The Difficulty of Making Ethical Decisions

A little while ago I gave a talk at Pop CBR, a wonderful store dedicated to selling products made by local Canberra makers. I spoke on conscious consumerism, particularly the difficulty of making ethical decisions and how this is different for everyone. Since then I have had quite a few interesting conversations with friends and readers about the grey areas of sustainability. Can you still feel good about wearing glitter nail polish? How ethical is it to buy fast fashion but from a small local business? It can feel impossible to do the right thing.

This is a difficult question that I attempted to answer in my speech so I thought I would share a transcript, minus the introduction and housekeeping bits of course:

Tonight I want to share a few things with you, but I don’t want you to take my word as gospel. I want to offer you some information and some suggestions with the knowledge that they may or may not work for you. You might think my approach to sustainability is too hard or too soft, some of the things I talk about might not be important to you at all. And that’s fine. We all lead different lives, earn different amounts of money and have different values and obligations.

Rather than tell you, say, ten things that are guaranteed to make you a more conscious consumer, I want to offer you some suggestions that will help you figure out what being a more conscious consumer means to you and once you have figured that out, how you might go about it realising it.

I am sure you all know that the fashion industry has a lot of problems. It’s one of the most polluting industries in the world, it employs a huge workforce that is made up of mainly women and girls, many of whom work in unsafe and unfair conditions, and the industry creates an inordinate amount of waste.

There are so many reports and stats out there but I have chosen three to highlight:

So it’s clear we need to make a change and we need to do it now. The fashion industry is large and complex and the way we fix it is a whole other conversation but for now I want to talk about smaller, easier things that we can all do that can add up to something big.

So first up lets talk about making sustainable decisions that suit your lifestyle and budget.

A common preconception is that people on a lower income can’t afford to buy ethical or sustainable fashion but that isn’t necessarily true. Yes new items that are made from sustainable materials where everyone involves has been paid a fair wage cost more, as they should, but it is still possible to make more sustainable decisions that don’t cost much at all.

Decide on Your Values

The first thing you need to do is decide on your values. There are so many problems in the world that trying to make a difference as an individual can feel overwhelming. Do you want to support labels that pay their workers fairly? Or maybe the use of organic textiles is more important to you. What about the use of animal products? You do need to take the time to consider what is important to you and in what areas you might realistically be able to make an impact.

For example, a few years ago I decided that I no longer want to support fast fashion companies so I haven’t set foot in H&M or Zara, two of the worlds biggest apparel companies, since. I also decided that I wanted to better support my local independent businesses so I now shop in local boutiques and buy from local makers more often rather than from chain brands in the shopping centre. While I am a vegetarian and animal welfare is important to me, I still purchase and wear leather products because I think that is a more sustainable option than faux leather alternatives. I am also open to wearing fur depending on how it is sourced.

It is important to consider of the life cycle of each product you buy. You may decide to buy something that is ethically and sustainably produced but if it languishes in the back of the cupboard, all the energy and resources that went into that item are wasted. Or you may choose to buy something that perhaps wasn’t made in the best possible way but is a style that you know you will love and that you will wear over and over.  

Remember to be realistic. You want to make choices that you can afford, that you can sustain and that make you happy.

Be Informed. Do Your Research

Once you have decided which issues are important to you, do your research. There are lots of resources out there to help you. Identify which brands and labels are doing a good job when it comes to your own values as well as their broader environmental and social impact.

People are demanding more information about the things that they buy. This means that brands are having to disclose more information about their operations. The fashion industry is notoriously opaque, they don’t want to share their secrets, which can make it hard for the average person, let alone a research team, to find out more.

You have probably heard of the Baptist World Aid report, the Oxfam What She Makes campaign and the Good on You app. While these resources can be helpful, especially for people who are new to considering a brand’s sustainability credentials, they each have their flaws, so you shouldn’t let them be your only source of information.

For example, in this year’s Baptist report, Cotton On received an A, making it the highest-graded large Australian apparel company while fast fashion global giants: Spanish-owned Zara received an A- while Swedish giant H&M earned a B+. This might lead you to think that these brands are doing a good job and that you should buy from them but that isn’t necessarily the case.

While big brands like Cotton On, Zara and H&M are making serious efforts to clean up their operations, for example by supporting organic cotton-farming operations in developing countries, these companies continue to manufacture billions of items of clothing on mass perpetuating many of the industry’s most serious issues, such as the exploitation of workers and masses of textile waste.

Just in the last couple of months, H&M revealed it has more than $US4 billion ($5.15 billion) in unwanted clothes. While the company has noble aims of achieving full circularity by 2030, figures such as this are a reminder of how far the company and the industry have to go in cleaning up its act.

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

So you’ve decided what is important to you and you have done your research, now its time to use your money and purchasing power to support industries and practices that align with your values. It’s as easy as that.

I also want to comment on the rise of buy nothing groups, swaps and abstention. There has been a rise in anti-capitalist sentiment of late with lots of people wanting to avoid engaging with big business as much as possible. This is absolutely fine, but I just want to raise the point that it is hard to change an industry if you won’t engage with it. While swapping and bartering is fun and saves you money, I don’t think it should completely replace the buying of new things. It is important that those who are financially able support businesses and labels who are doing the right thing and who are driving change.

For example, if you are wanting to cut down on your consumerism it could be more productive to buy predominantly second hand with a few key pieces from designers who align with your values rather than to exclusively shop second hand.

Ask Questions

It’s really important to ask questions. It may seem like shop assistants exist to convince you to buy things, and for the most part, they do. However, as well as facilitating sales, shop assistants are also experts on the products they sell. Pick their brains; ask if they know where a garment was made, or how was it made. Ask whether a beauty product is vegan or cruelty-free. Even if the shop assistant doesn’t know your question acts as an impetus for them to find out.

Don’t be afraid to publicly engage with a business either by contacting them directly or calling them out on social media. Holding a business publicly accountable is a great way to drive change but always make sure to do it respectfully. And it doesn’t all have to be negative; give a shout out to a business you think is doing a great job.

Speak Up

Use your voice. Don’t bang people over the head with your beliefs or try to shame them as this won’t get you very far, but talk to your friends, family and colleagues about issues that are important to you. You never know, you might inspire someone else to make a change in their own life.

After that we moved on to discussing our practical tips on buying, styling, caring and disposing of your clothes in a more conscious way. I was going to write up something new but as I was flipping through my copy of our book Building a Conscious Wardrobe and Other Fun Things I realised I had already written it so succinctly in there that I would be wasting my time. So if you are keen for some handy tips and suggestions consider buying a copy of our book.

Emma Batchelor

Emma Batchelor

As well as a near obsessive interest in fashion, Emma is a former scientist, occasional contemporary dancer, avid reader and self-confessed cat lady (she has three). Emma lived in Leiden in the Netherlands as a baby and Leiden ought to have been her middle name had her mother thought of it at the time and not chosen Louise instead.

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