Ethical Fashion: How Your Wardrobe Affects The Planet (+ Sustainable Fashion Ideas)

Ethical fashion can have direct positive impacts – not only your wardrobe, but on the planet too. I want to share some of the surprising impacts the fashion industry has on the planet – and what we can do to help.

As an image consultant, I’ve always told my clients that their clothing can be an artistic extension of who they are. Clothing can also inspire waves of strong feminine confidence within you, or showcase what you advocate for.

But one of the growing hurdles for the fashion industry is the growing awareness of how their production practices pollute waterways and soil, and cause massive problems with waste. 

There is a movement emerging to 1) call attention to these hazards caused by the industry, and 2) influence consumers to change our behavior. That is what we call: “ethical fashion.”

Media outlets, social enterprises, and many advocates have spoken about the environmental repercussions of our growing fast-fashion society. There are even reports that fast fashion contributes to 10% of humanity’s carbon emissions!

But with the Zara’s and H&M’s of the world offering great-looking professional and casual clothing options at affordable prices, it’s hard to resist. So, then, what are the environmentally-friendly alternatives?

Additionally, what to do about the clothes you already have but no longer need?

These are all important questions, so I’m looking forward to talking about them in this post!

What Is Ethical Fashion Anyway?

Textile waste overflowing in landfills. Person picking through the trash.The term “ethical fashion” refers to clothing that is produced with sustainability – and humanity – top of mind. 

Items in this category represent clothing with a small environmental impact when made and distributed. 

Ethical fashion also extends to asking these questions:

  • What chemicals and materials are in your clothes
  • What chemicals and materials are expelled as waste into the environment during the production process
  • Who (the workers) made the clothes and how they were treated in the process
  • How clothing affects the environment when discarded 

The truth is, the impact that clothing has on the ocean and landfills is immense. It is good to have the knowledge so that we know what we, personally, can do to reduce these impacts!

What Can We Do?

“What can I do?” may be the most important question. 

To inspire your choices, here’s a factoid that makes you go “ouch!”

  • Clothing production has doubled since 2000. Yet we keep our clothes for only half as long as we used to. 

We associate this “privilege” with a rise in our standard of living. And, let’s face it, there are employment numbers behind this increase in production – fast fashion does provide a number of jobs. But the fact is, it’s wasteful. And the planet is already paying a price for it.

As busy professional women, it’s effortless for us to forget about how our clothing affects the planet since we’re busy with day-to-day tasks. But we all have more influence than we realize. I’ll say it’s always important to keep in mind that your wardrobe can speak volumes in more ways than one. Your wardrobe can even spark conversations based on how the clothes were made. 

For example, maybe your friend compliments you on a shirt you’re wearing made from organic linen and follows it up with “Where did you get it?” 

This can start up the ethical fashion conversation that maybe they weren’t even aware of. 

Where To Shop For Sustainable Fashion Brands

Popular fast-fashion brands do not usually produce clothing of the best quality. We’ve all succumbed to ridiculously cheap prices – so we all know that. Too many of those clothes will no longer be presentable after you’ve washed them half a dozen times. 

Yes, they can be trendy, at affordable prices. But note: sustainable brands carry trendy items (and even high-end items) too!

Here are some ideas of sustainable online brands to consider as part of your wardrobe, great for women over 40:

Second-hand Items: 

  • Thredup – A sustainable online thrift store with tons of selections and versatile items.
  • Luxanthropy – High-end and preowned items (great for your sophisticated looks.)

New Items: 

  • Seek Collective – Amazing ethical fashion for women over 40
  • People Tree – Simple, versatile clothing (great for capsule wardrobes (more on this later))
  • Sézane – A Paris-based retailer with a mix of simple and luxury items. 

A few years ago I put together an Ethical Ensembles encyclopedia full of information about some of our favorite brands. People loved it!

I’m updating it now, and will soon re-release it using the Avatar images I use today. I am also constantly adding new brands to the list – so a PDF is not the right format going forward. 

But the information in that little guide is still solid – so if you have a copy of the original, consider it vintage and hold on to it. (And, you never know: I might decide to build a database, so we can always feel confident shopping our values. Who would be interested in that? Email me!)

How To Commit To Ethical Shopping (And Things To Keep In Mind)

Turning to new brands for your shift in fashion doesn’t mean you have to abandon the clothes you love and items that are true to you. 

Yet, it is a perfect chance to not only find new sources for your favorite kinds of garments and accessories, but to also find new kinds of clothing – stuff you might not have tried before!

In fact, if you’re looking to change things up, it’s great to look at my fashion avatars for inspiration. I made these archetypes called Success Thru Style Avatars to help women narrow down styles they liked. The avatars have evolved greatly over the years – but still serve the same function…

Success thru Style avatars - watercolor renderings show clothing style combinationsAre you a Creative Cleo? Classic Claire? Maybe even a Feminine Fiona

There are many avatars from which to gain inspiration when choosing ethical fashion pieces.

A big thing to consider with your wardrobe is also the number of pieces you’ll own. It’s very easy for us to think we need 100+ pieces of clothing consisting of tops, blouses, and jackets. But this is not the case. 

Here, let me explain:

There’s a fashion concept known as the “capsule wardrobe.” It can save you hours of laundry time and bunches of dollars on soap products. It can also make getting dressed simpler. And – most importantly for the purposes of this conversation – it will reduce your carbon footprint

The capsule wardrobe is a core combination of bottoms, tops, dresses, outerwear, shoes that you’ve styled just for you… so you feel amazing when wearing them! They are versatile, and – if this is important to you – they travel well. Ideally, they are super high quality, so that you will enjoy them for years. And, lastly, you don’t need to build an extra room onto your house to accommodate your clothing and shoes.

The versatility of a capsule wardrobe helps you have easy choices for casual outings as well as fancy ones. You can think of it as a timeless collection. These are clothes and accessories that you can rely on time and time again, rather than trendy ones you wear once a year and then toss  – disposable clothing, almost.

From my experience of helping hundreds of women with clothing, I’d say to narrow down your capsule wardrobe to 30-50 pieces. This includes everything: clothing, accessories, and shoes. 

It’s ideal for these pieces to cover a broad range of “dress codes.” 

Don’t forget to have specific go-to fashion pairings like double denim or mismatched clothing patterns, as well. 

The big picture with a capsule wardrobe is having long-lasting, stylish clothes and knowing what you like when shopping at sustainable fashion boutiques or thrift department stores.

When your clothes last longer while still maintaining their quality, you’ll have a lesser need to throw them out each year, which helps reduce textile waste

close-up detail of a cabled sweater-StS-ethical fashionHow To Deal With Clothes You No Longer Need

Speaking of textile waste…

Ok, so there’s that dress from your best friend’s birthday dinner from 2 years ago that you only wore once…and you don’t need it.

Or maybe there’s a closet full of clothes that have to go. 

Either way, let’s cover great methods to gather and dispose of clothes you no longer need (sustainably, of course). 

1. Donate Them

Donating your clothing is a fantastic way to give back to your community and help people in need. When donating clothes from social enterprises, organizations, charities, and especially thrift stores, you have many options.

One social enterprise that I absolutely love is The Bra Recyclers

Founded in 2008, this social enterprise repurposes bras and has donated bras to millions of women worldwide who need them. What makes their purpose even more beautiful is that these women they are helping are escaping awful circumstances like human trafficking. 

When it comes to charities and thrift stores, you have many options, likely some in your local area. Always keep in mind to donate clothes that are in decent to good condition because if they’re torn or in bad shape, odds are they’ll be tossed out. 

Here are great charities and organizations to consider donating to: 

  • Dress For Success-type organizations
  • Goodwill 
  • Local homeless shelters 
  • Domestic violence centers
  • Refugee organizations 

Dress For Success, MenzFit, and other organizations support employment social enterprises – helping hard to employ people find and sustain gainful employment.

I suggest you vet the organizations you’re donating to. For instance, research what they stand for. Read what people are saying about them and review any news outlet reports that might have featured them or their work. These are ways to help ensure you’re donating to a credible cause.

2. Find A Textile Recycling Center

Textile recycling centers help you get rid of your clothes – sustainably. Many of these centers can be found with a simple Google search like, “Textile center near me.” Sometimes there will be textile bins near stores in your area that will accept your unwanted clothes.

3. Sell Them 

Re-selling your clothes is another popular alternative to just throwing them away. Believe it or not, someone will pay good money for that turtleneck you no longer want. 

It’s convenient to go the online approach and use selling platforms like Depop, eBay, or Facebook marketplace.

4. Trade Them

Clothing swaps are popular these days. How’s it works? Invite your friends to come over and bring all their unwanted clothes. Then, everybody goes “shopping” in everybody else’s closets. Get some great new stuff without spending a dime. Get rid of your unwanteds without contributing to textile waste. That’s what I call a win-win!

There aFreecycle.org logore also neighborhood-based programs like Freecycle that allow neighbors to get rid of their still-good stuff. This kind of local trading is great for the planet in another way: the carbon footprint may be the very low cost of me driving to your house to pick it up! (Or, of course, a neutral location if we don’t know each other.) 

5. Repurpose Your Items!

Repurposing your clothing means using them differently. For instance, maybe that colorful shirt you’re about to throw away can become a pillow cover. 

There are numerous DIY repurposing ideas for clothes you can find online, and as a wardrobe consultant, I think they’re fantastic!

Some Final Takeaways About Ethical Fashion 

The items you wear hint to the world what you’re all about — they’re an extension of your personal brand.

Mass marketing has led us to believe that the popular fast-fashion brands are the best, but this isn’t the case if you take a holistic view of things. 

This comes down to what you value: personally and environmentally. 

If you’d like to reduce material waste from clothing, I hope the information in this article helped you get some great ideas. 

And as always, if you’d like help implementing a new ethical style wardrobe, I’m always here to be your helping hand in doing so. 

Feel free to schedule a call for my personalized wardrobe program. This is a program where I’ve helped countless women and even men upgrade their style to fit their preferences and values. 

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