For many companies (peddlers of clothing, food, and supplies), “back to school” means moolah! In a decade of fast fashion—the movement of people wearing clothes for a few months before buying new ones—back to school means MORE, MORE, MORE. Those jeans with the faux tears are so last month! (Don’t worry, though, they will be back in style by October…)

This isn’t a typical post for me at all. I am not exactly a fashionista. But before you middle-aged men close your computers, you may just want to read this and share with your teenagers! Because I think that fashion, what we put on the outside, decidedly tells us about our insides.

One of the ideas I am exploring this year is living richly—a search for meaning in a culture of more. And with back to school being the height of the shopping season (outside of the holidays), I think this matters tremendously.

Living richly cannot happen at the expense of someone else, and in the clothing industry, this is all to common. It is much easier to turn a blind eye than to confront the reality of our suffering world. But the reality we exist in is that much of our First World closets are stuffed to overflowing with textiles made by women and children who are underpaid, poorly treated, and/or are part of modern day slavery.

Some of the more common offenders are fast-fashion stores like H&M and Forever21, where you can buy a dress for less than a latte at Starbucks. And of course Walmart gets a bad rap for sweatshop production because of their low prices. However, some of the high-end clothing companies are no better, they just pocket a bigger margin of your sale price. Just because a shirt is more expensive, does not mean that the labourers who created it were paid fairly.

I am naturally inclined toward a good bargain, and have bought my share of clothes at fast-fashion stores, thinking I lucked out on a deal. But I am trying to move toward a more ethical way of being, slow fashion, and thinking about each purchase before I make it. Here are the three rules of thumb that I am trying to live by as I seek out what it means to live richly today, including with end of summer sales.

Buy Less, Buy Used, and Buy Ethically. In that order. 

1. Buy Less: We create space in our houses specifically to store all of our unused textiles and household products. Think about it. Our linen closets, our clothing closets, our garages, and basements. Most people wear only a fraction of their wardrobe on a regular basis.

Many individuals have taken up the cause of capsule wardrobes for this reason. The concept is to create a wardrobe out of a limited number of items that have universal appeal and can be combined to make many different outfits. I have been living with a capsule wardrobe for a few years now, and it takes a lot of the pressure off of getting dressed in the morning. Instead of wading through all of the clothes that I don’t really like to get to that shirt I must wear, I donated all of the clothes I don’t really like.

Courtney Carver of Project 333, is perhaps the most famous and one of the original capsule wardrobe aficionados. Her ideology is to only have 33 items in her wardrobe for 3 months at a time (shoes, accessories, tops, bottoms, and outerwear—she does not include pjs, workout clothes, or underwear). At the end of the season she can swap out the items in her storage, for seasonally appropriate pieces. I have a few more items than this in my wardrobe, but not many.

There are other benefits: many famous geniuses throughout history (including Albert Einstein) have been known to have several identical outfits so that they don’t waste “brain space” on deciding what to wear each morning. When I say “black, mock turtleneck,” you think Steve Jobs. Iconic! Maybe not fashion-forward, but certainly well branded.

As you shop for back to school, consider what you have already first, then look at what you need to add to it. And take it as an opportunity to donate anything that you don’t wear currently.

2. Buy Used: Buying used may still mean that you are purchasing clothing that was once made in a sweatshop, but it is one step further removed from a shady supply chain. It also ensures that an article of clothing (ethically sourced or not) does not end up in a landfill somewhere. If unethical practices produced that sweater that ends up in the landfill, how much more problematic is that?!

Thanks to a growing population dedicated to reducing, reusing, and recycling, there are innumerable stores where you can buy used clothing. Goodwill and Value Village do not monopolize the market on used clothing. High-end consignment shops offer everything from Coach bags to Prada heels and everything in between. And thanks to retail moving online, stores like thredup.com* and mcouture.com offer “pre-loved” treasures online for the shopper who doesn’t like to hit the mall!

3. Buy Ethically: Buying ethically is a lot more arbitrary and, admittedly, difficult, than buying less and buying used. Ethically sourced goods can be difficult to come by; not to mention, not all stores are honest or transparent about their supply chains. You cannot assume that workers were paid fairly based on a high price-point.

Organizations like Fashion Heroes are making it easier for people to do research on companies to see if they use ethical practices. Fair Trade, Direct Trade, and Rainforest Alliance are the most commonly used ethical sourcing certifications, but there are many others.

Huffington Post wrote on article naming several different ethical clothing brands (though most have a very high price point). Check out the brands here.

The bottom line is that I am beginning to consider the cost of my purchases. And by cost, I mean the human cost. But as a benefit, these three principles have saved me loads of time and money as well. Going into this fall I spent $8 on my wardrobe…one “new-to-me” shirt from a consignment shop in Newmarket. I just didn’t need anything else. What does your wardrobe need?

Have additional ideas? Leave a comment!

*If you live in the United States, thredup.com offers great quality, used clothing at great prices, but if you live North of the border, the customs fees hardly make it worth it.

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