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?

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Nancy

Patty:
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.

Sandy:
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.

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