The most Ethical Way to Purchase Clothes

Updated: Aug 20, 2021

The spotlight and scrutiny are rightfully so on fast fashion again this week as Greta Thunberg called out "Ethical Fast Fashion" as being "pure greenwashing." I sure hope it is getting people's attention because fast fashion is an incredibly important issue to anyone who is wanting to live more sustainably and do their part to combat climate change.

What I find so troubling is not only corporate greenwashing but the media supporting their efforts to assuage people's guilt and encourage them to continue their "fast fashion" ways under the guise of "conscious" or "sustainable" initiatives.

Spoiler: You should shop guilt-free! - not really

Let's backtrack for a few minutes so I can demonstrate to you what I mean. I want to share a letter I wrote in response to an incredibly misleading "investigative" article in the Toronto Star back in June entitled: "What is the most ethical way to purchase clothes?"

Hi Robert,

I’m a Kingston-based digital marketer and former digital editor of EcoParent magazine. It's great to see more mainstream media/publications address the importance of sustainable and ethically made clothing. As you know, “fast fashion” is the second biggest polluting industry, a significant contributor to microplastics in the ocean and, of course, human suffering and exploitation. So, thank you for the article. However, for a piece entitled “what is the most ethical way to purchase clothing?” I found it confusing and deflating that it contained quotes such as the following:

“ I don’t have any delusions that one brand is better than the others, and I don’t count any ‘voting with my dollar’ or purchasing anything as a contribution now. I absolve everyone of all that guilt.”

Seriously? Some brands ARE better than others. Some brands are made locally or made in Canada from sustainably sourced materials and by workers paid a living wage. Consumers, particularly millennial consumers (the largest generational cohort currently), are social media and tech-savvy with instant data at their fingers. With such access and convenience, they have a responsibility to do their research on the brands and products they purchase. Yes, there is a lot of clout and a lack of transparency in the clothing industry, particularly the mass producers. So perhaps the attention here should be on more consumer education instead of “absolving everyone of all that guilt.” That “guilt,” you know, just that voice that tells us we can and should do better. And then to end on this note:

“I generally tell people to not waste too much of their moral energy on their consumption decisions. If you feel you want to dedicate your dollars towards making ethical change, you can contribute to political campaigns or social movement organizations. I think that’s the way to go. I just don’t think the consumers are going to save us. They haven’t really before.”

I understand the need to incorporate varied and “expert” opinions, but that is just inaccurate and disempowering. What is that man an Associate Professor of? I hope not economics because consumer demand drives supply. Our purchase decisions absolutely count towards both ethical and political change. Although trends are changing, Mothers are still the primary purchasers in their households. As a mom of 4, I can tell you that most of us do not have the time or energy to contribute to political campaigns or social movement organizations, but we can “vote” with our dollars and our consumption choices. That final quote is undermining, disempowering, deflating and helps to “absolve guilt,” which I’m now assuming is the actual thesis of this puzzling article. So while I was initially pleased to see the headline on this subject matter, I think it will actually do more harm than good. I don’t know if this is sloppy journalism or poor editing, perhaps both. This is an incredibly important issue and an opportunity to educate the masses. Please know better and do better. Sincerely, Paula Gray

Anyone can fall for Greenwashing

OK, so it's one thing to read from Greta Thunberg:

“Many are making it look as if the fashion industry are starting to take responsibility, by spending fantasy amounts on campaigns where they portray themselves as ‘sustainable’, ‘ethical’, ‘green’, ‘climate neutral’ and ‘fair’,” Thunberg wrote. “But let’s be clear: This is almost never anything but pure greenwashing.

It's another to implement in practice. As a millennial mom of young children striving to live more sustainably and trying to inspire others to do the same - I'd like to shed some further insight and relatability to the issue.

I *almost* fell for some pretty blatant greenwashing recently. Yep.

We’ve been only shopping from small handmade shops for years, but I’m newly on maternity leave and facing more stringent budgetary restrictions. I needed to do some back-to-school shopping for my eldest, who has outgrown her clothes. I did 80% of it from our usual shops but needed some pairs of pants, and they are, of course, very pricey, so I was hesitating on pulling the trigger on my cart. A friend sent me a link to H&M’s “conscious” and “organic” clothing line, a company I haven't shopped from in over a decade, and my jaw dropped at the low prices.

And they had an entire page about their transparency and commitment to sustainability. So I made a cart and then stepped back and realized, what was I doing?! My brain tried to rationalize a way I could make these purchases and still adhere to our “slow fashion” values, mainly that they’re made from organic materials etc.

It’s one thing to recognize these companies are the antithesis to slow fashion but still choose to purchase for whatever personal reasons; it’s another to willingly pull the wool over one’s eyes and actually fall for their greenwashing tricks. Their organic pants are $12 each on sale — so cheap, right? But how much was the worker who made it paid for them to be able to sell that cheaply?

And even if they have a “conscious” line (clever marketing language there), it’s still H&M - one of the top three major fast-fashion companies in the world that have been responsible for untold human exploitation, suffering and pollution.

My dollars will NOT be going towards that company, and yet it just goes to show you that these greenwashing practices are so clever and tricky (developed by some of the very best minds in marketing!) that anyone can fall for them.

So what's a Green Parent to do?

Greta once again hits the nail on her head by pointing out simply that:

You cannot mass produce fashion or consume ‘sustainably’ as the world is shaped today. That is one of the many reasons why we will need a system change.”

Therefore, the most ethical way to purchase clothing is to consciously not purchase from mass producers. Instead, choose small shops, handmade (in Canada, or elsewhere) labels, secondhand stores, clothing swaps, or if you're handy with sewing - make it yourself! (aspiring in my mind to this category, but the time and commitment hasn't been practical for us...)

Even for small companies look for transparency in their supply chain. You should know: 1) Where the materials are sourced and 2) Who is making them. Also, familiarize yourself with ethical supplier organizations such as Sedex.

The point, in all this - is you do have options in the ethical ways you can purchase clothes and the choices you make matter so much more than we can possibly know.