Questioning the Meaning of “Ethical” Fashion

In late April, I received a thoughtful email from a long-time reader, and asked if I could share it and answer it publicly:
Hello Julia,

My name’s Dawn and I’ve been reading à l’allure garçonnière for years as well as following on LiveJournal for some time. I am writing to you today because I’m attempting to practice more of what I preach and end my support of clothing companies that sell pieces made in sweatshops as well as contribute to many societal issues.

My question is: do you just shop thrifted and vintage for everything? When I attempt to do that, I still feel that I struggle with finding non-Gap, H&M, Urban Outfitters, etc. brand clothing that was made in a way that I don’t want to support. Do you ever support some of these brands that you know use unethical business practices if the items are second-hand? Do you also support newer brands, and if so, have you ever shared which you do in a blog post or on a list somewhere? Do you have a knowledge base of brands that treat/compensate their employees ethically/don’t contribute to our mainstream warped views of beauty or do you do research before new purchases? (Sorry, that was a few questions in a row!).

I feel that finding new clothing that is made in a way that I support ethically is sometimes near impossible, and when it is it’s generally well out of my price range. As much as I’d love to deck myself out in sparkly couture that’s not my reality right now.  Also curious about everyday clothing items like bras/underwear, socks, tights, shoes, etc. I imagine finding some of these used might be tough (or weird?) and wonder which brands you feel are okay to support for items like this.

I’m also vegan and don’t wear any products that come from animals at all, so that makes things even a bit harder than they would normally be.

Any resources, thoughts or tips that you have or are willing to share would be appreciated. Thanks so much for your time and for sharing your writing with the world.

A longtime reader/supporter/fellow queer feminist,


A lot to get into here! Let’s break it down:

Do you just shop thrifted and vintage for everything?

Pretty much. Recently, I have stopped purchasing clothes pretty much altogether – new, vintage, thrifted or otherwise. This is due to a combination of factors: having accrued a wardrobe I know and love over the course of ten years (and staying relatively the same size), working full-time, and researching the (Canadian) fashion industry.

When I was younger, though, my initial draw towards thrifting was largely due to the fact that I loved being able to express myself through fashion – without feeling guilty about spending the small amount of money I had, or the guilt of buying new (creating waste, guilt over $$$) and potentially supporting brands that used sweatshops to produce their goods. When I was about 15 or 16, I had a particularly fierce anti-corporate stance, confident brand boycotts were the most effective tactic to employ. Also, I was never particularly enthused about the idea of wearing the same clothes as my peers.

Later in life, when I was underemployed, I had all the time in the world to thrift… but no money for anything other than food and rent. The funny thing about working a 9 to 5 – Monday to Friday schedule is that my free time doesn’t match up with the hours of the thrift stores in my town, and I just don’t have the time to scrounge the way I did five, ten years ago (as much as I love a good hunt). The small amount of new clothing I own falls largely into the category of “new to me” – mostly thrifted, aside from gifts and/or the occassional irresistible deal.

1940s British War Propaganda

1940s British War Propaganda

This year is also the first time I found myself a tailor. I brought a bag of dresses I had been holding on to but hadn’t been wearing for years because of varying small defects – the hem had fallen out, holes along the seams, etc. After swearing I’d find the time to mend them myself, a friend suggested a local tailor. The feeling of having “new” dresses from simply taking them to a local tailor and paying a small fee? Unreal! Highly highly recommended.

Short version to this question: I mostly buy thrifted and/or vintage, except for shoes and underwear.

Do you ever support some of these brands that you know use unethical business practices if the items are second-hand?

First things first: I think it’s a slippery slope to infer that by purchasing a piece of clothing (whether the item be purchased at their store, or second hand) that you are categorically endorsing everything that company does. This is something people of many varying political perspectives often infer, and it always slightly irks me.

“Support” here is the tricky element. Yes, I have purchased items of clothing from brands whose practices/advertising I despise. There’s at least one Urban Outfitters dress in my closet, and I used to love American Apparel’s thigh-high socks (I say “used to” because they changed designs, and also because I no longer live in a city with an AA store). This reminds me of part of a conversation I had with Jes Sasche back in 2010 about American Apparel. This is probably the clearest example of a brand that supports unions, decent wages for its garment workers… but then has questionable ad campaigns at best… while the company’s founder and CEO is known for sexual harrassing and assaulting models and employees at worst. I asked Jes for her thoughts on it, and it comes back to me quite often:

Me boycotting AA is ridiculous. You show me a fashion line that rocks my disability politics. None of ’em do! I’ll wear what I want to, because my body, like everything else, contradicts itself.

There you have it: how do you define a clothing brand you want to enthusiastically support? You are a fan of the designer behind the brand? Do you buy things that you like, exclusively from companies that represent the same political perspectives as you? These questions are complicated even moreso when we add things like body politics, disability politics, whether you try to buy exclusively vegan, etc.

All of these conversations boil down to the question of how you define “ethical.” The Western conversation is endlessly dominated by “sweatshop = bad” or (often tinged with xenophobia) “jobs overseas = jobs taken away from my country” tone. Let’s dig deeper than that.

Does buying second-hand automatically mean buying “ethically?”

Another conundrum when it comes to second-hand: when you buy from a thrift store, the money does not go to brands or the companies that made the clothing in the first place – it goes to the thrift store or church or organization that is selling it. There are questions there, as a queer woman, about whether or not I want to be “donating” to certain charities that, say, endorse racist, sexist, or homophobic organizations. Those are the bigger questions I ask myself when thinking about where to thrift. But that’s a whole other can of worms…

I should also note: in my case, brand logos are never visible on the clothing I buy (if I were a t-shirts and jeans kind of person, this would be different obviously) so this isn’t really a question I ask myself.

Do you also support newer brands, and if so, have you ever shared which you do in a blog post or on a list somewhere?

Good question. Recently I’ve found myself really interested in Quebec-based brands, and Canadian companies that try to produce clothing – from the designs, to the sewing, to the selling – in Canada. I haven’t done enough research to attempt to compile a list, but that is definitely a project worth embarking on and I’m glad to be asked about this. Do you know of any fashion bloggers that do this? Leave a message in the comments!

Do you have a knowledge base of brands that treat/compensate their employees ethically/don’t contribute to our mainstream warped views of beauty or do you do research before new purchases?

This is another phenomenal question I wish I had the answer to! Generally speaking, I really don’t shop much so this isn’t something I encounter very often. That said, with basic online research skills, this could probably be relatively simple to do. Has anyone come across a resource list like this?

When it comes to vegan items, I’ve gotten most of my tips from friends. I follow some vegan fashion lovers online as well, and keep my eyes peeled. That said, a lot of the things I find in my online hunts are mostly made abroad that are totally out of my price range. Quandries.

You know what helps me though?

Reminding myself I don’t need 99% of this shit.

Untitled, from Everything is Necessary (2012) by Nikita Gale

Untitled, from Everything is Necessary (2012) by Nikita Gale

Capitalism has a way of convincing us our material things are what make us who we are. That the clothing we wear is a reflection of our worth as human beings, especially as young women. I constantly struggle with my affection for fashion and my distaste for the fashion industry. I struggle because of the empowerment I’ve found through expressing myself with my clothing and style, all the while never having the wallet, desire for high-end brands, nor the materialistic drive of someone who would proudly boast the label of clothes horse or “fashion lover.”

At the heart of a lot of these important questions is the challenging the systemic inequities we know exist in the fashion industry. For as long as I’ve loved to get dressed, questions around what impact my consumer choices may have at some point down the line have come up again and again. When I was younger, I was more concerned about the marketing choices and ad campaigns of the companies I bought clothing from. Now, I find myself more concerned about the environmental impact, whether items are vegan or not, whether the person who made the item was paid a living wage.

Capitalism Is The Cri$is

Montreal, 2012

It’s easy to feel like you’re listening to a broken record.

This past month, The Current interviewed a guest who famously made Kathy Lee Gifford cry in 1996. 1996! and he is still involved in trying to find a solution to sweatshop labour!

Worse yet, the situation in some Bangladesh garment factories echoes some of the tragic incidents that took place in North America a century ago. Yes, a century. The importance of labour unions and governments when it comes to corporate accountability cannot be understated. The creation and growth of unions in Canada’s textile factories often meant their closure a decade or two later – namely because companies know they can go elsewhere for cheaper labour. When interviewing countless Canadian fashion industry experts this past November and December, one recurring answer to this question kept coming up: people, especially but not only young women, have become accustomed to owning and wearing more clothing and paying less for it.

Asking questions about which companies pay their workers – along every step of the way – a living wage, and generally operate in an ethical manner is important. Some answers are easier to find than others. In the end, my answers for Dawn aren’t very conclusive. In short, the Internet is a great resource. Thinking critically is important. Check your sources. Ask questions.

La majorité, c’est vous

Keep the pressure on. Contact the companies you do support, recommend them to your friends. Contact the stores you think have the most egregious errors, let them know why you won’t shop there.  Don’t forget to look at the big picture. And keep fighting the good fight.

Recommended Reading:


Filed under fashion, politics, shopping, Uncategorized

17 responses to “Questioning the Meaning of “Ethical” Fashion

  1. great post, julia. it leaves me very conflicted, as i now make my living working in the fashion industry. we do try to only stock items that are made in the USA, in addition to a few independent designers. i fully support the idea of not buying new clothing, so this definitely gives me a lot to think about.

    • There are so many dynamics to think of when it comes to this topic. There’s no cut and dry clear solution, but I’m glad lots of people are trying to figure out their own fit. Thanks for reading and commenting Erin.

  2. Wonderful post! This is something I think about a lot too even though I pretty much fall in the category of not having a choice (reminder: this is okay). I’ve tried to do some internet research about the ethical viewpoints of companies and wondered if there was some kind of list out there but I couldn’t find anything. It’s been quite a while I’ve looked though.

    • As always, so grateful to have you as a reader. It’s nice to know we’re not alone in our thirst for resources. I also think we’re on to something – if us, two young women well-versed in the world of the Internet and fashion, have trouble finding good reliable information about ethical production of clothing, imagine the average shopper’s experience. There’s a reason this shit is tough to find. Boo!

  3. For lingerie, Dawn could check out What Katie Did. They do produce in India, but they ensure customers on their website that they have an “ethical manufacturing facility”. Also, if she really has a problem with buying second hand from “wrong” brands, she could search for vintage clothing with a ILGWU label, International Ladies Garment Workers Union. You’ll get lots of results when searching ilgwu on Etsy, for instance. I hope those tips help a little.

    • What a thoughtful comment! Thanks for sharing these great resources. Have you ever read a great blog post on the history of the ILGWU label? I’ve been meaning to write one for ages, so interesting…

  4. Excellent post – the idea of ‘ethical’ fashion is so often totally over-simplified.

    Labour Behind the Label are the UK arm of the Clean Clothes Campaign and both organisations produce reports on the ethics of different retailers, specifically wrt labour practices and workers’ rights. I think it’s particularly interesting that they tend not to recommend boycotting different retailers, but recommend positive pressure and supporting retailers who are making dedicated attempts to improve their supply chains.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting! You’re right about the oversimplification – I felt like I was only skimming the surface with this post. You also point out how different things are in the UK versus where I am in Canada. I think this is an important aspect to look at; capitalism and globalization go hand in hand, and laws are different from country to country. Consumers in different parts of the world face different quandries. Positive pressure is the way to go! Love your way of looking at this.

  5. idris

    hi julia,
    great blog post! i agree that there are a lot of contradictions and i’m glad that yr answers are very nuanced. for instance, i used to be pretty against buying leather goods too until i accumulated broken cheaply made ‘vegan’ shoes, and i realize it’s better to have few well-made shoes even if they’re leather than having tons of broken ones. i guess it just depends on one’s priorities. also, have u heard of blank clothing in quebec? they’re kind of like american apparel in that they mostly make basics, but still really cool and i think their clothes are better made than aa. i’m really surprised that nobody ever talks abt them:

    • Ah cool! I know a lot of Quebec-based bands use BLANK instead of AA for their t-shirts, there’s even a shop down on rue St-Joseph here in Quebec City. Great suggestion.

  6. Thank you for posting this question and your answers. It is such a tricky subject and I know there is no perfect answer. I totally agree that part of the solution is to have a more critical eye, on-going, and to share our information. (Also thank you for linking to me!) I feel like this is a very long game of arm-wrestling – just one niche couched in the larger construct of capitalism and it needs to swing back to our side of the table. Hopefully all of the “little” individual folks’ work helps it do that – and makes it easier for convenience shoppers at large as well.

  7. Thank you for writing this. It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. Right now it seems like ethically produced clothing is a real luxury (Rachel Comey comes to mind as one of my favorites). I’ve also been looking into custom made clothing (less expensive than you would think).

    I’m often torn between buying something because it’s ethical or buying something I love and I know that I’m going to wear all the time. Is it better to buy one thing that you absolutely love from a company that may have questionable practices or many things from ethical (whatever that means to you) companies and to be 100% satisfied with them?

  8. Pingback: The Conscientious Consumer and the Guilty Closet | The Social Life of Secondhand Clothes

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  11. Cindy M

    There are several fascinating books that cover some of these topics.
    “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion” by Elizabeth Cline
    “The End of Fashion: The Mass Marketing of the Clothing Business Forever” by Teri Agins
    “Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Luster” by Dana Thomas
    I’m sure there are others – this seems to be a hot topic in the past year or two.

  12. I just loved your whole article. There are so many contradictions in fashion. Goes even further when you think of thrifted fur. Good research, too!!

    Also, about ethical tee-shirts, check Delyla in Montreal !

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