As a kid, I loved reading stories and watching movies about the future, and there would always be an observation about how expensive everyday things would become due to inflation — movie tickets would cost $20 and gas would be $5 a gallon — both of which have now become the norm. Surprisingly, something that hasn't increased along with everything else is the cost of clothing. If anything, clothes have become even cheaper. The other day I was in a trendy fast-fashion store when I noticed a pair of jeans retailing for $9.95. I thought to myself, How on earth could something retail for that low a price without someone on the other end of the manufacturing chain paying the price?
What's at the other end is nothing pretty. In Bangladesh, where a big chunk of fast fashion gets produced, men, women, and sometimes even children under 14 years of age are made to work 14-to-16-hour days, and they can earn as little as 20 cents an hour. Beyond the human damage that an economy of "Buy the latest trend for cheap, then throw away and move on to the next thing" creates, there are also vast ecological ramifications. The fashion industry is actually the second-largest polluter in the world. The first? The oil industry. While we can protest the appalling work conditions of the sweatshop workers and the companies that hire them, the truth is that the battle needs to start at the end of the chain. It needs to start with us.
As consumers, we need to shop responsibly to reduce the demand for the fast and cheap fashion made in poor sweatshop conditions. Listen, I know it's hard to resist the siren song of a cute skirt or pair of shoes, especially if you have a first date or killed it at work and just want a little treat for yourself, but it's important to try to make a stronger effort to be an ethical consumer. I've started researching companies that are striving for transparency, fair trade, and ecofriendly materials and still make really cute clothes and accessories that I can't wait to wear. Here are my tricks and tips to keep it cool while actually being cool to Mother Earth.
1. Shop Vintage and Secondhand Stores: The appeal of fast fashion is the price tag, and if we aren't making a ton of money, it's understandable to be drawn to the low prices. Thrift and vintage stores are equally as inexpensive, if not cheaper, and are a fantastic source for finding unique pieces that show off the fashionable you. By wearing secondhand clothing from a thrift store, not only are you leaving less of a carbon footprint, but also — bonus! — you are contributing to a small business or charity.
2. Upcycle: Wear clothing made of recycled fabrics. There are actually a lot of companies doing this, so there's really something for everyone, no matter your budget or taste! Some of my favorites are the LA-based label Reformation, which makes killer clothes that don't kill the environment, using sustainable and vintage fabrics. Study NY uses recycled materials and environmentally friendly textiles all while employing a zero-waste cutting policy. Patagonia will repair your old pieces, and when they've run their course, the company will buy back your used pieces and recycle the items to make new fabrics. G-star Raw for the Oceans is a line of clothing made from recycled plastic salvaged from the ocean that's spun into yarn, a direction in manufacturing that many other brands should certainly follow.
3. Look Out for Fair-Trade Labels: While we shouldn't support clothing made overseas in terrible sweatshop conditions, there are companies that are taking steps to make overseas manufacturing fair and safe. Some of my favorite brands include IOU Project, Edun, Everlane, Apolis, Kowtow, Riyka, Behno, Base Range, Osei-duro, Honest by Bruno Pieters, Ace & Jig, and Stella Jean. To make things easier, there are e-commerce sites that devote themselves to carrying ethically produced products. Helpsy, whose tagline is "Ethical fashion that's dope," lives up to its hype with Terry Gross– and Golden Girls–themed sweatshirts. Ethica carries great ethical-fashion products like vegan bags by Freedom of Animals and super-cute schoolgirl-style dresses by Dolores Haze. Beklina is a well-curated online eco-boutique showcasing hip designers such as APiece Apart and Rodebjer. A Boy Named Sue aptly goes by the motto "Cool clothes with a conscience," with lines such as Feral Childe and Hien Le. And, last but not least, Zady carries both mens- and womenswear focusing on quality-made classic pieces that stand the test of time.
4. Go Local: Support small businesses that engage in sustainability and make things locally. When we purchase locally made products, we reduce the environmental impact by cutting down on packaging and transportation waste. Not only that, but small businesses are integral to our economy and creative environment.
5. Buy Less, Buy Responsibly, and Wear Longer: The problem with fast fashion is that the low prices keep us buying more and more, and as the clothes usually fall apart within a few months, we just throw away and keep buying. Americans send over 11 millions tons of clothing to landfills. That's just too much for our planet to handle! Instead of buying ten pieces that cost you $20 at Forever 21, why not save up and buy one well-made product that will last longer in your closet?
6. Make Yourself Heard: Reach out to the brands that aren't engaging in ethical trade and using sustainable fabrics and let them know you aren't down with their practices! When enough people speak out, brands listen. To quote Bruno Pieters, who created the first 100 percent transparent clothing company, "The revolution begins with you."
Shirley Kurata is a Los Angeles–based stylist and costume designer and the owner of a shop named Virgil Normal.