Why I committed to ethical fashion

When I was young, my family didn’t have much money. We were working-class, and when things were good, we sat at the lower end of middle class. There was always food on the table, older cars that got us around town. And there was always clothes on our back.

Those clothes were bought at Sears, Target, Kmart, and JC Penneys. We shopped the sales rack. We always looked at the price tag. It didn’t take long before I developed a sense of what a shirt or a pair of jeans “should” cost.

That price was set by our budget, what we had available after bills were paid and food was on the table. We bought clothes at the start of the school year and again come spring. Clothes were meant to last, even if a pair of jeans only cost $20.

As a forty-two-year-old woman, whose financial situation is only a small step up from what it was growing up, the price of my clothing is still one of the most important criteria for my wardrobe.

But I’ve also come to understand that the price on the tag doesn’t always reflect the true cost.

Discovering ethical fashion

I first heard of the documentary The True Cost on The Lively Show. The film examines the social and environmental impact of the garment industry and introduces people working toward ethical fashion. When I heard about the film, I shrugged my shoulders. On my income, it wasn’t possible to buy a pair of jeans for $100 or more, a shirt for $125.

Ethical fashion was for people with money. The rest of us had bills to pay.

I continued to follow style bloggers, like Lee from Style Bee, who espoused the merits of ethical fashion. But like my perspective of Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame, I felt like they didn’t get what it was like for the rest of us.

But it wore on me. This idea that somehow the clothes in my closet negatively affected someone else.

I’ve never been a big clothing shopper, but I still found that I could purge many bags of clothes every season. Those bags would be filled with clothes I never wore. I would buy something because the price was right, but once I got it home, I discovered I didn’t like the fit, the color, or how it felt.

I never added up the cost of the clothes in those seasonal purges, because I didn’t want to know how much money had gone to waste.

But I did begin the journey of creating a capsule wardrobe. A capsule wardrobe is a limited number of versatile pieces that you love wearing. With this select number of items, you can create dozens and dozens of outfits.

As I started exploring capsule wardrobes, I also began to understand the importance of quality clothing. Clothes that are timeless, made with quality fabrics and can hold up to years of wear. I didn’t want to buy a brand new wardrobe every season because my clothes were out of style, pilled and stretched to the point of embarrassment, or had fallen apart. I wanted a wardrobe that would last.

And because those clothes needed to last, I needed to love them. Not sorta, kinda, like them because they only cost $10.

I was beginning to understand that clothes should not be consumable and disposable. That each piece should be an investment, with intentional behind each purchase. And with that realization, I understood that I would need to spend a bit more on each item.

But I still wasn’t ready to make the leap to ethical fashion.

A shift in mindset

During the winter of 2017, I committed to my first capsule wardrobe. I purged my closet of items I hadn’t worn the last winter, took inventory of what was left, and created a shopping list after scouring online sites like Old Navy, Nordstrom (high-end in my book), and the like. Using the help of sites like Polyvore, I knew the pieces I had selected could be used to create dozens of different outfits. I was ready to start shopping.

And I did just that. I went to Nordstrom’s Rack, Old Navy, Maurices, all my favorite stores. I took with me a photo-based shopping list and found clothes that were on my list or at least similar. I purchased a few pieces online. And my capsule wardrobe was built.

Other than a suit from Younkers, I didn’t spend more than $25 on a piece of clothing. I didn’t need any pants, only tops, which helped keep the prices down. The couple of shoes I purchased were under $40.

I was so proud of myself. For creating my wardrobe at such a great price. But still more than I typically spend on clothes.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that fewer and better quality pieces would have been better. Shirts faded in color, sweaters started to pill, and shoes didn’t breathe.

By this winter, I only liked to wear a small selection of my previous wardrobe.

Choosing my clothes based on what they cost had been one of the biggest selection criteria for my capsule wardrobe. I didn't buy anything that wasn't on my list, but everything I bought was fast fashion.

Because I wanted the entire capsule wardrobe now, not sometime in the future.

I was ready for a capsule wardrobe, but I hadn’t been ready to invest in my clothing. I was caught up in immediate gratification. I was looking at NOW, not tomorrow.

When it finally clicks

We all have a set of values - standards we use in life to guide our behavior. We’re also pretty good at ignoring at least some of those values when they aren’t convenient.

From the time I was a little girl, I’ve considered myself an environmentalist. I still remember carrying around a book called 50 Ways to Save the Planet as if it was my bible.

But have I ever stopped to consider the environmental impact of my jeans? Nope.

I’ve also grown into a staunch feminist. I vote based on my feminist values, I raise my son on those values, and I even teach a Women’s Studies course.

I never once considered how my clothing conflicted with my feminist values. Not until I read one of The Good Trade’s regular "Week of Outfits" posts.

I can’t call myself a feminist if I promote fashion companies that exploit low-income women of color, which most garment workers are.
— Cat Chiang, Restitchstance

Chiang’s words were a gut punch.

I went home that night and finally watched The True Cost.

Purchasing socially and environmentally ethical clothing is no longer a choice for me. If I want my identity to include feminism and environmentalism, ethical fashion is the only option.

Because of my finances, I won’t be able to create my next capsule wardrobe overnight. Instead, it will take me months to reach my initial goal. There will be decisions and choices - takeout pizza or money for a new sweater, chai at the cafe or a new pair of shoes.

I hope you follow along. You may not make the same choices, you may not have the same priorities, that’s okay. This journey is a journey toward living true to ME.

Your fashion choices may not be part of what it means to be living true to you, but maybe this journey of mine will inspire you to ask what choices you need to make to live true to you.