A Beginner’s Guide to Shopping Sustainably

May 3, 2019

Image by depositphotos.com

Earth Day has come and gone, and it’s another good reminder that we should check in on our carbon footprint. During your self-reflection, you may start to think about how people throw out an average of 70 pounds of clothing every year. That’s like throwing away a pile of clothes that weighs as much as a Golden Retriever! Starting from the floor, the pile would completely cover your desk at school!

Much of this is due to the fast fashion industry: stores with a lot of inventory, mostly made with cheap materials. And while this problem seems a little overwhelming, there are definitely baby steps you can take to reduce the amount of clothes you throw away, and work towards becoming a sustainable shopper.

There’s no one way to shop sustainably. It’s all about creating a personal set of rules based on your financial privilege, access to stores, and the necessary utility of your clothing. So where to begin?

Green Strategy has a nice guide on Shopping Sustainably that’s broken down into 7 steps. They’ve set it up so you begin at Step One and work your way around the guide. But not everyone can afford to start at Step One, so we at spesch have decided to look at them more like categories that may or may not work for you. We’ve elaborated on them to help figure out which categories are most applicable to you, so you can start heading in the right direction!

Sustainability Shopping List

On Demand and Custom Made
Buying on demand and/or custom made means the item is made as you order it; instead of the designer making 10 pieces of each style in every size, and then just discounting or throwing out whatever doesn’t sell. This helps to do important things: create as little waste as possible, and extend the life of the clothing. Higher quality materials generally last longer, so you can wear them as long as possible! However, these items come with a pretty high price tag, and aren’t always accessible to everyone. Pieces like this should be investments that you save up for and know you will wear throughout every season for many years to come.


Green and Clean
This can apply to both made-to-order and non-made-to-order pieces. It means the designer is picking a fabric that is kind to the environment and can be manufactured with a low carbon footprint. Bamboo is a common fabric in Green & Clean, whereas silk is not. Green & Clean also applies to the production process – how much water was used in preparing the fabric, and how much waste was created in harvesting the fabric. Demin, for example, uses a lot of water in its production process. Most sustainable brands should have information on how Green & Clean their fabrics are, where they source them from, and their impact on the environment.


High Quality and Timeless
This is probably the biggest transition that needs to be made when shopping sustainably. Moving from items thats are super on-trend to items that will still be wearable after the trend has passed. Again, this is very much up to your discretion and personal style. If you think you can wear that neon green crop top three years from now when the trend has passed, own it! The goal of High Quality & Timeless is picking pieces that can work with your wardrobe for years to come, and are made out of materials that will last. Again, these pieces come with a high price tag but can often be worth it. A good rule of thumb to follow is “the dollar amount of the item is how many washes you will get out of it”. So a fast fashion piece that cost $10 will probably start to fall apart in 10 washes, whereas a high quality shirt that cost $80 is more likely to last 80 washes. This rule, of course, has exceptions and is also dependant on how closely you follow the wash instructions.


Fair and Ethical
This category can – and should – apply to all the categories that came before it. Looking into the ethical quality of your garment is about looking into where it was produced, the fairness and safety standards that are upheld for the workers, the wages the workers are provided, and where the profits from the garment go. If a product is outsourced, the designer’s website will often have information on the workshop it was made in. Ethical standards range from product to product, and it can be tough to determine if a product is ethically made. If you’re struggling to find information about the company, check Goodonyou.eco. They make it their business to figure out the ethical (and sustainable) standards of clothing makers.


Repair, ReDesign, Upcycle
Now here’s where we get into the fun stuff, especially if you can’t afford to shop new. Got a rip in your jeans below the thigh? Cut them into shorts. Pants wearing out in the thigh? See if your tailor can patch it up and reinforce them so they wear a little longer! Got a dress that you bought thinking you loved it, and then never end up wearing it? Try cutting it into a crop top and skirt! And if the piece is totally beyond repair, get crafty and turn it into something new! An old sweater can be made into new mitts, a laptop case, and so much more!


Rent, Lease, or Swap
You may be thinking “how do I rent my clothes”? Well this is less about renting out YOUR clothes, and more renting out something new to wear! Like maybe you have a wedding or fancy event coming up, and you know that you don’t want to buy a new dress because you may never wear it again. Companies like The Fitzroy charge a flat daily fee for dress rentals, and have a huge selection. There’s also, of course, the beloved clothing swap. It’s a great way to refresh your wardrobe without spending money, and without throwing away your old clothes. Just gather your friends, have them bring the clothing they no longer wear, and trade!


Secondhand & Vintage
OK. You’re dying to buy something new, but aren’t ready to drop $100 on a shirt. It’s time to head to your local vintage or consignment store. By doing this, you’re guaranteeing that there is virtually zero waste in getting a new piece of clothing – nothing new had to be made or sourced- and you’re helping reduce the amount of clothing that just ends up in the dump! If you also want to make your vintage shopping more ethical, look into the stores that you are buying from. Are their profits going to charity in any way, are they a non-profit, or are they 100% for-profit. If you want to stay ethical, try to avoid those 100% for profit places.

And don’t forget, when you don’t want to upcycle or swap a garment, the vintage store should be the next place you go! You can consign your pieces that are in better condition, and donate those that aren’t! Throwing out a piece of clothing should be the last case scenario.

Wear it Well

Remember, how you shop sustainably is completely up to you, and is a process! It can and will take multiple years to pair down your closet to essential items of clothing. It will also be pretty tough to stop shopping as often as you’re used to! But look at the positive, by cutting down your fast fashion purchases, saving up, and taking the time to shop for the environment, you’ll have more time to think about what you’re buying and will be more likely to buy pieces you love.

By Olivia Latta