This is were the minimalist wardrobe thing gets tricky. You can have a minimalist wardrobe and not care about sustainability. Chances are though, that eco-friendliness and ethical reasons are exactly what lead you to a minimalist closet in the first place. However, what does that even mean? And more importantly, as we simply can't run around naked, where do I find ethical clothing?
If you have followed my minimalist wardrobe series, than let me tell you, that this is were I am still challenged the most myself. Just yesterday I was looking for new jeans. More specifically, high waisted skinny jeans, ethically produced. After a whole hour (!) of online search I was completely devastated. Either, the sustainable brands on my list didn't have what I was looking for, didn't have it in my size, or didn't have it for the price I can pay. I say "can pay", rather than "willing to pay" for a reason, as I am aware and fine with the fact, that ethically produced clothing does come with a heftier price tag.
The trouble is, eco fashion is still quite a small industry and therefore doesn't have the selection that you might find in regular fashion. Prices can be steep, designs rather uninspired. Then there is the other problem, that you won't be able to shop your eco brands in any given town, and with online-order comes the cost of shipping. I'm referring to the environmental cost, not the $5.99 for postage.
Another tricky aspect is, that we are pro sustainability and against cruelty and horrific labour conditions, but how can we even tell if a brand is honestly trying to produce more kindly and is not just using their environmental awareness as a great marketing strategy.
Eco-fashion has many facettes, such as organic, fair-trade, non-toxic, vegan, etc. Personally, I find it hard sometimes to find pieces, that fit several or all criteria, but I try to look out for the following indicators, when hunting for an item to complete my minimalist wardrobe:
Made in .... (locally produced)
Buying "Made in the USA" (if you are a resident of the US that is), is a good way to reduce the carbon footprint, as clothes usually travel around the world from field to retail store. Also, countries like the US, or Germany (as I'm living here as I am writing this), have stricter labor laws, than many other countries (Bangladesh comes to mind...amongst many others) and therefore, you are buying a garment, that is already somewhat more socially responsible.
Even big, mass-producing chains like H&M have an ever-growing choice of organic clothing for relatively cheap. Is buying this really better? Yes. I think it is a good step in the right direction. Organic means, the fabric is pesticide-free, as well as herbicide-free. This is beneficial for the people producing your garment, for you wearing it and for the earth, as these chemicals don't enter the eco-system through landfills, once they are discarded. Another good reason to buy organic cotton for instance, is that it has been proven to be produced using much less water and with much lower carbon emissions.
In order to get the soft fabrics, with fibers like rayon, viscose or modal, a significant amount of rainforest is harvested, as the pulps from tropical trees, growing in the rainforest are used to produce these. If you can, you may look into alternative fiber materials, such as hemp, bamboo or oddly, PET plastics, which brings me to the next point.
Plastics, are very bad for the environment, in terms of production, but also in terms of all the waste, that ends up in landfills. Seventy percent of plastic-derived fabrics come from polyester, and the type of polyester most used in fabrics is polyethylene terephthalate (PET). So while, producing to many plastics is not good in the first place, we can at least reduce the impact by recycling plastic bottles into clothes. The recycled bottles are collected, compressed, baled and then shipped into processing facilities, where they are chopped into flakes and melted into small pellets. The, then get processed more and spun into yarn-like fiber. Its said that it takes about 30% less energy to make clothes out of recycled plastics than from virgin polyesters.
This is a particularly tricky one. While I don't agree with killing animals, just for the sake of fur or leather, it has to be noted here, that a lot of vegan items are made form non-recycled plastics. On top of that, a lot of mass-producers use "vegan" materials as a cheap alternative, which may be a sacrifice to the quality of the garment. Personally, I now try to buy a leather shoe, for example, and wear it until it falls of my feet, rather than buying 3 cheap "plastic" equivalents in the meantime. I used to have a major shoe addiction in my college party years, but I've finally come to my senses.
Fair trade promotes equality in trading partnerships between developed and developing countries. Really, this is very good news. Fair trade items are made by skilled artisans in the developing countries, who are fairly compensated for their work. Most companies that are actively promoting fair trade, are also helping these communities in other ways. People helping people, more of this please!
I'm sure you have at least heard of toxic dyes, and other really toxic fabric enhancers. Maybe, you have actually felt them, too, as more and more people suffer from skin irritations and sensitivity due to these harsh chemicals. Also, these are extremely dangerous for the workers, that are touching them and breathing them in on a day to day basis. Luckily, a lot of brands have already switched to vegetable-based dyes and other options.
This is of course not sustainable, in the classical sense. However, a lot of company are taking some social responsibility by giving back through donating cash, community building, or donating in-kind. One of the more famous company's doing this today is probably "TOM's", who promises to give one pair of shoes to a poorer person in a developing country, for every pair you buy.
Is your mind spinning yet?
I'm not surprised. Ethical shopping can seem totally complicated and confusing. One thing though, all eco-friendly brands will have in common. They will show transparency & traceability. The more a company will reveal about their supply chain, their production, the conditions of their workspaces etc., the more it becomes accountable for the complete process of production. And transparency in the supply chain gives us the opportunity to act as informed consumers about the garments that we purchase.
Even though, it is not easy to be informed and a lot about sustainable production and eco fashion is rather hard to grasp, there is one shopping strategy that is rather straight-forward & it's ultimately my personal guide to eco-friendly and sustainable shopping, or "unshopping" as I like to call it:
First I'm thinking about adding a new piece to my minimalist wardrobe. I dream up exactly how it should be, what style I'm looking for, what type of fit and fabric. This way, I'm not buying a piece on impulse, that will rather quickly leave my closet again. After all, the best shopping strategy from a sustainable standpoint, is to not shop at all.
Then, I'm looking back to see, if I already have something like this in my wardrobe, that could be reused. Possibly alterations, or repairs are necessary.
Maybe this type of garment, that I'm dreaming about can be found at a local vintage store, on eBay, or through other second hand stores.
Make & up-cycle
I just got my sewing machine and I admit I haven't even unpacked it. Re-learning how to knit is also on my to-do list. Either way, I doubt, I will ever be someone, that can quickly stitch up a beautiful dress on a whim. I'm hopeful however, that in due time, I will be able to contribute to my own closet by up-cycling a few things.
Sometimes, I may not find my dream piece second hand. Sometimes, I'm shopping for a basic tee and I know this eco brand is selling my dream piece, that has the perfect fit. Or it is simply something, I want to treat myself to. This is a good time, to check out some brands that emphasize ethical practices. This is also, when I try to find brands, that cover one or more of the indicators for sustainability listed above.
A lot of times, it can be really special to get something from a small maker. Thanks to pages like etsy, it has never been easier to get great "homemade by someone else" pieces, that are individual, unique and of good quality.
Buy to last
Lastly, buy good quality and buy with the intention to use it a lot. I may not find my dream piece second hand, or from a small maker, or from an ethical brand. Maybe timing is an issue and I need something straight away. Then it is still a sustainable thought, to buy a good quality piece and wear it over and over again, for months, hopefully years, until it literally falls of my body.
The bottom line is. The good old "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" is a very good thing to keep in mind, when shopping for your wardrobe. I may not always be perfect in this. I may not always even have the transparency to be perfect with my eco friendly shopping. The important thing though is to try to be the best consumer that I can be. To me that means, that I am not only looking at a piece of clothing, but also consider the story behind it.