With this in mind, it’s important to remember to have empathy toward yourself when striving to make the most ethical purchase under an exploitative capitalist system. To take sustainability as an example, nothing has zero environmental impact so starting with making changes within your reach that will have the most impact (like buying thrifted) is a way to move through feeling discouraged. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to what a good shopper looks like and factoring in financial and personal restraints is imperative into not shaming those around you. After all, more than 70 percent of global emissions come from just 100 companies and many have argued that this means billionaires are the leading cause of climate change.
There are many layers to the environmental and climate impact that clothing and textile production have, including overconsumption, carbon emissions, and issues such as water pollution from the dyeing of fabric and the shedding of microfibers into the ocean from synthetic material. In fact, according to the U.N. Environment Programme, the fashion industry produces 20% of global wastewater. This means many environmental groups, such as Extinction Rebellion, advocate for a complete fashion boycott and only purchasing secondhand.
“I think it’s widely accepted that the most sustainable thing we can do is not shop,” says Zhou, who adds that her number one priority when purchasing new clothing is workers’ rights, working conditions, and wages. “Environmentally, I always try to prioritize small labels that are either made-to-order or who produce in small runs. Fabrics-wise, I look out for locally sourced materials, deadstock fabrics, and natural fibers such as bamboo, linen, hemp, and (some) cotton.”
While it’s clear new fashion production poses a variety of environmental issues, Seier points to the early months of the pandemic where sudden halts in production and consumption were detrimental to the wellbeing of garment workers around the world and also to the social protections currently in place for those who rely on the fashion industry. “Whilst consumption levels do need to drop in order for the planet to meet the needs of future generations, it’s also true that millions of workers depend on fashion consumption for their livelihoods,” she says.
“Rather than looking at this paradox as an either/or, we should treat this reality with a both/and approach, which demands equity for all people at every level of the supply chain and every kind of consumer whilst calling on the industry to conserve resources, provide dignified jobs and reduce inequality,” Seir adds. This also means supporting the work and businesses of Indigenous people, leading voices of the climate movements, who comprise 5% of the world’s population yet defend 80% of the planet’s biodiversity.
Through this lens, Seier encourages us to look beyond “business as usual” or demanding an immediate end to consumption, and to instead strive for a system where everyone can participate in sustainable fashion. For Zhou, this means investing in quality, sustainable pieces. “A new T-shirt shouldn’t cost $10, nor should it cost the Earth,” she says. “I’m reframing the way I look at clothes, from something that was once disposable, to something that I’ll carry with me for decades.”
When making a purchase, one of the most important things you can do to hold companies accountable is to ask questions, and on this Seier, Lewis, and Zhou agree. “At Fashion Revolution, we often suggest that people choose the issues that they care about and use this as a way to challenge brands on their ethical credentials,” says Seier. “For example, if you care about fair and decent pay, ask brands, ‘Do you know how many workers in your supply chain earn a living wage? How are you working to ensure that all of the workers in your supply chain can exercise their right to join a union?’” Similarly, Seier encourages those interested in plastic pollution to ask brands questions like, “Do you have a strategy in place to eliminate plastics from your packaging?”