What is Ethical Fashion, Anyway? A Crash Course for College Girls

And how you can start shopping ethically – it’s easier than you think!

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Guide to ethical fashion for college students -- girl on top of a mountain

Hi guys! First of all, I hope you all had a great Thanksgiving!

Second of all, I am too excited about this post. A little tidbit you might not know about me: I actually love ethical fashion and everything that has to do with fashion and sustainability. (My hobby is to scout vintage stores and ethical brands out on social media, and then message the owners and try to score deals on stuff. )

Basically, this is where I feel most passionate about talking about clothing. Today, I’ll bring you into this world with me.

The goal here is to provide a crash course in ethical fashion for the uninformed, and to teach those of you who already shop ethically a few more tips and tricks. Ready? Let’s get started.

Ethical Fashion 101

Alright, so the main question I receive from friends is this: “Okay, I keep hearing about this idea of ethical fashion, but no one will explain it to me…is it better?”

So let’s start there – I’ll explain how fashion currently works and why ethical fashion something you want to support.

So, as you may know from my previous articles, the fashion process starts with major designers selling expensive ready-to-wear, then moves down to the department stores who sell similar items, then down to fast fashion retailers (AKA all the college girl faves) who sell similar items at cheap, cheap prices. But what fast fashion brands don’t tell you is that all those cheap clothes come at a humongous price.

For every two dollar tank you find at your favorite cheap retailer, there is usually a poorly paid employee on the other side of the world, making thousands of those tops, not making enough money to even feed their family.

When a fast fashion company decides to take on a new trend that appears overnight – let’s say, a dress that Kim Kardashian wore a few days ago – the brand will sketch out a similar look and churn out thousands of copies using lower quality fabric and keeping the majority of the profits to themselves. (So even if you buy the dress for $25 and complain about it being expensive, you should mentally do the math — a couple of cents from that dress are making their way back to that one seamstress. $24.95 is going to the company.)

Not only that, but some of the factories these low-paid seamstresses work in are not well lit, nor do they have good air conditioning (and can sometimes be dangerously structurally unsound), so there are human rights being ignored here, too.

And if you needed a cherry on top for this situation, the clothes you are buying will not even last you the whole season, and you will end up throwing the clothes away. Then, you’ll find yourself going back to the same store to buy another product that will perpetuate these conditions even further.

At the same time, the environment is suffering due to these factories.

For instance, the fabric used to make our aforementioned dress was made with synthetic man-made dyes, as those are the most accessible and most affordable options, and take the least time to effectively color clothing. But another fun fact is that some of the dye is often left over, and if it is not used, factories will dispose of it badly. Then traces of colorants and chemicals that are terrible for fish and humans make it to bodies of water, rendering the water toxic and not viable for consumption.

Lastly, can we talk about air pollution for a second? Moving factories to where labor is cheap means the raw materials for goods often need to be shipped into countries like Bangladesh from afar. And then the items made in Bangladesh need to be shipped back overseas to the US, meaning more burning of fossil fuels and more pollution. Indeed, Eco Watch calls fast fashion the second dirtiest industry in the world, second only to Big Oil.

In short, it’s bad.

So where do we go from here? We start with awareness.

Now I hope I did not just dump too much on you. But the biggest problem is that there is still not enough awareness about the true costs of fast fashion. Brands we know and love are quietly shoving this under the rug.

As consumers, we deserve the right to know what is happening, but we also then have to take responsibility and act on the information we do manage to find.

The sad reality of the fashion cycle today is that we have gotten used to trends coming and going faster and faster. Right now, fast fashion stores are making bank on the fact that they can copy designer items and sell them cheaply because they purposefully make them cheaply to ensure that we will be back to replace the item.

So it is not just a flaw in retail, it is a flaw that is being fed to us, and now we are becoming dependent on it. I hate to say it guys, but it is breeding an addiction to fast fashion, particularly among our broke generation.

BUT… *insert excuse*

So here is where the controversy starts. Some people, when told about this, complain. The argument is often that if wealthy people can buy all sorts of shiny new things every day, all of us should be able to do the same. My argument is that just because you can buy a billion tanks at Forever 21 or another fast fashion store, that does not mean you should. Instead, I urge you to invest in one item that will last you (hopefully) longer than one season.

And if your argument is that you literally can’t afford to spend any more on clothes because you are a broke college girl like me, then I say to that, thrifting!

Trust me, this isn’t as hard as it sounds. Below, I’ll explain how to get started. Every step counts, guys.

How to Get Started Shopping More Ethically

Here are some tips for you guys in case you feel inspired to start purchasing ethical items:

  1. Try, just try for me please – try to go thrifting. I know a lot of girls get discouraged the first time since they are not sure how to find the best pieces. Here is a guide that I recommend (and fun fact: I used this one back in my high school days trying to go thrifting too).
  2. Enjoy the idea of buying vintage! I love nothing more than feeling an item that has a story behind it, and giving it a second life. It is a great feeling, but also much better for the environment, and it creates jobs, as now there is a whole market for vintage vendors! Learn to love vintage. It makes you a true fashionista and is great for the world as a whole.
  3. Donate your clothes or hold clothing swaps, friends! I have literally seen people throw clothes away in the trash and it hurts my soul. Those clothes will end up in a landfill and we have no idea how long it takes for soil to break those patent leather red boots you just chucked in the bin. What will the earth want to do with that? Respect your mother earth, okay?
  4. Sell stuff back, if you don’t donate it. IF you are not simply the giving type, at least sell your stuff at consignment or secondhand stores to maintain those secondhand sellers’ jobs, and make money off of your ability to keep clothing intact.
  5. If you feel the need to buy something for yourself that is brand spanking new, then shop ethically. This means to buy something that was produced in healthy conditions by a company that offers fair wages and decent hours for their employees. Some companies choose to have a focus that they cater to, so some companies cater to vegans like me, who don’t want any leather or gelatin or beeswax or honey in their stuff. Others focus on sustainably sourced animal products and fair trade metals. Just keep in mind that these brand new items will have a higher price tag, though they will also be of higher quality than anything you got at FashionNova.

If You’re Going to Buy New, Here Are Some Ethical Stores:

Now then! Let me just name drop some brands that I love and respect and consider the cream of the crop, just to give you all a head start on ethical living.

  • Everlane, the queen of ethical clothing. Pricey, but you will live in those silk blouses for years and they will Not. Lose. Their. Shape. Ever. Trust me.
  • Patagonia, the company that gives back and swears to use the highest standards when producing clothing. They are very pro-environment which I love, love, love.
  • Fortress of Inca, sustainably produced shoes from Peru, based in my town Austin!
  • Mooshoes, for my vegans out there in need of a shoe website to shop from.
  • Reformation for my girls who are willing to spend a pretty penny on their gowns for formal (or you can join me as I scour the website every week wishing I had the money to buy a jumpsuit for myself). Lovely unique designs, too. Very Instagram-worthy and definitely the most fashion forward site of the bunch.
  • Etsy is my OG, this is where I score fabulous vintage designer pieces at low prices. Anything you want, from goat milk soap to a knit fisherman sweater…it is all there.
  • eBay is a big one too, although I will be honest – I have never had great luck shopping vintage on eBay. But I will persevere and find something great on there one day.

Find More Information on Ethical Fashion:

If this article speaks to you on many levels (we should be friends) and you need more information on ethical fashion, check out Youtuber Kristen Leo, who offers a playlist of videos on this topic.

We’ve also covered ethics and fashion before in shorter form, and have featured ethical fashion retailers before.

If you want to go further into depth on the subject, check out our list of our favorite ethical fashion books.

Also, I strongly recommend watching the documentary called The True Cost on Netflix. It was very eye opening, and I recommend it to literally everyone I know.

And the website The Fair Trade has a list of approved shops to consider.

Finally, this might sound like a long shot, but just search the hashtags #ecofashion or #ethicalfashion on Instagram! A lot of ethical boutiques and websites have pages on Instagram and they are using hashtags hoping that people will find them! So go, go, go, go!

What do you think about ethical fashion?

This concludes my lesson for the day, guys! I hope this was helpful and at least sparked some interest on your part!

Seriously, the fashion industry is so lovely and creative and magical…but it cannot just continue this irresponsible behavior. As long as we educate everyone about the reality behind the clothing, I think we will be off to a good start.

4 thoughts on “What is Ethical Fashion, Anyway? A Crash Course for College Girls”

  1. I tend to buy clothing that is of somewhat good quality, and with a timeless style. I rarely buy trendy clothing. Sometimes I still wear some things I wore 10 years ago, and because I take care of my clothing (I separate by colors, hand-wash whatever needs to be hand washed, I mend little holes or replace buttons as soon as I notice) so my clothes, even the Walmart stuff, lasts for years or decades (I’m still 22, so I only have tops from 10 years ago, because I grew a little since then). Another culprit that damages a lot of clothing is the dryer. In the US many people put everything in the dryer, and it literally eats the clothes. Anything that has spandex or elastic just melts and remelts everytime you put in the dryer. In Europe, Australia and most part of the world, clothes are air dryed, and thus, they last way longer.

  2. This post is wonderful! Thanks for suggesting some stores at the end, it’s so difficult to know where to start.

  3. I could kiss you for writing this post. I am also very passionate about this movement and am really glad to see the message being shared here.


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