Sweatshops. Child labor. Toxic chemicals. Is it possible for a fashionista to dress herself and keep a clear conscience?

Advice on how to make the world better.
Feb. 25 2009 6:49 AM

Chic Without Guilt

Sweatshops. Child labor. Toxic chemicals. Is it possible for a fashionista to dress herself and keep a clear conscience?

Dear Patty and Sandy,
The only affordable retailer I know of that seems reliably concerned with the living standards of its foreign workers is the Gap. Unfortunately, I usually don't like the clothing there or at its Banana Republic or Old Navy stores. American Apparel makes its clothes in the United States, but it's obsessed with the youth market.

So I usually end up not buying many clothes, and I dress fairly badly as a result.  I know that, in the scheme of things, that doesn't matter much, but it's still too bad.  Other people still have to look at me. What's an ethical shopper to do?



Nancy, I feel your fashion pain, and at the same time I admire your commitment to positive buying, which broadly defined means favoring ethical products, be they fair trade, cruelty-free, organic, recycled, reused, or produced locally. Maybe you should start with "reused." Make it known to your friends that you are looking for a few "perfect" pieces that fit your style—you may be surprised with what they have unused in their closets. Clothing swaps are a growing way to do this kind of exchange while having a good time: Each invitee brings a few great pieces she is not using. At the end, any unswapped clothes go to charity. If you don't have the most fashion-conscious friends, try Dig N' Swap, which allows you swap-access to the excessive wardrobes of other eco-conscious fashion-seeking women. 

But I admit it: I love to shop.  My growing awareness of ethical consumerism has pushed me to change some major purchases. I remodeled with bamboo floors, buy fair-trade holiday gifts for friends, and whip out my Envirosax at the supermarket checkout. But because I've been afraid of hurting my style, I don't yet apply the same ethical standards to the clothes I buy. Your question is a valuable challenge for me to do better, and as you'll read in Sandy's answer, it inspired me and Sandy to go on a virtual shopping spree in search of fashionable, ethical clothes.

I'm often the beneficiary of my mom's purchasing power. While my mom-me-downs mean that I don't need to buy as much as I would otherwise, I'm still a sucker for our shared shopping hobby. While there are numerous Web sites that tell you which retailers to avoid, we would rather focus on the opposite: Which retailers are doing a good job?

For Nancy's new wardrobe, we set ourselves a limit of $721 (the average annual household expenditure on apparel divided by the size of the average household) to buy items based on style guru Tim Gunn's 10 essentials list. While it was frustrating at first, we found several Web sites with great styles that adhere to Nancy's requirements for fair trade. In fact, the items we found are all eco-friendly, too—but definitely not eco-frumpy. If neither of us would enjoy wearing it ourselves, it didn't make the cut. We had to cheat a bit and use several sale items to keep us near the limit—but who doesn't? While Nancy might have to spread her shopping out over the next year or two, these basics should be enough to keep her feeling stylishly ethical for years to come:

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com, and Patty and Sandy will try to answer it.

In our ongoing effort to do better ourselves, we're donating 25 percent of the proceeds from this column to ONE.org—an organization committed to raising public awareness about the issues of global poverty, hunger, and disease and the efforts to fight such problems in the world's poorest countries.

Patty Stonesifer is the chair of the Smithsonian Institution Board of Regents and a senior adviser to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where she was president, then CEO for 10 years. She spent the first two decades of her career in the technology business, where her last job was senior vice president at Microsoft.

Sandy Stonesifer works on issues related to adolescent girls' health at a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.



Don’t Worry, Obama Isn’t Sending U.S. Troops to Fight ISIS

But the next president might. 

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.

How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Here are the facts.

Altered State

The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender

What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?

Surprise! The Women Hired to Fix the NFL Think the NFL Is Just Great.

You Shouldn’t Spank Anyone but Your Consensual Sex Partner

Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
Altered State
Sept. 17 2014 11:51 PM The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
Sept. 17 2014 6:53 PM LGBTQ Luminaries Honored With MacArthur “Genius” Fellowships
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 6:14 PM Today in Gender Gaps: Biking
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 8:25 PM A New Song and Music Video From Angel Olsen, Indie’s Next Big Thing
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 9:00 PM Amazon Is Now a Gadget Company
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 17 2014 11:48 PM Spanking Is Great for Sex Which is why it’s grotesque for parenting.
Sports Nut
Sept. 17 2014 3:51 PM NFL Jerk Watch: Roger Goodell How much should you loathe the pro football commissioner?