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How to Transition to Sustainable & Ethical Fashion in 2024 (Guide)

We’ve all heard the horror stories about fast fashion: how it exploits workers, uses up precious resources, and inundates the planet with trash. But we’re all so used to being able to buy cute, cheap stuff whenever we want.

Changing a habit can be tough, especially when it’s something you enjoy. Finding a great deal on something shiny and new is always thrilling!

If you think ‘sustainable’ is code for ‘expensive,’ think again. You needn’t spend a fortune or trash the Earth to look great. Read on to learn how to transition to sustainable and ethical fashion this spring:

12 Easy Tips to Transition to Sustainable & Ethical Fashion

1. Start With the Classics

No one is suggesting that you stop shopping altogether. This is about shifting mindset, not going cold turkey. By consciously seeking out timeless pieces made from quality fabrics, they will last longer.

This is an important and often neglected aspect of sustainability. You’ll get a lot more wear out of one well-tailored little black dress made from silk or wool than five flimsy polyester knock-offs. If you’re in the market for bridal earrings, don’t just hop on the latest hot trend, knowing that you’ll only wear those huge chandeliers once. Invest in classics like pearl dangle earrings instead. Not only will you reduce your consumption, but you’ll also get to relive the magic moments of your wedding day whenever you wear them.

Before buying one more thing, do a quick check for versatility and durability. If it’s obvious that you’ll only wear the item once or twice, take a pass and look for something better.

Check out this enlightening video by TEDx Talks to learn more:


2. Shop Your Closet

The average person has over 100 items in her closet. Many of us have much more. Another step you can take today to make your wardrobe more sustainable is to wear what you already own. There’s a good chance you’ve forgotten about some hidden gem.

We buy 60% more clothes than we did 20 years ago, and we get rid of them just as quickly. More than half of the fast-fashion bought today gets thrown away within a year, and 20% or more is not even worn once before being discarded! 

Wearing the clothes in your wardrobe is one of the easiest ways to cut wastefulness and carbon emissions. Fast fashion is all about fast turnover. A truckload of textiles gets incinerated or dumped every minute. We can do better. Buy clothes that don’t unravel the first time you put them on and be sure to wear what you buy.

Sustainable and ethical fashion - shop your closet for forgotten gems - stock image of an open closet stuffed with clothes

3. Check Out Consignment

Shopping is addictive, and it can be a hard habit to break. Another step you can take on the road to sustainability is to buy secondhand. By shopping at a consignment store, you reduce your carbon footprint by keeping more clothing out of the landfill.

Consignment is an especially good idea for those special event items that you know you won’t wear more than a couple of times. Secondhand saves you money too, making it an all-around win.

4. Respect Your Stuff

Another simple action you can take today is to take good care of your clothes. Following the instructions on the label helps to extend their life, and keeps them looking good for longer. If it says ‘hang to dry’ don’t bake it in the dryer.

If you only wear an item for a short time, sometimes simply hanging it outside is enough to refresh it. No one is suggesting that you stop washing your clothes. But if you only wore a sweater for an hour — or only tried it on before tossing it aside for something else — it probably doesn’t need to go to the laundry right now.

Sustainable and ethical fashion - shop your closet for forgotten gems - stock image of the care label inside a knitted garment

Jeans don’t generally need to be washed every time you wear them either. When you do the laundry, run a full load. Before buying anything made from polyester, also keep in mind that not only is it made from non-renewable petroleum, but it also releases microplastics in the wash.

On that front, use liquid detergent rather than powder. Liquid causes less friction, releasing fewer microfibers. Simply hanging up your clothes will keep them looking good for longer, not to mention save them from being stepped on, chewed by pets, or used as playthings by kids.

5. Reboot Your Brain

The biggest thing you can do to create a sustainable and ethical fashion wardrobe is to change the way you think about shopping. Mindlessly clicking ‘buy now’ is not only unfriendly behavior toward the planet, it’s disrespectful toward yourself. Your bank account won’t thank you either.

Rather than go for the temporary rush, think long-term. Before buying anything, ask yourself, Is this something I can see myself wearing next year? If you can’t definitely answer Yes, don’t buy it. Never shop when hungry, tired, or bored. Keep a wishlist and refer back to it before making any purchases. Mindful consumption is essential for making meaningful change.

6. Reuse & Recycle

Another way to up your stakes in the sustainability game is to repurpose old clothes. Use your new sewing skills to transform a pair of jeans into a bag, apron, or kindle cover. Old tees can become pillows, scarves, or dog toys. Another option for better-quality items is to resell them.

Online consignment is big and getting bigger. Check out thredUP, Poshmark, and The RealReal. It can be a one-stop kind of thing: trade in your old stuff for something new-to-you! At a minimum, any unwanted but still wearable clothes should be donated to a reputable charity (i.e., not one that will just dump it). Clothes looking pretty beat up? Turn them into rags. Anything that keeps stuff out of landfills is a plus for the planet.

7. Boost Your Skills

Learning to sew is another great way to lessen your carbon footprint. Fast fashion is designed to fall apart, so you have to buy more. By learning a few basics like sewing buttons and hems, you can really extend the life of your clothes. You’re much more likely to wear clothes that are in good shape. This is a small thing you can learn to do that makes you look good and helps the Earth too.

Sustainable and ethical fashion - image of hands sewing fabric by hand

8. Borrow

For special events like a wedding where you know you’ll only wear the dress once, rather than buying new, consider asking friends or family members if they have something they can lend you. This isn’t about being cheap, although it will save you money too. It’s about acting responsibly toward the planet. And you can almost certainly return the favor one day.

9. Dispose Responsibly

Less than 25% of donated clothing gets resold. The rest gets burned, trashed, or winds up in the ocean. The amount of waste could easily clothe the world several times over. Check out your local resources by typing in ‘clothes recycling [location]’. Do all you can to avoid adding to the garbage heap.

10. Hold a Swap Meet

It’s a fact that most of us have too much stuff. But as we keep mentioning, tossing all this stuff into the trash isn’t a responsible solution either. One fun way to declutter and score new items without having to buy any of it is to hold an exchange.

Contact friends, family, and neighbors to set up a time and place to hold your swap. Don’t feel limited to apparel either. Housewares, furniture, tools, anything you don’t use anymore is fair game. Trading is a fantastic way to cut down on waste and give items new life.

Sustainable and ethical fashion - image of a pile of folded clothes with a sign that says "clothes swap today"

11. Be Choosy

You’ve committed to reducing, sharing, and caring, but let’s get real. You’ll still need to buy some stuff brand new some of the time. When you shop for new items, read labels carefully. Look for organic plant fibers, especially cotton (a very thirsty plant), and sustainably-harvested animal fibers, including down. Then do your research.

Make sure any company making eco-friendly claims can back them up. It is estimated that some 60% of sustainability claims are not true. H&M is the worst offender, with a shameful 96% of its claims being misleading or downright false. Earth-friendly fashion is a very hot commodity, which unfortunately means there is a strong incentive for brands to exaggerate their’ greenness.

Seek out reputable endorsements, like Vegan. Cruelty-free, GOTS, OEKO-TEX, and Certified B-Corporations. Check out the Good On You app to learn more about ethical brands.

12. Consume Wisely, No Planet B

There is nowhere else for us to live. We must make do with the planet we have. But the situation is far from hopeless. Consumers have power. By signaling what we want to fashion manufacturers, we can make positive changes, reduce waste, and create a brighter future. If there is a market for truly sustainable and ethical fashion, producers will make it!

A Final Word – Be Kind to Yourself

No one is perfect. If you slip up and fall victim to the H&M sale rack, don’t beat yourself up. Wear what you bought, if only as a reminder to do better next time. Shopping for sustainable and ethical fashion isn’t hard; it’s just a matter of developing a new way of thinking. The reward of a cleaner, healthier planet is most definitely worth the extra effort!

Frequently Asked Questions

What should I do with the fast fashion I already own?

Wear it. Then pass it along to someone else who will wear it. If it is no longer wearable, upcycle it into a craft or recycle it as a rag. Get as much mileage as possible from every piece of clothing you own. Read the full guide for on how to lessen the impact of fast fashion.

What is the difference between eco-friendly, green, ethical, and sustainable fashion? 

Eco-friendly and green fashion refers to production practices, such as spraying fewer pesticides or using non-toxic dyes. Ethical and sustainable fashion has a broader application and includes things like fair wages, working conditions, animal welfare, and other moral issues. Check out the full guide to learn more about ethical and sustainable fashion.

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing is a marketing technique used to make a product sound environmentally friendly when it is not. Greenwashing is misleading the consumer into thinking a product an eco-friendly product when it is not in fact any different to the non-eco-friendly version, or, exaggerating the eco-friendly aspects of a product to make it sound more sustainable than it really is. Check out the full guide to learn more.

What is the single best way to get started with sustainable fashion?

The best way to start is to wear what you already own. This step is also super easy and involves spending no additional money or time — except inside your own closet! Check out the full guide for more easy, practical tips on switching to sustainable fashion.


BBC: How to Buy Clothes that are Good for the Climate Most Sustainable Fashion Brands

Good on You

Greenpeace: We Can Change the World with a Fashion Revolution

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