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A 5-Step Guide to Sustainable Fashion Shopping

Ting-Yi Shih

From my conversations with family and friends about organic cotton clothing, I’ve been asked one question a lot. "How do I go about shopping for organic cotton?" There's a lot of information out there, some are more technical than others, but there are a few key things you should know:

1. Do some homework.

What is organic cotton? Why is wearing organic cotton so important? You can reference my blog from Snark to Spark: Why I Went All In On Organic Cotton as a start. It gives a quick overview of why organic cotton is an essential part of becoming a savvy eco-friendly fashion shopper. More people are trying to limit their footprint on our land to make resources last, and consumers have a lot more power than we think. By simply redirecting our dollars, we are preserving resources that will be available for our children, and we will be sending a message to the fashion industry that we want them to conduct their business ethically and sustainably.

2. Shop online.

It’s easy to feel guilty about shopping online as we watch more and more of our beloved brick and mortar stores close down—Barnes & Noble Bookstores, Toys R Us, and most recently, Orchard Hardware to name a few. We wonder if our online shopping habits are to blame. Here's the good news: when it comes to eco-friendly shopping, online shopping is the way to go. We rarely consider everything required to put the products on shelves and the waste it can produce. Once the clothes are made, they are shipped to multiple distribution centers, where they’re dispatched to different regions. And then shipped again to specific locations across the country. The transportation used just to reach multiple middlemen burns a lot of fossil fuels and creates more pollution in the process. To justify the shipment expenses, retailers will order far more than they can sell and end up with waste even after deep discounts—all to put clothing on shelves and racks for you to try on.

When you’re home shopping online, your order goes directly from the distribution center or small boutique to you. The environmental footprint is dramatically lower than for the journey the piece of clothing takes to reach a chain store.

3. Shop less, spend wisely.

The fashion industry is always working ahead of the clock and trying to force us into their schedule. However, many shoppers are reactive, not anticipatory shoppers. For example, I’ve realized my winter coat wasn’t cutting it after a few weeks of winter and walked into a store only to be told winter shopping is over, and it's time to shop for spring. Manufacturers are pushing us to buy early and buy more, forcing us to get ahead of seasons simply because they say so. I've always chosen my clothes carefully, I want to make sure I will still like it the next year and the year after that, and that the clothes will last. It always frustrates me when a top that excited me gets ruined after a short time, or it loses its shape after only one wash. I’ve realized that when I shop at higher-end stores, I really do get more value. While the prices are slightly higher, the clothing is better made and lasts longer. I save money in the long run by shopping less, and I help the environment by choosing quality over volume.

The longer you use a piece of clothing, and the more times you wear it, the lower the impact on our world, it is as simple as that. It doesn't mean you have to go out tomorrow to buy the most expensive brands. It just means an adjustment to your shopping habits can make a difference. Shopping less, but spending a little more on quality will go a long way for you and the world around us.

4. Pay attention to labels.

The number of choices in fashion shopping nowadays can be overwhelming, but we can definitely make it more manageable for ourselves. Especially if we buy organic whenever possible. Yes, it will cost a little more, but that money is going to cotton farmers who are not using harmful pesticides or chemicals to speed up the harvesting process, damaging our land, or poisoning our water and our farm workers. When enough of us are making this change, it will reflect on our preferences as consumers, and force these companies to adjust how they do business as well. There are also tools that can help you identify ethical brands and retailers, such as the app Good On You, it will simplify your eco-conscious lifestyle. It tells you how your favorite brands and stores are rated in terms of being sustainable and ethical. And based on your search category, the app will also introduce you to other ethical retailers you might like. Are there discounts? Yes! The app will show you what retailers offer deals for your responsible shopping.

5. Surround yourself with like-minded people.

Like exercise, it’s best to have someone with similar goals pushing you to reach yours as you help them get better as well. I'm the more eco-conscious shopper in my family, and my husband is still working his way there. He loves a bargain, but through the years, he's learned (the hard way) that the old cliché of "you get what you pay for" is quite true. Good quality goes a long way in the closet. Maybe it’s a challenge for each one of us to find a partner in our quest to be an eco-friendly shopper. If you can’t find one, create one—like I’m doing with my unsuspecting hubby. However you get there, you can start encouraging each other to shop with sustainable companies, and try to be the voice of reason when we’re tempted to shop fast fashion brands. It's okay to buy from not-so-sustainable companies occasionally. Sometimes a style speaks to us, and we have to take one step at a time. But when we reduce the number of times we shop with these companies, we’re doing something greater than us; we’re playing a small part in leaving a better world for our children.

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