Really, Anyone Can Shop Clothing Sustainably

Photo: Keri Wiginton

Elizabeth Cline’s 2013 book, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, is canon for people who want to learn about sustainable fashion. But it’s pretty bleak — describing the combination of environmental ruin and human-rights violations fast fashion has wrought. And although she didn’t know it at the time, it left the door open for her second book. Overdressed outlined the problem, and her second, out today, outlines the solution. The Conscious Closet is essentially a guide to how to shop sustainably, and hopefully change the culture of clothing. We spoke with the former New York Magazine writer about the importance of mending your clothes, and why sustainability doesn’t have to mean buying only eco-friendly brands.

Sarah Spellings: When did you start getting interested in sustainable fashion?

Elizabeth Cline: I was really not into shopping for a long time. I thought fashion was sort of silly and I dealt with that by shopping really cheaply. When I finished writing [Overdressed] people immediately started asking me, “What do I wear?” And I wasn’t ready to answer that question. I don’t think the world was ready to answer that question. It was 2012 and we were just trying to figure out what sustainable fashion was going to mean.

Over time, the more that I wrote about clothing, the more I started to love fashion. People think the opposite is going to happen: if you become a conscious fashion consumer, you’re going to not look stylish. But I love my wardrobe. [Writing about sustainable fashion] has helped me cultivate a personal style.

SS: I like how [The Conscious Closet] breaks everything down into digestible pieces. Which I imagine was kind of hard if you’ve never written how-to stuff, since you have a journalism background.

EC: For a while, I resisted [writing a guide]. I was like, “We need to fix this on an industry level and at a government level.” But this is the information people are looking for.

SS: That’s one of the things that was really interesting to me. In the sustainable fashion community, the conversation tends to focus on structural change over individual action. Which it is, in terms of putting a dent in climate change. How do you balance the efficacy of individual action versus structural action in the book?

EC: I’m an activist and I lobbied heavily for industry and government change. But the average person gets into social issues through what they buy and how they shop. The book is really about meeting people where they’re at, which I don’t control. A lot of times, when you give people an easy solution first, they take that into their lives and then it evolves into something greater than that.

SS: That’s a good point. I don’t know any sustainable fashion people who don’t buy sustainable or ethical fashion for themselves, regardless of how often they campaign for system-wide change. I fall in that category.

EC: You’ll notice that the book is not really geared toward buying. It’s about recognizing quality. It’s about building a wardrobe and loving what you’ve got. It’s about mending your clothes. It’s about sustainable laundry techniques. There’s space between individual actions and structural change, and I think it’s culture that’s in the middle. The culture is these habits and rituals and customs that we develop, that need to exist outside of buying.

SS: On your Instagram, you talk a lot about mending techniques. When did we stop mending and repairing our clothing writ large?

EC: The shift away from home sewing and mending started back in the 1970s and accelerated in the 1980s just because mass-market clothing started to get cheaper. But it was the rise of fast fashion and really, really, really cheap clothing in the late ’90s, early 2000s, that just totally killed off so many other aspects of our clothing culture. Even if you go back 15 years, you could read stories in magazines about mending or stain-removal techniques or how to buy a good fabric. I would say there’s been two generations that have grown up learning that clothing is just this symbolic product that you consume. When it’s really so much more than that. Shopping is just one piece of it.

SS: What else? What are the other pieces?

EC: Understanding how to make clothing last longer, how to wash them correctly, appreciating clothes for their physical properties and understanding what textile you’re wearing. It’s not just like, this is what’s cool to wear.

Our movement always gets compared to the food movement, which I think is fair. If you go back 15 years ago, people would have been like, what does life look like outside of shopping in a grocery store or eating at a fast-food chain? So we had to build this whole other food culture that’s everything from farmer’s markets to farm-to-table restaurants. And all of that stuff seemed strange. That’s where we’re at with fashion.

SS: When you’re looking to buy something new, how do you go about it?

EC: I’ll answer that. But I want people to know that what I do is not what they have to do.

I have a very specific sense of style. My first step is asking if it’s something really trendy. Am I going to buy that thing and then regret it in a couple of weeks because everybody has one, or does it fit into my personal aesthetic? And then I start looking. I will always try to find a sustainable, secondhand, or ethical brand that might make something similar to what I’m looking for. And if I can’t find that, I look for the best quality item. But I definitely still buy conventional brands. The main difference for me is that I really try really, really, really hard to find a permanent member of the collection. To me that’s the most sustainable thing you can do is try to buy something you know you’re going to wear.

SS: Another thing I hear from people is that sustainable fashion is too expensive. What are the sustainable options for people who can’t afford sustainable fashion?

EC: For people who are shopping fast-fashion brands and are probably going to continue to do that, I think it’s important to support the brands that are making efforts to be more sustainable and ethical. Maybe this is controversial, but to me that would mean supporting H&M and Zara who had very clear sustainability goals over a company like Forever 21 or Fashion Nova that doesn’t.

I rely on Good On You and some of the other ethical fashion grading forms to figure out which brands are doing something. The other thing I always encourage people to do is to use their voice. Say you buy all of your clothes from Ross Dress for Less. That company owes the garment workers in L.A. thousands of dollars in back pay. Get on Instagram and say, “I really liked shopping here. But I care about worker’s rights. What are you doing about this issue?” And obviously I go on and on about this is the book, but resale is one of the cheapest ways that you can build a sustainable closet.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Really, Anyone Can Shop Clothing Sustainably