I was once the person who’d brightly quip, “Zara!” whenever someone asked me what I was wearing. And why wouldn’t I? For the most part, Zara was cheap and cheerful retail therapy that supplied my wardrobe with a hit of runway-inspired trends every season. But lately, it feels like more of a guilty pleasure than something to boast. It’s hard to ignore the mounting evidence of the negative environmental and social impacts of fast fashion. So these days, I’m trying to wean myself off my Zara habit. (Even as the Spanish retail giant announced its plans to use sustainable fabrics by 2025—not only is it a long way off, it’s not without its fair share of criticism about whether the company’s commitment to sustainability would actually require an entire overhaul of its business model. Like many millennials, I want to be a more conscious shopper—choosing quality over quantity and keeping tabs on the sustainable and ethical practices of brands making a home in my closet. The thing is: My wallet doesn’t always support my moral outlook.
The challenges of ethical and sustainable shopping
Quitting fast fashion isn’t easy for the average consumer. Sustainable and ethical fashion isn’t cheap, because you’re paying for things like the quality of the fabric (natural fibres instead of synthetics like polyester) and fair wages for workers. It means that instead of outsourcing to the cheapest manufacturer, companies are working with ones whose values align with their own by taking everything from social to environmental impact into consideration. It’s why a seemingly identical T-shirt that’s $20 at a fast fashion retailer may cost you $100 elsewhere. The reality is that many sustainable brands have a Goop-like unattainability even if they match our sartorial and ethical sensibilities. It’s not just that people don’t like spending more money on clothes, it’s simply because they can’t.
For Dania Hajjeh, quitting fast fashion is tough because it provides the fashion lover with cheaper alternatives to designer equivalents, something at which Zara in particular excels. “I’ll fall in love with a designer item and the price will hold me back, but if I go on the Zara app, I’ll find a similar item for an affordable price,” says the Toronto-based publicist. But she admits that it means she ends up buying things she doesn’t need. “This results in an excessive amount of clothes I don’t end up wearing or wearing just once,” says Hajjeh. “I constantly delete the app to stop myself, but then I download it again [when she’s looking to save or find a deal].”
The allure of fast fashion is that it delivers trendy and stylish pieces instantly and at generally affordable prices, assuring you that you’re getting the most bang for your buck. And since the average median income for Canadian women was around $44,000 in 2018, according to Statistics Canada, no one’s racing to spend more money on sustainable retailers over their fast fashion counterparts.
Cost isn’t the only barrier when it comes to buying sustainable and ethical clothing; limited sizing is also an issue. Marielle Elizabeth was a size 14 when she first started prioritizing ethical fashion. “Over the last decade, while I sized out of most brands I loved, my passion for ethical fashion only grew,” says the Edmonton-based body-positive blogger and photographer. When it comes to sizing, sustainable and ethical brands often fall short on their offerings. “It’s really frustrating when a brand claims a size inclusion launch and after months of promising representation in size ranges, they release two XXL garments,” she says.
Recently, designer, fashion writer and creative consultant Nicolette Mason called out Everlane for not stocking their extended denim sizing in its new Williamsburg store. She followed up her tweet by noting, “People who criticize people above a size-14 for buying fast fashion without being critical of the other accessibly priced options available to them (spoiler: there aren’t many!).”
Super cool that @Everlane opened a brand new store in Williamsburg (it’s beautiful, btw!) but neglected to stock over a 31/32 in their denim in store. I asked a SA why and she said they’re stocking their “best selling sizes” – maybe you’d sell more of people could try them on!!
— nicolette mason (@nicolettemason) September 16, 2019
The challenge with doing extending sizing is that it requires an additional investment when it comes to sizes 14 or higher, says Elizabeth. “It requires more fit testing, research and a deeper level of pattern making. And then from a secondary perspective, retail stores have to choose to invest in twice the merchandise, and make larger orders to carry full size ranges,” she adds, explaining how this can affect what slow and fast fashion brands choose to carry.
Wanting to see more women who looked like her in the sustainable clothes she coveted, Elizabeth started the hashtag #slowfashionforall as a rally to increase diversity in that space. She also shared a size-inclusive survey on her Instagram in an effort to define the term and was surprised to see that over 3,000 people had responded. “The results were fairly unanimous and gave me a clear indication of what that term means. Ninety-four percent expect at least up to a size 22 to be considered extended sizing.” That being said, there are sustainable brands that are doing it right. Elizabeth loves brands like Elizabeth Suzann, Alice Alexander and Power of My People.
In addition to cost and sizing, accessibility is another obstacle to sustainable shopping, one that people living outside of urban centres often face. While Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal have bricks-and-mortar options like Frank and Oak and Kotn, suburban towns often only have malls and big box stores to choose from. And while online shopping is an option, relying on e-commerce can mean that shipping and dutiesend up costing you much more than you’d like to spend.
Even though the sustainable and ethical shopping landscape is far from perfect, we can all feel more empowered by having more choices.
Budget-friendly shopping without sacrificing your ethos
So where does that leave the sustainable-minded shopper who’s not raking in six figures a year? Well, it takes a bit of effort, but there are alternative ways to be a conscious shopper while still being kind to your wallet. Here are a few tips.
The most obvious suggestion is also the hardest because it requires a Marie Kondo-inspired re-prioritizing of your shopping habits. Buy less stuff and stick to things that spark joy. Focus on the items you really want in your closet and are less likely to toss out after a few wears. Before I buy anything, I try to think of at least three or four occasions when I know I’ll wear it. If I can’t come up with more than one, it’s a pass.
Lucky for us, Canada is home to many brands that are both sustainable and ethical. “While it might cost a bit more money up front to buy items that are designed and/or made in Canada, the quality is far superior,” says Nicole Keen, a Toronto-based freelance writer and editor who put more of a priority on ethical shopping after becoming a mother. “Plus your hard-earned dollars are going to a real person, not some multi-billion dollar chain.” Brands like Eliza Faulkner and Birds of North America are a couple of Keen’s homegrown faves.
Sign up for mailing lists
Signing up for your favourite brand’s mailing list is a surefire way to keep on top of both annual and flash sales to score otherwise expensive items. For example, if you love Reformation, hold out until sale season during which discounts can go as deep as 70% off. That dress you had your eye on may be marked down significantly.
New can also mean new-to-you, so head to your local Value Village or Salvation Army. “I’ve thrifted everything from designer shoes to perfect ’60’s dresses. And, truth be told, many of the trends that are in brand-name stores now (like beaded bags) can be found secondhand for a fraction of the price,” says Keen. Plus, the Marie Kondo effect might work in your favour; since Tidying Up with Marie Kondo debuted on Netflix in January, thrift stores have seen a rise in donations.
Browse re-sale apps
Poshmark, a US-based shopping platform, expanded into Canada this past May. With over 25 million items to choose from, you can buy both new and gently used items of clothing, from jeans to designer handbags.
Expand your online shopping network
You can also shop second-hand and vintage ethical fashion online through Instagram accounts like @selltradeslowfashion and @selltradeplus. “You can often find items that didn’t work for others in nearly new condition at a fraction of the price,” says Elizabeth.
Go the rental route
If you’re looking for the perfect dress for an upcoming party or wedding, but dread tossing it into the blackhole of your closet where clothes that’ve only been worn once go to die, consider renting instead. In Canada, there are plenty of rental companies that offer stylish outfits for every occasion, such as Fitzroy and Goldie.