is an added bonus.
Top: The Natural Edition, trousers: thrifted
As a general rule, I avoid synthetic material whenever and wherever possible. While some items may contain a very small amount of something like spandex for stretch (here’s a video that breaks that down a little more) I usually won’t touch anything that’s made of polyester. Synthetic materials are oil-derived and shed plastic microfibres into waterways which contributes to the plastic problem. They also aren’t breathable, so generally aren’t nice to wear. Instead, I look out for natural materials such as cotton, hemp, linen and tencel, and I look for organic certifications too. If I am buying something new, it’s usually going to be GOTS certified organic cotton. You can also look out for certifications like USDA Organic or The Better Cotton Standard (which isn’t perfect but is still something, more info on that here).
Obviously, this isn’t the case if you’re buying secondhand and, while many items in good charity shops will be 100% cotton, you may find that some pieces contain cotton-poly blends. While I generally avoid these, if you do pick something like this up just make sure to wash it using a GUPPYfriend bag or Cora ball to catch those microfibres before they get to waterways.
Beyond the fabric itself, it’s important to think about the dyes used to colour them. Many traditional dyes contain harmful chemicals such as azo compounds, heavy metals like chromium, lead and arsenic, and formaldehyde, while white fabric is bleached with chlorine, releasing dangerous chemicals called dioxins.
These chemicals can be toxic to human health, affecting things such as the nervous system, liver and kidney function, damaging the brain, causing cancer and more, hurting those who wear these clothes, and those who make them even more so. However it is also a serious pollution issue: uncontrolled discharge of these dyes into waterways causes great environmental damage to animals and plants, as well as severely harming the health of other humans who rely on these water bodies or live close by. It is estimated that textile dyeing causes up to 20% of all water pollution in the world.
When buying sustainably I look out for natural dyes, azo-free dyes, low-impact dyes, or brands that are specifically using new dyeing technologies to reduce pollution. Honestly, dyes are one of the hardest areas to fully grasp because there are so many variations and we’re not all chemistry experts, so look out for external certifications such as Oeko-Tex, GOTS, and Bluesign.
This top from The Natural Edition is GOTS certified, so wasn’t bleached with chlorine!
Beyond the three practical elements of makers, materials and dyes, it’s then back to introspection to check in with myself on a few more things:
- Can I match the item with my wardrobe? Can I create at least 10 outfits in my mind that it would fit within, making sure it gets full use in my closet (this isn’t all that different from the #30Wears campaign, this is just the specific question I use)
- Is it timeless and trans-seasonal? Could I wear it for as much of the year as possible, and could I wear it five years in the future? Ideally, the answer to both of these questions should be yes. There are of course some items, like very thick jumpers or very thin shorts, that really don’t work year round, but the bulk of my wardrobe is made up of things I can wear consistently through the year.
- Can it be repaired or regenerated? Is it the kind of item that can be refreshed if it gets some general wear and tear? Can I modify it if my body changes over time? Again this isn’t applicable to all pieces, but it’s always good to buy trousers knowing you could change them into shorts, or buy a t-shirt knowing you could turn it into a vest in five years time if you needed/wanted to.
Overall, for me, it’s about thinking slowly. It’s about combining the practical elements, looking at how things have been manufactured and what was involved in that process, alongside the personal ones, looking at why and how I’m consuming in my daily life. The reason we have many of these problems with mass pollution and worker exploitation is because our general consumption has gotten so out of hand, so it’s important to always be progressing and addressing both of these issues together, in order to move forward holistically and healthily.
(Disclaimer: I am a brand ambassador for The Natural Edition, however this blog post isn’t specifically sponsored. I decide when/where/how I would like to feature TNE, when I feel like it already fits what I’m writing about)