The importance of ethical fashion

How to buy and consume clothing responsibly on a student budget


You probably don't need me to tell you why fast fashion is unsustainable.

Here's the baseline facts; it takes 2,700 litres of water to make one cotton t-shirt. For reference, I own around 15 different t-shirts or tops. That's 40,500 litres of water consumed by my t-shirts alone, plus however much has been used in washing cycles to keep them clean in their lifetime of use. This kind of water wastage has a direct impact; the Aral sea in northern Uzbekistan has been almost completely drained due to such reckless water usage, with the majority of it gone on the production of cotton for the clothing industry.

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The Aral Sea, pictured in 1989 on the left and 2008 on the right

On a human level, the outsourcing of fast fashion means that retailers are unaccountable for the work-place standards of the people employed in the factories that manufacture their garments. The minimum wage for a Bangladeshi worker, a country where 85% of GDP is compromised by the clothing industry, is €49.56 a month. The living wage in Bangladesh, calculated by the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, is €259.80, making minimum wage just 19% of what a Bangladeshi person requires to maintain an acceptable quality of life. This disparity disproportionately affects women too; 85% of these workers are women.

Even on an artistic level, the shift in the industry from a four season cycle to a weekly cycle of design and production has led to a culture that does not appreciate the clothing it consumes, with monthly trends and low cost prioritised over long lasting, innovative, and ethically produced pieces. Artistic integrity is compromised by an economy that rewards the reproduction of cheap copies and fosters a mindset of disposability.

However, even keeping these impacts in mind, actually changing your purchasing habits can be an extremely daunting prospect. Ethical clothing brands such as Reformation have a reputation for being extremely expensive, and for the majority of people (and especially students) completely stopping the purchase of fast fashion is simply not an option.

Of course, this does not mean that there aren't ways in which we all can reduce the environmental and social impact of our clothing. Buying ethically on a student budget is possible; it just requires a bit of insider knowledge.

Consume Less

The first way in which you can reduce your environmental impact is by looking at your buying habits, and attempting to change the way you shop. Personally, I'm very prone to impulse buys, and whilst in the moment you may absolutely need those hot pink velvet heels, in the long run it is questionable how much use you will get out of them. Something I've found helpful to combat this is going through my wardrobe and making a list of the gaps that I have there, and holding myself accountable to only buying items that genuinely bring something new to my collection.

Adopting an organisational scheme such as a capsule wardrobe may also be a good idea; a capsule wardrobe limits your wardrobe size to a set number of items and is designed so that all of your pieces mesh together by sharing a similar colour palette.

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Pick out a few accent colours and build around them to create a capsule wardrobe

This means that all of your clothes should go together, and none will be banished to the back of the wardrobe after being worn once at formal. In a capsule wardrobe buying becomes significantly easier too; having less means you can invest in higher quality sustainable pieces, as well as making it simple to determine whether an item will gel with the rest of your collection and thus how much use you would get out of it.

Buy Ethically

Changing where you buy from can also make a big difference. Ethical brands are often thought to be synonymous with high cost, which is often true; many brands are ethical because they source higher cost local materials, which are then constructed by hand in ateliers. In reality, there are a number of different (and much more budget friendly!) options that you can consider to make your clothing more sustainable.

Buying from Charity shops is also a great way to consume sustainably. Not only will your money be going to charity, but the clothes that you are buying will be second hand, meaning your purchase does not require any more resources to be used up for their production. The same goes for buying vintage; specialist stores, markets, or kilo sales are more places to pick up unique and sustainable finds.

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Cambridge has loads of Vintage and Kilo sale events to offer, with one happening nearly every week!

Depop, Ebay and other online marketplaces also offer a handy way for you to channel all of your impulse buying urges. Speaking from personal experience, it is hard to resist online shopping. Again, clothes listed on here are all second hand, meaning that anything you purchase can be done so guilt free. As a bonus, items found on these platforms will be much cheaper than purchasing them directly from the retailer, and are often brand new too.

However, if you aren't looking for second hand and want to buy new without having to spend hundreds on a sustainable brand boutique item, there are a few affordable brands that sell ethically produced clothing. A favourite of mine is Nobody's Child, a company that commits to using only ethical labour in the production of its clothing. It has some incredibly interesting and on trend pieces, all of which are extremely reasonably priced at around £20-£30. Checking out ranges such as H and M Conscious or the ASOS Ethical Edit are also a good place to start, and are doubly beneficial as they demonstrate to retailers the demand for ethical fashion.

Dispose Ethically

When it comes to getting rid of any old clothing, there are also steps you can take to do so in an ethical fashion. Donating, selling, or recycling your clothes is infinitely better than simply binning them. Alternatively, why not take advantage of events such as the Cambridge Clothes Swap party, to exchange your clothing for something else you would get more wear out of?

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Ultimately, buying ethically is something that all of us can incorporate into our purchasing habits, even in small ways. In the end, it's these small gestures that add up to make a huge difference; one that is so sorely needed by the industry.