On the morning of April 24, 2013, I was sitting at a computer in Northern Uganda organizing the paperwork for a shipment of cotton. Ginning machines whirred in the background.
At the time, I was working for an agricultural company that helped improve the livelihoods of poor cotton farmers in the region.
Suddenly, I saw a message from my friend Shahd about a garment factory that had collapsed in Bangladesh earlier that day. Workers were trapped inside and thousands were feared dead.
The gravity of the fact that I didn’t know where our company’s cotton would end up hit me for the first time. Would the cotton our farmers had worked so hard to produce end up in a factory like this one?
Then I looked down at the bright, pink, neon t-shirt I'd bought for next-to-nothing at H&M, and I had a moment of clarity.
I was a development professional who was committed to changing lives for the better, but I'd never thought to ask about the people who made my clothes. It hadn’t occurred to me to question if they were paid unfair wages or worked in unsafe conditions like the ones I was reading about.
That spring, Shahd and I started looking further into the fashion industry. We talked to suppliers, designers, and retailers to understand how the supply chain worked. We asked our friends where they shopped and why.
The two of us quickly realized that information about clothing production is extremely difficult to find. That's why we eventually founded Project JUST: an online platform that brings shoppers the stories behind their clothes.
The choices we make every day accumulate in real, lasting change. It's time we start demanding more transparency. We can make sure those farmers in Uganda who cut and sew cotton into clothing have dignity in their work.
Here are five small changes you can make to become a more ethical clothing shopper:
1. Watch "The True Cost."
This documentary, currently available on Netflix, is the perfect thing to kick off your transformative shopping journey. The True Cost offers an illuminating look into the clothes we wear, the people who create them, and the impact the fashion industry has on our environment and our world. Check out fashionrevolution.org for screenings happening around you. Disclaimer: Once the final credits roll, you may find that you don’t feel like shopping for a long time.
2. Don’t buy any clothes for one month.
These days, ever-changing fashion trends and advertising schemes influence people to buy clothes at an unsustainable rate. This feeds the crazy fast-fashion machine. As long as people continue to buy lots of cheap clothes, companies will keep producing them; oftentimes at the expense of factory workers.
Cut back on your consumption by taking a month-long shopping hiatus. To some, this may sound really easy (it’s actually not), and to others it may seem impossible (it’s not that hard).
3. Shop like all the cool kids: shop vintage.
After you take your month off, gradually return to shopping by visiting vintage, consignment, and thrift shops. These stores often offer items that are higher in quality, lower in price, and served alongside an interesting story. Buying vintage is more responsible, since you’re not using new resources but reusing old ones. Not to mention that it’s more thrilling, because you never know what you're going to find!
4. Do the math.
Only shop firsthand when you’re looking for a staple piece to add to your wardrobe or need a basic item that you haven’t been able to find secondhand. And before you make any new purchase, pause for a second and think about the bigger picture.
The cheaper the clothing, the more likely it is that people cut corners to make it. When visiting a fast-fashion store, you run the risk of choosing a piece that came from a factory that has unsafe working conditions, pollutes the environment, or plays into an unethical supply chain.
If a shirt is the same price as a bag of candy, something probably isn’t right. Opting for more-expensive, higher-quality items that will last you years will help put an end to this unhealthy system.
5. Do your research.
Ensure that the brands you're supporting deserve your money by looking into their transparency, labor conditions, and environmental practices. Think about what issues matter most to you: Do you care if your clothing was made using chemicals? Do you want to support your local economy by buying pieces that were made in the U.S.? Do you care if the people who made your clothes were paid a living wage?