What exactly is ethical fashion?

This is the question I asked myself several months ago, and it's the question that started my spiral into the world of ethical and sustainable shopping.

Basically, having an ethical, sustainable mindset when it comes to fashion means being thoughtful about what you buy and where you buy it from. And I won't lie, it's hard.

Production chains, especially for clothing companies, are extremely complex and companies often can't guarantee what kind of conditions their products were made in. It can be especially difficult if you're a college student barely getting by, like myself. What really, really got to me and made me rethink the way I buy clothes was watching a documentary called "The True Cost" for one of my college classes.

This film documents the way most of our "fast fashion" trends are produced and sold, and the conditions in which the workers are treated. From this, I started looking at the way our current fashion industry impacts the environment, and spoiler alert, it's not good. Everything from an unbelievable amount of excess plastic waste from packaging and production, the toxic materials and gases that go unregulated from big corporation factories to the causes that some companies donate to and support.

All of these things had me taking a deep dive into where I get my clothes. What I learned wasn't really a shock. Most of the companies I've bought from and supported are integral players in the fast fashion industry. A lot of the brands I'm used to buying from have terrible working conditions, pay their workers unfairly, and have a terrible environmental impact.

So, why should I care? Why should you care?

Because our world runs on the basis of caring about other people. How they're treated, how they survive, how they can improve their lives and contribute to our ever-growing industries. We've become accustomed to a high-speed world. A world of mass-produced goods that we rarely give a second thought to where they've come from or how they affect the world we live in.

Take popular brands like Forever 21. In an effort to keep up with fast fashion, they're constantly creating new styles to stay on-trend and low-cost, routinely using toxic chemicals and dyes that seep into the water of the countries where the clothing is made. And in turn, damage the water supply of where we live when we wash them.

Not to mention the damage that's done by the almost 11 million tons of clothing that's thrown away each year in the US alone. Pieces of clothing filled with these hazardous materials take forever to break down (if they do at all), and they spend the rest of their life span releasing toxic chemicals into the air and the land they occupy.

The human beings who make these clothes, for wages far less than they should be paid, are exposing themselves to these chemicals on a daily basis. The workers who make clothes in the fast fashion industry are proven to be mistreated, underpaid, underfed, and often physically abused. What's worse is that most have no other option when it comes to putting food on the table.

If any of that makes you rethink the way you get your clothes, there are other options out there. There are many established brands, and several new ones making an appearance every day, that are fair-trade, ethical, and sustainable. Shopping from responsible brands can give you peace of mind when you wear new clothes you've bought.

The one thing about ethical fashion is that it can tend to be on the expensive side because the quality is so high. Clothes made ethically and sustainably will last longer than any fast fashion apparel and the price tag reflects that. While I'm all for trading low cost for high quality, as a college student it's not something I can realistically afford and I know a lot of other people are in the same boat. However, there is a solution.

Secondhand fashion.

Thrift stores. Consignment. Clothing swaps. Online secondhand shopping. All of these are great ways to shop ethically on a budget. By shopping secondhand you're giving pieces of clothing a second life and allowing them to get the most wear possible. You also aren't directly supporting brands that operate unethically. Instead of buying a brand new piece of clothing, buying something secondhand reduces the amount being bought new from the store. So, you can buy that Forever 21 sweater secondhand without a guilty conscience. For me, secondhand shopping is a win-win. It's more ethical, more sustainable, and it's affordable. It's a great way to employ the "reduce, reuse, recycle" motto.

Another way to benefit from secondhand shopping is by selling or trading your old clothing. Instead of throwing it away, potentially releasing those toxic chemicals into your local water supply, take it to your local consignment store. Let someone else benefit from the things you no longer need.

The bottom line? Ethical shopping is difficult, but worth it when you see the impact it can have on our planet and working human beings.

It all comes down to being thoughtful. Asking questions. Where did this come from? Who made it? Does this company operate within my personal ethical code? Do they support causes I want my money going to?

How often can I wear this?

Is there a certain season this caters to the most? If so, can I wear it for the next 5 years and still be happy with it?

Does this work for the rest of my wardrobe? How do I feel when I wear it? Will I regret long term walking away from this purchase? Do I already have something similar? Can I put my money towards something better?

These questions can avoid the pile-up of fast fashion items in our wardrobes and ensure that we're shopping with a purpose.

If we all took a step back and asked more questions about where our clothes come from, we'd be one step closer to an entire world full of ethical shoppers. The best advice I can give to anyone who wants to look into ethical fashion/shopping: don't take my word for it. I am by no means an expert. Do more research, find the brands that inspire you (and your budget). I'm a beginner at this, just like a lot of people, but you're one search away from starting a responsible, eco-friendly, shopping journey.

The links below can provide further insight into ethical shopping and what it means to shop sustainably:

Building an Ethical Wardrobe

What is Fast Fashion Anyway?

Compare Ethical Brands

Ethical Brands on a Budget

Online Secondhand Shopping

Responsible Brand Directory