How to Shop Sustainably and Ethically for Long-Lasting Clothing
by Emily DeLong | 29 August 17
Shopping with sustainability in mind is tough. There are a million different things to consider, many of which seemingly contradict one another, and it often feels like you have way fewer options when you're in the market for something new. And not to mention that sustainable/ethical clothing is, yes, generally more expensive (upfront, at least) than conventional clothing.
Each person approaches shopping sustainably differently, and no one approach is better than another — that is what makes it fun! I've changed my approach to shopping sustainably a lot in the last few years as I have grown and evolved as a person, but at this point I think I've settled into what feels comfortable and right for me, so I figured I'd take some time to share my philosophy.
To me, shopping sustainably and ethically means buying fewer, higher-quality, more expensive things (not necessarily spending more money total; often spending less, actually); buying from brands that are transparent about their commitment to our planet and its inhabitants as much as I can; and buying things I can imagine myself owning for a long time.
Below are a few tips and guidelines that I use when shopping for (and designing) clothes. Hopefully they're of some help to you the next time you go shopping!
Know Your Values
It's important when shopping sustainably to know what you personally value the most. Is organic certification most important to you? Animal-free/cruelty-free fashion? Products made in the same country you live in? Water conservation and purity? Weighing the pros and cons when choosing what to wear is a lot like choosing what food to eat — it requires some research and a bit of soul-searching to find what works best for you.
For me personally, one of the things that bothers me most about conventional fashion is overproduction, overconsumption, and waste, so I try to buy (and make!) things that are high-quality and long-lasting. I'm also interested in craft preservation, which is why I make a point of sourcing handloom fabrics as a part of every collection. The environment is important to me (of course!), so I seek out materials and processes that limit water usage and pollution (such as using hemp and Tencel over conventional cotton and avoiding AZO dyes). And I am not a vegan, so I do choose to use silk and wool in my collections, although I try to source all my animal-based fibers with extra care (I am all about wild silk and peace silk!), and I always include a number of vegan options in each collection.
Know Your Lifestyle
It is important to choose garments that not only are sustainable, but that work with your lifestyle. A dress made from hand-dyed, handwoven peace silk may be super sustainable and incredibly beautiful, but if you only see yourself wearing the dress once for some fancy occasion, all that sustainability becomes moot.
Or take hemp — it’s an incredibly durable, incredibly sustainable fiber, but if you find a pair of pants made out of it too rough and uncomfortable to enjoy wearing, there’s no point in buying it!
Bottom line: buying things you aren’t going to wear, sustainable or not, is not sustainable! You're better off buying something non-sustainable and caring for and wearing it for a decade than buying something sustainable/ethical, wearing it once, and getting rid of it six months later. And, really, you're best off taking good care of what you already have rather than going out and buying new sustainable/ethical pieces you don't need!
Transparency is Key
Do you get as excited as I do when a brand gives you tons of details about how their products are made? Do you get as wary as I do when it seems like a brand is being purposefully opaque?
It's important to look for transparency from a seller's website when shopping online. I always get excited when there’s information on a clothing site that goes behind “100% cotton” — where the fabric is from (woven/spun/grown), what it feels like, how to care for it. I’d safely bet that sellers who are putting a lot of effort into talking about their products are also most likely putting a lot of effort into sourcing and production, and those who are being transparent about their products likely don’t have much to hide.
And don't be afraid to reach out to a seller for more information! If a website doesn’t have a lot of information about their pieces on their site, it never hurts to ask! Even huge brands can often answer relatively precise garment-related questions that they don’t release publicly. (Although why they aren’t listing it publicly if they have the information is a whole different question…)
Longevity is in the Details
A garment that is ethically made from sustainably sourced materials can still be unsustainable if it isn't made well. What good does an organic cotton shirt do for the environment if it falls apart after three wears?
When shopping, it's important to consider the quality of the garments you're buying in addition to how they're made and what they're made out of. Seeking out high-quality fabrics is a good first step — it doesn't matter how well a garment is constructed if the fabric is flimsy and prone to ripping!
The next step is checking out how well a garment is constructed. You don't have to be a master sewer or an expert garment sleuth to figure out if a garment is well-made, either! Here are some of the most important things to look for:
- Linings: Not every garment should be lined, of course, but linings (especially full linings) are often indicative of quality and can extend the life of a garment tremendously.
- Sturdy seams: If you are shopping in person, take a look at the inside seams and how they are constructed. Straight seams with short stitch lengths are indicative of quality; garments with sloppy, loose seams should be avoided.
- Reinforcements in high-stress areas: Areas of a garment that have to endure a lot of movement, such as the seat seams of pants, the bottoms of zippers, and waistbands, should be reinforced with extra stitching. You may not always be able to detect the extra stitching, but you can examine these high-stress areas to see if they are stiff and sturdy. If any of these areas seem exceptionally flimsy, that’s not a good sign.
- Facings and interfacings: Look for facings around necklines and interfacing on collars, cuffs, and button plackets. You won’t be able to see interfacing from the inside or outside of the garment (it's sandwiched in between the fabric during construction), but you should be able to feel that the areas where it should be, such as on collars, are bit stiffer than the main part of the garment.
Caring For Your Clothes Is as Important as What You Buy
Even if you buy a well-made, organic, super-sustainable piece of clothing, if you wash it after every single time you wear it in super-hot water and machine-dry it on high heat, you're not doing the environment any favors. This isn't just because of the water and electricity being wasted (although that is a big factor that can really add up over time), but also because over-washing your clothes wears them out a lot more quickly than gentle care does.
The best way to make sure your clothes last as long as they can is to gently hand wash and air dry. (For more washing tips, check our our guide here.) For items you wish to machine wash, use the gentle/delicate cycle (mesh garment bags are great, too) when washing and use low/no heat when drying. And don't be afraid to wear a dress or a pair of pants a few times before washing — washing too often is one of the major reasons clothes wear out more quickly than they should.
Proper care can extend the life of a garment by years, which reduces the amount you have to buy, saving the environment important resources and you money. A win-win!
Every Purchase is a Compromise
The same thing applies when I am sourcing fabrics for each new Margu collection. Each season, I try to source a variety of weights and fibers that mix and match well with one another. (For example, our soon-to-be-released FW17 collection includes a lightweight organic cotton voile, a cotton/silk blend voile, a handwoven khadi cotton, an organic cotton corduroy, a raw silk, a midweight hemp/silk charmeuse, and I’m lining everything with a plain-weave Tencel. I can't wait for you to see it!)
A lot of my decision-making regarding fabrics is figuring out what kind of compromises I’m willing to make — sometimes the most sustainable option is just too expensive and I’ll have to go with a substitute, or things will be sold out, or minimums will be too high, or so on. A lot of my time spent sourcing for Margu involves weighing pros and cons, balancing aesthetics with eco-credentials, experimenting, making mistakes, and continuing to learn as I go. The same could be said for eco-shopping as well!