10 In style

A Guide to Ethical Shopping


Ever since reading this post by Jen Pinkston, I’ve been thinking more and more about ethical fashion but have felt sort of stuck when it comes to actually making any changes. As Jen said in a follow up post, “The relatively easy part is changing the way I shop and wear clothes and the really messy part of it is that I work in the industry, so my blog is dependent on advertising dollars of retailers and designers…”

Yes. Absolutely. If I’m 100% honest with you, that’s probably the biggest piece of the puzzle that holds me back! Not that I’m a stylist or anything, but my income is dependent on affiliate links and brand partnerships, and a lot of the ethical brands aren’t connected to the affiliate programs. And those that do tend to have products that are pricier than many people want to pay. Just typing it makes me feel so selfish. Ugh.

Anyway…today I want to help us all take one tiny step closer towards ethical shopping, and that’s what I’ve asked my friend Cara Bartlett to share some wisdom with us all. She’s not only a college friend and sorority sister of mine, she’s also the founder of Bien Faire, a lifestyle blog and shopping resource for a wardrobe that reflects your style and values.

Below is a much longer post than you’d normally find here on TBN, but I hope you’ll read every bit of it because it’s really good stuff. Thank you, Cara, for taking the time to put this together for us and inch us closer to more ethical fashion in our lives :)

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Most people today have heard of the fashion industry’s destructive environmental and social practices. Disasters like the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, where over 1,100 people died, have brought a lot of these issues to front-page news. Fashion industry veterans and celebrities alike have praised the recent documentary The True Cost, which exposes the destruction caused by fast fashion. But while ethical fashion is something that’s becoming more widely understood, most people feel overwhelmed by the idea of changing their shopping habits. At first glance, buying consciously made clothing can seem confusing, expensive, and unstylish. But I can tell you, after three years committed to buying only socially responsible clothing, that it is possible to create a wardrobe that reflects your style and your values. I would love to share my story with you and give you some tools to help you on your ethical fashion journey.

My Decision to Commit to Socially Responsible Clothing

About 10 years ago, as a college student who was passionate about both fashion and social justice, I started observing the fashion industry’s effects on the vulnerable people of the world. I learned about a company called Edun, which proposed a new model of creating businesses in developing countries in order to provide sustainable jobs. They believed that creating these opportunities was more effective than charity, because it was better to teach a man to fish than to simply give him a fish. At the same time, I heard about companies exploiting the poor in developing countries with unfair wages, underage workers, unreasonable hours, and unsafe or even deadly working conditions. These two dichotomies troubled me, and I realized how much of an impact the garment industry had on people all over the world – for better or for worse.

As much as I learned about the issues, I didn’t act on any of the information I gathered for years. I really wasn’t sure where to start, and whenever I tried to research ethically made clothing everything seemed frumpy and expensive. Also, I was always shopping for things at the last minute and it never gave me enough time to research a company’s ethics. Finally, in 2012, I decided to make a commitment to buy only ethically sourced clothing. That would force me to find brands that I believed in, and clothing that reflected both my style and my values.

So How Do You Find Responsibly Made Clothes?

It took me some time to get a grasp on how to shop in a responsible way, and I’m still learning more every day. I’d love to share a few tips with you that I’ve learned along the way.

In order to start buying responsibly made clothing, you need to know what you’re looking for. You also have to have a new framework for shopping that will help you put the green light or red light on your purchases. Lastly, you need to know where to find products that fit your needs and your values.

1. Decide What’s Important to You

There are many elements of ethical fashion, so it’s important to find a focus – and not try to do everything at once. Figure out what you are most passionate about. You can classify ethical fashion into three groups – people, planet, and animals. It would be difficult to find everything you need to clothe yourself with zero impact on these three groups. But if everyone starts to make progress in one or two areas, together we will make a big impact.

For the environment, the apparel industry causes pollution to the air, water, and soil. There are different ways to address this, such as buying clothing that is made from natural fibers that are biodegradable (like cotton and linen), organic materials that avoid polluting chemicals or pesticides, or recycled/upcycled fabrics that reuse existing resources and reduce waste. You can also choose to buy clothing that has been dyed using low-impact or natural dyes that are less toxic, that is second hand and gives life to discarded items, or is superior quality and will last a long time.

The garment industry can also have a negative affect on people. Fashion companies pay wages below the standard of living, use child labor, participate in human trafficking, force employees to work overtime without pay, and have unsafe or even deadly working conditions. You can support companies that are treating their employees with dignity by buying fair trade products that compensate their workers fairly, supporting women’s cooperatives in developing countries, choosing products that employ traditional craftsmen, buying local products that follow minimum wage and workplace safety laws, or supporting non-profit or social enterprises that create ethical jobs. You can also boycott products that participate in this mistreatment of people by buying second hand, which avoids supporting unethical companies and *bonus* helps the environment.

The garment industry also involves the use of animal products, and you can choose to avoid those products in order to ensure that no animals were harmed in the making of your clothing or accessories. By refusing to buy leather, fur, silk, and other products involving animals, you can ensure that you are not participating in their mistreatment. While faux leather has been critiqued for it’s synthetic (toxic and non-biodegradable) components, there are a number of vegan substitutes being introduced that do not hurt the environment, such as handbags made from recycled biodegradable materials.

I decided to choose people as my primary focus and the environment as my secondary focus. With this in mind, the items could not be part of the exploitation or mistreatment of any person, or it was a deal breaker. If I could find something that was socially responsible and eco-friendly, that was ideal. Having a focus makes the whole process less overwhelming, so you’re not focusing on too many things at once. Then you can choose incorporate more ideals later on, and won’t give up before you’ve made any progress. If we can all make small thoughtful changes in our shopping behavior, together we will make a big impact.

2. Shop Slow

We have been conditioned to operate with very rapid, thoughtless, and impulse-driven purchase behaviors. It’s going to take a re-working of our ideals and priorities to make ethical shopping possible.

First, it’s helpful to think about what wardrobe essentials we need, rather than what catches our eye at any given moment. I would sit down and make a list of the things that would make up your perfect wardrobe – a little black dress, a great chambray, a pair of boyfriend jeans, a pair of dark skinny jeans, nude heels, etc. Then, I would check off the things that you already have. Whatever’s left, keep that list with you (I keep mine in the Notes app of my iPhone), and check it every time you have an impulse to buy something. If you’re almost ready to buy a neon orange jumpsuit that is SO in this season, but you still haven’t bought that great nude bucket bag that would go with everything, maybe wait on the jumpsuit.

Second, realize that by foregoing a number of small purchases (of cheaply made products), you will be able to buy more quality products that you love and will last a long time. Instead of going to Forever21 or H&M and buying 5 tops and 2 dresses on a whim for $60, make a thoughtful purchase of one great essential item for $60. Those small purchases really add up.

Also, remember to think in advance for important events. This was one of my pain points my first year as an ethical shopper. I would remember the day before Valentines’ Day that I was hoping to get a new dress, and I would stress out and be so disappointed when I couldn’t find anything on short notice. By keeping mental notes of weddings, birthdays, and other important events, you can start looking with enough time to find something that represents your values – or be creative and use something already in your closet!

Lastly, remember that accessories can make the basics in your wardrobe feel new and unique to you. What you wear is a reflection of who you are, and it’s important to feel like you’re representing yourself well. If you have the wardrobe essentials, like a great black skirt and a black and white striped shirt, can add a leopard belt or a polka dot scarf, red heels or studded boots. By adding unique items to your wardrobe basics, you can make your wardrobe feel fresh and stay true to your own personality and style. And mixing and matching unique accessories with timeless items is much less expensive than buying a whole new outfit.

3. Resources for Responsible Fashion

Now more than ever, there are a lot of great brands that are transparent, responsible, stylish, and won’t break the bank. You can also shop second hand, which is great because it’s usually much more affordable and more unique. Below you’ll find a list of a few of my favorite brands & vintage stores to find responsibly made clothing. I also have a Shop page on my blog that curates my favorite responsible fashion items each season. I hope that this has helped you navigate the world of ethical fashion, and feel like it’s more accessible. From my experience, it’s not only possible to build an ethical wardrobe you love, but it’s also really rewarding to know the story behind the things that you wear.

Reformation / Everlane* / People Tree / Amour Vert / Urban Renewal
Marine Layer / Style Saint / Freedom of Animals / Groceries Apparel / Cuyana*
Soko* / Nisolo* / Sseko* / FashionABLE* / Raven + Lily* / Exile Vintage
American Archive Vintage / Sonnet James* / Zady*

Best of luck & happy shopping!

*Natalie’s top picks


  • Reply
    July 20, 2015 at 10:55 am

    Love this post. I think there are a lot of us out there who want to know more about ethical clothing but don’t know where to get that info. Thanks for the resource links!

  • Reply
    July 20, 2015 at 11:03 am

    I’ve been a journey to redefine the way I shop for a few years now. First I tried capsule wardrobes for about a year which helped curb my shopping habits. In the meantime, I was looking and researching ethical brands. Although I’ll still impulse buy a non-ethically made item sometimes, I’d say 90% of the time, I save my money for an often more expensive but usually better made item from an ethically manufactured brand. Thanks for posting this and for the links – I’m always looking for new brands to check out. Zady is another good option on top of what you have listed!

  • Reply
    July 20, 2015 at 2:51 pm

    Ethical shopping is something I’ve been wanting to incorporate into my life ever since I read a book called The Zero Waste Home, and I actually just started watching The True Cost documentary! Thank you for sharing these links because it’s something I want to work on, but it’s hard knowing exactly where to shop! I know people say thrift shops are the best idea, but it can be really hard to find good stuff there if you’re short on time!

    • Reply
      August 3, 2015 at 10:26 pm

      Me too! I’m into ethical shopping, and I found this website that is trying to create a big free resource called The Open Label Project and now I am volunteering here! They are still just starting out so they could use some good feedback! http://www.theopenlabel.com

  • Reply
    July 22, 2015 at 4:36 am

    Great post, would love to hear more about recommended brands.

  • Reply
    Wendy @ Moral Fibres
    July 27, 2015 at 8:33 am

    This is a really great post – so useful! I agree that ethical fashion can be more expensive but I put together a guide on how to buy ethical fashion on a budget that you and readers might find useful: http://moralfibres.co.uk/how-to-buy-ethical-fashion-on-a-budget/

  • Reply
    Hanna Baror-Padilla
    July 27, 2015 at 9:57 am

    Natalie, I’m SO glad you asked Cara to write a post about ethical fashion!! I can only imagine how tough it is to make the switch when you are dependent on affiliate links and brand partnerships, but thank you for addressing it anyway. I’ve been shopping ethically made clothes for more than a year after reading this article: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/shannon-whitehead/clothing-globalization_b_4733516.html

    I thought shopping ethically made clothes would have been tough because I had just started a fashion blog, but it wasn’t after seeing how many companies are dedicated to transparency. The quality of ethically made clothes is superior to what you will find from conventional brands and when you see clothes as products of people’s time and effort, you start to appreciate your clothes more than ever.

    Here is an extensive list of ethical fashion companies from my blog that may help some more: http://goldpolkadots.com/where-to-shop/

    Thanks again for shedding light on a really important topic!!

    • Reply
      August 3, 2015 at 10:28 pm

      I don’t know if it’s good for clothes, but I’m into ethical shopping so I decided to volunteer for this new free resource called The Open Label – They are still just starting out so they could use some good feedback! http://www.theopenlabel.com

  • Reply
    July 31, 2015 at 3:07 pm

    I totally feel you on the affiliate links. In fact, I wrote about my frustrations with the system last year: http://ecocult.com/2014/you-need-to-know-this-about-your-favorite-fashion-blogger/ Only a third of my favorite places have affiliate links, though some of those who don’t have reached out to me to advertise, because I’ve built a following of readers who really trust me to only feature brands that have some sort of strong sustainable or ethical element at their core. It’s been more challenging, but much much more fulfilling, than earning money through a strictly fashion blog. Oh, and I have an extensive list of ethical and sustainable places, too! http://ecocult.com/shop/ I just added Soko, because, damn! So cute! Thanks :)

  • Reply
    August 3, 2015 at 10:30 pm

    Great post Cara! Let me know if you’d like to be an OpenLabel contributor. Keep up the ethical shopping everyone! :)
    volunteer, http://www.theopenlabel.com

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