I’ve gushed quite a bit about Grechen’s blog and specifically her Minimal Closet series, and I will gush forevermore. Grechen’s honesty and candor about her own process and journey – moving from being a self-professed shopaholic toward being a conscious consumer and minimalist – is inspiring and unique. Months ago, she mentioned the documentary “The True Cost,” and described how viewing it was both appalling and important. The film explores fast fashion and clothing consumption at nearly every level from fiber farming to garment worker lives to supplier stress to environmental impact. And, as you might expect, there was irresponsibility, injustice, and ruthlessness at all of those levels.
Around the time the book Overdressed was released, a tiny little voice inside my head started piping up. It was a voice telling me that I needed to learn more about this stuff, needed to witness and understand and determine how to react. But I just couldn’t force myself to read the book. It was released during a time when I was overwhelmed by other aspects of my work and business, and eventually the idea of reading it got lost in the shuffle. But when Grechen started writing about “The True Cost,” the little voice started getting louder and angrier. When it started hollering that I had absolutely no excuse to avoid watching an hour-and-a-half documentary, I realized the time had come. So I watched. And everything changed.
Before I dive into that, though, a bit more about why I’d been alternately ignoring and bickering with this internal voice for a long time. I didn’t want to know because I didn’t want to look into my closet and see pain and injustice and desolation. I didn’t want to know because I imagined that knowing would limit me to a tiny handful of companies making expensive clothes that didn’t appeal to my own aesthetics. But more than either of those things, I didn’t want to know because I’m a very all-or-nothing person and I just didn’t see the point in trying to shop for clothing sustainably. I knew that horrible things were happening all along the production chain, and that items that appeared to be good choices on the surface could still be detrimental: The handmade tote bag created from leather that was tanned using polluting practices, the shirt that was sewn in the U.S. but from a fiber that wasn’t sustainably farmed, the organic cotton skirt created in near-sweatshop conditions, and so on. I didn’t feel like I could make a difference with my own actions because no matter what I chose, someone would get hurt. Unless I farmed the fibers organically myself using technology that didn’t require fossil fuels, spun my own thread, sewed everything using a solar-powered machine, hand-washed all the garments using organic detergent, and wore them all for 10+ years before repurposing them somehow, I would still be contributing to the problem. The problem was SO BIG and so far-reaching that I felt powerless to create change as an individual. I told myself that changes needed to happen at a systemic level, and believed that they would happen eventually based on the reporting and reacting I’d been seeing. I knew even as I made these excuses to myself that they were feeble and misguided, but I clung to them for a damned long time.
Watching the movie caused something to shift inside me. Seeing a mother who was forced to leave her daughter with family in another village so she could work longer hours at a garment factory, hearing about the brain tumors that cotton farmers consistently get, seeing the filthy runoff pour into rivers, learning that tons of donated clothing ends up in landfills or shipped to developing countries where it becomes a burden for other people to deal with … it had the effect on me that I’m sure the filmmaker intended: It made me realize that I couldn’t pretend this didn’t affect me, and that I had to do something.
And for whatever reason, it made me realize that I didn’t have to be so extreme in my thinking. I could give my money to companies that did one significant thing to make their practices less harmful, and even if my actions were minute they would be meaningful. I might never find any brands creating clothing in ways that were entirely innocuous from fiber to factory to store, but I could support the brands that took important steps.
So here’s what I decided: I would never again purchase any fashion item that was not either:
- Made in the U.S.A.
- Created using sustainable materials
- Created using fair trade/transparent labor practices
I was delighted and relieved when I realized that many brands that have been long-time partners and supporters of this blog qualify quite easily. Karen Kane is made in the U.S., Gudrun Sjödén works with organic cottons and other fibers, Lissa the Shop stocks only brands that utilize sustainable fibers or practices, Shop Adorn stocks brands like organic fiber-focused Prairie Underground, Rhodesian of Edinburgh creates artisan-made satchels, Alternative Apparel uses sustainable fabrics and low-impact dyes, Etsy faves like Lockhart Wrks, Elizabeth Kelly London, and Adriana Soto create handmade items in their own studios, Eileen Fisher is committed to sustainability on every level.
But I was chagrined to see the volume of items from mall brands with questionable practices that hung in my closet. And I actually reached out to Grechen for her take: Now that I’ve committed to shopping more consciously, what about the fast-fashion leftovers? I’ve got lots of relatively new stuff that still fits and that I still love to wear but that has been made using harmful methods. Do I keep wearing it and visibly support brands I want to move away from? Do I donate it all and feed the quick-turn fast-fashion cycle while simultaneously risking it all getting shoved into a landfill? She ended up writing an eloquent post in response, saying:
You can have a conscious closet by simply continuing to wear what you have, keeping only what you love, and taking care of your clothes.
If you have items in your closet that you love and wear, that might have been produced in Bangladesh or Cambodia, keep wearing them! You may be conflicted about that, I get it, but you already own them; take care of them, and make them last as long as you can. Enjoy and wear those items and you will be honoring the women who made them.
And I agree. I would rather wear my Gap and H&M stuff until it is threadbare than offload it in bulk now, when it’s in perfectly good shape. While it’s true that it would’ve been better to get wise sooner and never have purchased those things in the first place, I lack a time machine and therefore must focus on doing better moving forward. So in future outfit posts, you’ll see that if I’m wearing and linking to a fast fashion/mall item, I’ll do my best to highlight a sustainable alternative, too.
The next conundrum: How to handle things like the sale picks posts and other product recommendations, which you’ve consistently told me you enjoy and find very useful. I don’t have a perfect solution. In those posts I’ve committed to tracking down three items that fulfill a specific reader request, making sure they’re all on sale/relatively affordable, and finding similar items in plus and/or petite and tall sizes as often as I can. That last one has become especially important to me since I know that many of you wear specialty sizes and feel excluded from these types of posts; I want to be inclusive and introduce frustrated shoppers to potentially new and helpful resources. But if I add sustainability factors to that list of requirements, the posts will be impossible to create, especially since most eco-conscious companies are yet to add petite, plus, and tall offerings. And although I want to encourage you readers to consider taking on some personal sustainability responsibility, I have no right to assume that you all will agree with or be able to adhere to my specific criteria. OR that all of you can afford to shop sustainable brands which are, admittedly, often more expensive than mall brands. So I will pledge to do my best to include and highlight responsible brands, and when I can’t find items that fulfill the request perfectly I’ll include relevant sustainable brands and resources that you can explore on your own.
My all-or-nothing mindset still creeps back in, especially when I begin to think about consumption practices unrelated to fashion: I don’t drive a hybrid car, don’t eat all organic, don’t have a home entirely illuminated by curly low-energy bulbs … but I am, quite frankly, not able to commit myself to a life that’s 100% free of environmental sin. Not yet anyway. Still, as someone who makes a living in the fashion industry – albeit somewhat tangentially – I know that I may be able to have an impact by changing how and where I shop. I can do better moving forward in this one area for now, and do my best to make progress in other areas over time.
Having lived with this practice for around two months now, I’ve flipped over enough clothing tags to see firsthand that nearly everything we see in retail environments is made in China or India. Even expensive and high-quality items. In response, I’ve begun to compile a list of companies and sites that meet my own sustainability requirements and would be happy to share that list if anyone is interested. But please also feel free to highlight companies, designers, websites, or manufacturers practicing low-impact production in the comments of this post. I’d love to add to my list, and I’m sure you will know about resources I’ve overlooked.
And if you haven’t seen “The True Cost” yet, it’s currently streaming on Netflix and available for rental. Watching it won’t be fun, but it’s likely to be transformative. I’d wager that a single viewing will inspire you to reevaluate your own choices, and afterward you may find yourself formulating your own criteria for doing better moving forward.
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