Unpacking Sustainable Retail: A Beginner’s Guide - Public Goods Blog

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Unpacking Sustainable Retail: A Beginner’s Guide

We’ve all heard the buzzwords a million times: “sustainable retail,” “ethical fashion,” etc.

wooden hangers, clothing rack, blinds

But if you’re anything like me, you struggle a bit to unpack what this zingy lingo actually means, and how to apply it to your life in a meaningful way — especially while staying on a Forever21-esque clothing budget. That’s why we created this quick beginners guide to becoming an informed, ethical consumer who makes responsible buying decisions while staying chic.

What Does Ethical Retail Actually Mean?

OK, let’s start with the basics. On the most simple level, sustainable, ethical retail centers around two main pillars:

  1. how clothes, accessories and shoes are produced
  2. how they are consumed

These processes impact the environment and society as a whole. With the rise of “fast fashion”— a term used by fashion retailers to describe the revolving door of inexpensive designs that move quickly to meet new trends — the effect of the industry is largely negative.

Let’s break down each piece — how clothing is made and how it is consumed — to identify the best path to sustainability.

How Clothes Are Produced and Why You Should Care

Five years ago, on April 24, 2013, the Rana Plaza building outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed. 1,100 workers died and thousands more were injured. The eight-story building housed five garment factories that produced goods for major retailers in North America and Europe.

What caused this deadly disaster? Investigations revealed that poor construction was the catalyst — too many floors and too much heavy equipment packed in for the structure to hold.

In the wake of this tragedy, the eyes of the world were suddenly on a topic that had been largely ignored: the fact that factory employees who make the majority of western clothing often face appalling conditions.

Concerns over transparency in the global garment industry increased drastically. Documentaries were made, and inquiries were put forth by caucuses of disturbed citizens.

[Tip: to get an in-depth look at the gruesome world of how clothes are made, watch “The True Cost,” a documentary by filmmaker Andrew Morgan, who traveled all over the world to expose the reality of sweatshop workers overseas. In short: fast fashion leverages slave labor and depletes the earth’s resources one crop top at a time.]

Yet years later, a report on supply chain transparency released by Human Rights Watch revealed that only 17 of 72 apparel and footwear brands that were contacted by human rights groups and global unions have agreed to implement a transparency pledge. Each year millions of human beings endure harsh conditions, illegal pay and dangerous health risks to keep pace with western demands for what we perceive as “cheap” clothes.

This abusive system means we can’t wait for big corporations to change their minds and get on board. Ethical responsibility starts with you, the consumer.

Which brings us to… consumption.

Obviously this is huge. If people didn’t literally buy into fast fashion so vigorously, companies would be forced to slow down production, and negatives associated with manufacturing would decrease with the demand. Placing all blame on unethical manufacturers might be a (well deserved) release, but unproductive if that’s all you do.

What makes consumption so difficult to tackle is the fact that it requires something perhaps even more challenging than passing legislation: a change in consciousness. To affect change, we need to shift our internal attitudes and, as a result, our behaviors.

Steps You Can Take Right Now to Be a More Ethical Consumer

1. Support Retailers That Practice Total Transparency

If there’s one thing big business has proved time and time again, it’s that they follow the money. If responsible companies thrive and prove that being transparent and humane is the way to go, others will follow suit.

The best way to vet a retailer for transparency and ethical practices is to see if they have a “fair trade” designation. This label means that whoever manufactured the product was paid a sustainable living wage. Buying fair trade usually means you are nourishing a fair and just economy.

2. Limit Consumption When Possible

This one is easier said than done, I know. But simply posing the question, “Do I truly need this shirt?,” will have an impact on your socio-economic imprint and your wallet. Strive to own staples that can be dressed up or down with accessories or shoes rather than an entirely different outfit, and try to purchase quality items that won’t wear out after one season.

3. Shop Secondhand

Checking out your local thrift shop instead of a mall reduces waste and helps the environment while funneling your shopping dollars toward a sustainable system. My favorite thrift stores in NYC are the housing works shops sprinkled throughout the city. Operated mainly by volunteers and born out of AIDS-era devastation, these shops use their proceeds to help people with HIV and AIDs live better and longer lives.

4. Spread Awareness

Of course people who buy from human rights violating companies are not all horrible and selfish. There is a much larger chance your friends are simply uninformed and would be astonished or horrified if they were presented with some facts. So let’s pretend this is a grandpa who doesn’t know better, and sit them down to explain.

5. Hold Yourself Accountable

Make buying decisions by supporting businesses that align with your own ideological beliefs, and together we can move forward for the public good.

Download Our Free Guide to Sustainable Living.

From reducing waste to recycling and upcycling, our e-book shows simple ways to make choices you can feel good about.

Comments (3)

  • Great article with important information, thank you! I’m always having to question myself when I shop as to whether or not I really need something, or was it responsibly made. Had to laugh at the unconscious ageism though, even though I appreciate the sentiment of lovingly educating others, like “sitting grandpa down” to explain…ha, my grandpas are the epitome of non- consumption (hello shirts and socks from 1968!). I know it’s trendy to holla “Ok, Boomer!” lately…maybe more poignant to sit down (myself!) or dear cousin Emma for the pep talk.

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