Doing Better Moving Forward: Thoughts on Sustainable Style One Year Later

A style blogger recaps shopping and dressing sustainably for a year.

In September of 2015, I watched “The True Cost” and it changed my life. I decided that I would never again purchase any fashion item that was not either:

  • Made in the U.S.A.
  • Secondhand/used
  • Handmade
  • Created using sustainable materials
  • Created using fair trade/transparent labor practices

I wrote about my reasoning and thought process – including how I would handle the items in my existing wardrobe that didn’t fit these criteria – in this post, so if you’re curious about the backstory, I highly recommend taking a peek at that first! But if you’re up to speed on all that, I’ll dig right into how I’m feeling after a year (and a few months) of living with these restrictions.

I broke my own rules.

Let’s get this out of the way, shall we? I bought non-sustainable stuff. In addition to giving myself a pass on replacing my footie socks and wicking gym shirts, I bought a handful of things that just plain didn’t fit my self-imposed criteria. Not many things, but a few! Plus I found myself creating a questionable loophole: Buying from eBay means buying outside the retail system for the most part, but you can get loads of brand new stuff on eBay. Buying something truly used is far better, but I purchased a couple of NWT items, justifying my purchases by reasoning that my money was going to a person instead of a corporation. And that this person getting my money didn’t impact labor policies or statistics about consumer demand. It’s bogus logic and I didn’t use it often … but it snuck in a few times.

If you’re appalled or disappointed to hear this, I understand. I’m disappointed in myself, too. But again, the goal is to make better, less harmful choices whenever I can. Making crappy choices occasionally – even voluntarily – is part of being human. And overall, I did what I set out to do: I bought less, recycled more (and more effectively), and stuck to my personal policies at least 90% of the time. So I feel like got an A- for 2016. Not too bad!

It was challenging/irritating at times.

But not as aggravating as you might imagine! I have it pretty easy: I’m a medium-sized woman with fairly mainstream tastes and a flexible budget. I can find nearly everything I want used or handmade, so I rarely even delved into buying brand new stuff from eco-friendly brands. I found myself getting anxious to buy stuff that didn’t fit my criteria most often when we traveled. I love shopping in boutiques, and adore bringing home little wearable souvenirs from excursions … but most affordable clothing boutiques are devoid of items that have been made domestically or sustainably. And browsing endless racks of made-in-China clothes loses it’s charm pretty quickly. Overall, though, this change in shopping behavior didn’t feel like a giant, onerous imposition. It just felt like a new way to think about shopping.

I mostly shopped eBay and Etsy.

This was a tumultuous and extremely busy year, so I didn’t have a lot of time to browse my local thrift and consignment stores. And, as I just mentioned, most of what I found myself wanting to buy could be bought secondhand or directly from an artisan. So most of my purchases were made online via Etsy and eBay. I also both bought and sold via The Realreal, and enjoyed being able to access quality designer brands at relatively affordable prices.

I consigned like a madwoman.

A year ago, I wrote this post about how thrift stores can’t handle the sheer volume of stuff they receive as donations. Bearing that in mind, I chose consignment first over donation. If I’d identified an item I knew wasn’t going to work in my wardrobe, and that item could be sold instead of donated, I sold it. Part of living sustainably is reducing waste, and if the things I’m casting off are ending up in landfills, I need to be more careful about what I buy in the first place. I’d say my charitable clothing donations for 2016 were a quarter of what they’ve been in years past.

I relied on my outfit list even more than usual.

Another aspect of sustainable living is using what you’ve already got. To ensure that I didn’t just wear the same things over and over, I leaned heavily on my outfit list. Any new items were set aside until I had time to build outfits around them and incorporate them into my master list. That way, everything I owned was always mixed into my pre-tested outfit choices. This helped me utilize what I own, feel more pulled-together, and road-test new-to-me items to make sure they were keepers.

Yes, I think I can do this forever.

I will “cheat.” I will screw up. As someone who considers style to be an important outlet for personal creative expression, I will probably always be a clothing and accessory hound and someone who enjoys shopping. So I’ll never bat 1,000! But as someone who has amassed a versatile, practical, fun wardrobe and doesn’t really “need” much more, I also know that keeping these parameters in place is both morally important to me, and a minor imposition. As of right now, I can’t see any reason to stop limiting my fashion purchases to sustainable ones. Never say “never,” but … I just can’t see it happening.

No, I don’t think everyone should do this.

I would love to say that what I did is possible for everyone. It’s not. Shopping sustainably as a tall, petite, or plus-sized person is INCREDIBLY limiting. Shopping sustainably as a tall student or plus-sized mother of five or anyone with a minuscule budget is difficult and frustrating. And yes, secondhand is always and option. And yes, you can actually make your own clothes. But doing either of those things as a person with extremely limited free time is virtually impossible. Right now, the fashion world is veeeeeerry sloooooooowly making it easier to buy sustainable clothing, and I encourage everyone to try to consume sustainably whenever possible. But the parameters I set for myself are specific to me, and I’m privileged to be able to follow them as I did.

I will continue to make sure that shopping recommendations on this blog include sustainable options whenever possible – a practice that has shown me how easy it is to find sustainable basics and how impossible it can feel to find sustainable non-basics. And I hope you find this helpful, since seeking out eco-friendly or handmade alternatives might not be top-of-mind when you’re shopping for yourself. And I’m gonna find a more prominent home for this post on vendors and brands with sustainable, conscious, and worker-focused practices.

And I hope you’ll let me know if YOU are attempting to create sustainable style in your own way! I’d also love to hear about brands you love with eco-minded practices or discoveries you’ve made about brands that appear sustainable but aren’t really. (There are gobs.) Keep me posted on your sustainability journeys, won’t you?

**Disclosure: Actions you take from the hyperlinks within this blog post may yield commissions for alreadypretty.com. See Already Pretty’s disclosure statement for more details. Sustainable options are either used, handmade, made in the U.S., artisan made in non-sweatshop conditions, or made using sustainable/fair trade practices.

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  • Reilly

    Great post! I would love to hear more about your master “outfit list”!

    This has also been my goal for a while and I haven’t been perfect either but not *expecting* that of myself really helps. There are local boutiques that have some sustainable/made in USA brands in store, so I felt OK about supporting a small, woman-owned business that were making an effort, even if they weren’t perfect either.

  • cryptdang

    This may be a naive question, but why is buying NWT on eBay less responsible than buying used on eBay? My understanding of the point of buying used is that 1) You are not directly supporting companies with unethical manufacturing processes and 2) You are continuing to utilize what is already in the collective pool of items being ‘used,’ rather than bringing new items into it before old ones have worn out (even if the item was not actually taken out of its bag by the previous owner). If a jacket has a 10-year life, and you buy it on ebay, what difference does it make if you buy it after it’s been used for 2 years or not at all?

    • That’s the reasoning I’m using, too, and it DOES make sense. It’s just that some eBay vendors have full size runs of multiple items from the same brand, which makes me think they’re buying loads of items on clearance from Old Navy (for instance) and posting them to eBay to try to turn a profit. So if the eBay vendor is buying from Old Navy in bulk, the eBay vendor IS feeding into Old Navy’s manufacturing model, and supporting its non-sustainable practices. And if I support the eBay vendor, I’m supporting Old Navy … albeit a tier down the line.

  • ainomiaka

    I would love to see more details on where you get the info about brands/if there are any verification steps. Also how do you rank these if a brand does one but not another. For example I care a lot about labor practices but feel like “made with organic cotton ” is a cop out. But trying to find the info on each brands site is confusing, and many of them seem to have goals but not concrete info on what is currently going on.

    • I totally agree – every brand seems to have a “sustainability” or “environmental impact” statement on their site these days, and many of them seem fantastically vague. It’s so hard to tell what these companies are claiming and who to trust. I’ve also found many of the assembled lists of “good” companies and infographics ranking sustainability to be questionable. So my own list here http://www.alreadypretty.com/2016/05/55856.html is based on companies that I’ve had experiences with myself, that have been recommended to me by readers or colleagues, or whose statements of sustainability seem to go beyond off-handed references to organic materials or labor practices that pass muster.

      I don’t tend to rank my own priorities, but do prefer companies who tick multiple boxes. Any multiples will do – made in the U.S. and organic, recycled fibers and fair trade labor. Alternative and Threads 4 Thought, for instance, both pin their reputations on low-impact dyes and sustainable fibers, which I like.

      Honestly, though, I am relying heavily on buying used. It feels more solidly trustworthy.

  • You’re on a roll! I can’t believe it’s already been a year.

    I’m planning to raise my wardrobe-related ethical bar in 2017, but I haven’t figured out how yet. Only buy one thing per month? Try Project 333? Develop a uniform? Not sure.

  • Linda B

    Thank you so much for sharing your progress report! I did make my own style resolutions for this year, largely based on your resolutions but incorporating a few other ideas of my own as well. I kept a special journal to track my progress, and included pages of outfits I loved and cool quotes from people about the art of dressing.

    I think overall, I did pretty well, more or less like you–occasionally I succumbed to the charms of something at Target, for instance, when I was going to buy cat litter, or some such mundane item–but made sure I really, really liked what I was buying, and wore the hell out of it. However, I really have tried to buy from local and/or ethical sources. And I continue to make some nice handknits that I love to wear. I consigned clothes, and bought from the same stores. Overall, I consumed way less.

    Honestly, however, I have struggled a little with this whole thing in some ways. It has sadly taken some of the joy out of creative dressing for me. I just don’t have those pretty new items rolling in on a regular basis to spark new outfit ideas. I do pin ideas like mad, but even that has slowed down. Some days I can get up with a new combination in mind using what I’ve got, but sometimes. . . not so much.

    Still, overall, I feel good about the choices I’ve made. I will continue this experiment hopefully for the duration. . .and it won’t be an experiment anymore, but a lifestyle. I am on my way to that already.

    • Thank YOU for sharing this Linda! Maybe keeping your own outfit list would help keep the creative juices flowing?

  • I saw the film and then recommended it to a friend who is now on her second year of only second hand shopping for her and her two kids. In my case I tried it and lasted only 6 months.

  • JB

    Congratulations! Very inspiring. But since it’s a gift-giving time of year, I’m curious about your approach to fashion-related gifts. Do the criteria extend to gifts you give to others? For yourself, do you ask for specific things that fit your criteria?

    • Great question, JB! Yes, I do ask that gifts be sustainable as well, when I’m asked. If someone gives me an unexpected fashion-y gift that isn’t sustainably made, naturally I accept it. But wishlists are just brands that meet my criteria.

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  • Monica H

    Sally, I just wanted to say thank you very much for your efforts in this area and for keeping us posted on your progress.

    As someone in a nearly impossible size range (tall), I have been frustrated in my attempts to just find clothes that fit at all, in any level of sustainability! Even ebay is practically impossible. But my wardrobe has reached the point where I do at least have enough to wear that I don’t truly NEED anything much. So, for this coming year I’ve decided that I’m going to take on being more sustainable in my own way.

    I’ve thought a lot about how I could do this given my constraints, and after much thought I came to a surprisingly simple and familiar maxim to follow: reduce, reuse, recycle. 🙂 All of us need to be most conscious of the fact that the best way to reduce our impacts on the planet and its workers is to simply BUY LESS. This is something that nearly everyone can participate in, although I’ll be the first to admit that it’s SO HARD. It may be incompatible with the job of a style blogger who needs to constantly put together new outfits, but for most of the rest of us, nobody cares if we constantly wear the same stuff. It is difficult to break the habit of always wanting something new, but when I consider “The True Cost,” is it really worth it? I find myself answering “no” more often.

    Reuse – I should be wearing out my clothes to the death! It seems very infrequently that I wear an item of clothing to the end of its useful life, other than tshirts and bras and such. It helps that my style is more “classic” and less “trendy,” so it’s entirely possible that I can keep my clothes for, in some cases, decades. Buying things that last, and buying things that I actually LIKE enough to wear them years from now will reduce the overall impact. The truth is that anything I buy WILL have an impact, and since I have limited ability to reduce the impact up front, the best thing I can do is reduce the “impact per wear” of the item by getting as much use out of it as possible.

    And then, as you’ve mentioned, once something has reached the end of its usefulness to me, pass it on in the most responsible way possible, depending on the item and its condition.

    None of us can be perfect in these regards, and I am certainly not. But, every step in the right direction counts.

  • I read this with great pleasure. I will give you an A+. This was only your first year and I think 90% achievement is really very much. And yes, sometimes (tsss… only 10%) you stray. You still are a hell of a lot better than most of us in making this a better world.
    I am still not helping in this area. OK we have 16 solar panels on the roof etc etc, but with buying clothes.. I have to take it down a whole lot of notches. At the moment I am on a strict money diet. I asked my husband to help me and he froze my cards literally in the freezer hahaha. But that is because I dipped into our saving accounts just for clothes. Ridiculous. Anyway I have a couple of months to see how I like this.
    Furthermore, because I have a good salary, I can afford to shop better brands who care about where they have their stuff made. Although it is certainly not full proof.
    When I get rid of clothes, I give them to my friends, to my stepdaughter, to my neighbours or to the local sales lady in a shop near us. Never throw them out or give them to charity. Is that good?
    There are not a lot of second hand shops, estate sales or consignment stores in The Netherlands. The Dutch are no people who waste much (that is an understatement, we are just tight haha).
    Anyway, signing off now. Love you.
    Greetje