I’m Not a Fashion Omnivore

This I Wear | I'm Not A Fashion Omnivore

Recently, I was visiting my brother, whom I totally and utterly credit with introducing to me to sustainable agriculture way back when it made a huge impact on what I have pursued in my life and work. He and his wife have both worked on farms extensively and every time I’m with them, I eat the most delicious, unexpected and almost entirely vegetarian meals. With them, there are no labels – the goal is simply to eat nutritious local food. But outside of this bubble, this diet would undoubtedly be labeled as vegetarian, making it sound much more high maintenance than it is.

Back in New York, everyone is high maintenance and has her own “special diet.” With all of the labels out there – vegetarian, vegan, gluten free, raw, Paleo – I’ve come to expect everyone to have their own diet boundaries. With all of these new diets, it’s easy to forget that there was a time when simply being vegetarian was surprising. Now, in most parts of the US, I’d like to think we’ve moved beyond the surprise.

But when it comes to fashion, a constrained diet is still surprising. And as a fashion “vegetarian”, what I want is often not on the menu. And though there are rare interactions with others who feel the same way and can share tips, it’s still a small tribe that is trying to find each other, mostly because there are lots of labels by which we call ourselves: minimalists, ethical shoppers, conscious consumers, sustainable fashion shoppers, and more that I probably don’t even know.

But I do know that I’m not a fashion omnivore. I’m pretty picky about what I will buy, but the fashion companies and retailers are like the crazy family in My Big Fat Greek Wedding: “He don’t eat meat?! Ok, I’ll make lamb.” They are still trying to make me “eat” things that aren’t in my fashion diet.

So what’s the ethical fashion diet, the “vegetarianism” of the shopping world?

Well the “meat” for me is pretty obvious. It’s fast fashion and it’s totally disposable. It is the $5 t-shirt, the slouchy pants that will be out of style within the next 6 months, and the sandblasted jeans that endangered the workers making them. It is definitely off the table.

But the “lamb” of my diet (or the fish or whatever someone mistakenly thinks vegetarians can eat) is the hardest part to explain and sometimes even difficult for me to recognize without reading the “ingredient list.” It is the clothing made by companies whose values and practices are questionable (e.g. American Apparel’s misogynistic CEO means I personally won’t shop with them) and the “made in USA” pieces that are produced in sweatshop conditions. Right now, the only safe thing we can assume from a “made in USA” label is that it provided jobs for people living in America. We can’t assume it was made by American citizens, that the job is in safe conditions, or that the quality is higher. We can’t even assume that the carbon footprint is smaller (fiber, fabrics and trim could have been imported).

Also in this category are the high quality pieces that might last forever but were made using questionable materials, whether fur or other animal products that are inhumanely produced, unsustainable fibers, conflict minerals or other controversially harvested materials. These issues are still tricky, and often may require compromise at times. As in the example of my bamboo scarf, I didn’t know it wasn’t in my diet until after I bought it. Sometimes we have to ask and research what the “ingredients” are and even then, we may still make mistakes for now.

But what about the “vegetables”? What are they and where are they?

Imagine if instead of going to the grocery store, you had to visit a different farm to find every kind of vegetable: it would be hard to know what vegetables exist or where the farms were. Not only would you be frustrated and inconvenienced, but you might be malnourished too. Well, that’s kind of how I view the state of ethical fashion right now: decentralized and disorganized.

As sad as that might sound, there are a lot of bright spots if you know where to look, and it’s been my goal this year to see this abundance. They are the handmade, the holistically sustainable, the secondhand and “second life” items, and the people who are so committed to providing safe and fulfilling work to their employees of the fashion world. They exist, but they just aren’t written on the menu yet. You have to ask for them.

Luckily, it’s easier than ever to connect with small production designers and makers online through platforms like Of a Kind, Madesmith and Etsy. Companies are starting to opt in for certifications and legal designations like B-Corporations that signal to the shopper that they are committed to creating more value in the world than just a good product. And smart people from bloggers to start-ups to established companies are starting to figure out their own boundaries are, which means communication on these important issues is improving, whether it’s easier to look up the information or it’s printed right on the label.

All of the above are merely examples of what your constraints might be in each category: what’s clearly off the table, what requires more inquiry or compromise for now, and what will make us jump up and down because it’s exactly what we’re looking for. It’s worth it to make these decisions for yourself, even if it takes time.

As for me, I might still have to work hard to find the vegetables, but when someone offers me the proverbial meat or fish, I say “no thanks” because I’m simply not hungry for that meal anymore.

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  4. Claire

    Thanks – I’m joining you. I’m a vegan and recently have wondered how I’ll gradually extend this same principle into other areas of life. The first part for me to accept in it is, you might have to spend more money on items. And the second, that some items won’t be available.

    Case in point: Okay because I’m vegan I cannot purchase leather boots, so I have to get them made of another material. Most of the boots made of fake-leather are from cheapie companies which I often cannot tell if they have any ethical standards for lack of info. Even among vegans who promote/advertise shoes, I cannot tell if/what consideration has been given to such promotion other than they aren’t made of animals. For example… ?

    • Rebecca

      Hi Claire, the vegan shoe issue is interesting. On the one hand, there are really high end designers working on this (Stella McCartney). And at the opposite end is purchasing leather substitute shoes from companies that chose that material for its price and not for its vegan-ness! But there are lots of interesting companies that are starting to fill the void and focus on quality and affordability. Check out Bhava shoes and Cri de Coeur to start – both are vegan and ethically produced.

      But to your other point, I think more broadly, we have to start paying more for things. Not because things are suddenly more expensive (though material costs are rising) but because we haven’t been paying the real value of what things cost for a long time, i.e. market prices are going to rise as they gradually start to reflect the true cost of human labor and natural resources. Right now, a lot of fashion products are un-sustainably low – the $5 t-shirt example. The ideal situation is when the cost of an item reflects the real and ethical cost of production, materials and labor (this reminds me to read more economic books so I can use the correct terms for these forces). However, it will mean that we have to change our buying behavior because buying at the quantity we are right now won’t be possible when prices rise.

      • Claire

        Good points about which I agree Rebecca, including that things need to reflect their true price. Hopefully I won’t need to purchase shoes for a long-while, but thanks a lot for writing back with the tips. Presently I’m just in a purchase-less stint, becoming minimalist. I think it’s increasing my patience; like I needed a new vegan handbag and waited maybe a year and just found one that ticked all the boxes (vegan, good size and comfortable fit, from an Oxfam store, about a five minute walk from my home).
        Hey question, do you just focus on clothes or does all of this work throughout the aspects of your life?

        • Rebecca

          Hey Claire, congrats on your sweet handbag find! I love those sorts of serendipitous discoveries. Here on the blog, my main focus is clothing and accessories – anything that goes into our closets – but because I personally apply these ideas to all aspects of my life, I can’t help but sometimes post on related things, from my home to my hobbies to travel etc. If you have ideas for topics you’d like me to cover, I’d love to hear them! Feel free to email me at rebecca [at] thisiwear.com if it’s easier. Welcome!

    • Rebecca

      Thanks Sumeera! I really enjoy Madesmith, especially the blog and how I always know the site will introduce me to someone and something new.

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  6. Dus Katrina

    This is such an absolutely fantastic post!! I also loved reading Kristian’s thoughtful question & your excellent answer to it. I kind of think of US factories being like restaurants, the fast food joint I worked at in HS would know when the inspections were coming and tidy everything up the day before, everyone had to act extra nice, etc. but then things would go back to normal, while I’m sure other restaurants had great conditions in general as well. The conditions in the fast food restaurant sure weren’t anything deplorable, and my latin american husband’s experience working in fast food back home as a teenager as well were much worse, particularly in how he was treated by managers, yet there was a general lack of respect for workers at my old work as well, us being pretty dispensable, so I have to question how factory workers would be treated anywhere that doesn’t mention specifically their treatment. We also always joke about a truck billboard over here we always see that touts “made in america” because of what you mentioned, all the materials being imported and perhaps just assembled here, although it does create jobs here of course, there are also surely a lot of tax benefits the companies get (which you of course can’t blame them for in competitive industries but definitely a lot to consider). Anyway, I love your analogy of the “lamb” items, and would also recommend Storenvy.com as a place to search for small businesses (there are a lot of non-handmade items, but also a lot of awesome, handmade shops on there). B corps are also great, I’m excited for that to gain momentum in the future, but also would add that a lot of really really small businesses likely are B corps in practice but not registered because of the cost to register (personally I found it cost prohibitive, but I’m also on a teeny tiny budget for my shop : ).

    • Rebecca

      Thanks Dus. Yes, and your response reminds me that I should clarify that it’s not that we only need to question these working conditions in the US, but just that the idea of working conditions internationally is a constant source of conversation whereas in the “Made in USA” debate, it seems that the idea of unethical factories doesn’t come up. And you also make great points about job creation in the US (important whether you’re a legal or illegal worker) and the economic benefits that come along with that. Taking it one step further, you can also argue the importance of keeping industry and certain trade knowledge in the US, which is also worth considering. But again, I’m just stirring things up to get us to question our “Made In USA” assumptions :)

      I haven’t heard of Storenvy. Looking forward to checking that out!

      • Dus Katrina

        Def agree! I’m all for stirring things up to get people talking and asking questions : ). Storenvy is an e-commerce platform, similar to Etsy. It’s what I use as my main shop for Mitla Moda (and will soon use it to host on my own domain, which is a really cool option they offer). I’m part of a Facebook SE community group of small biz owners that is extremely supportive & helpful, and there are some great shops I def recommend. I did a post on some of my favorite things on there a while back, in case you wanted to see: http://cuddlycacti.blogspot.com/2014/03/currently-coveting.html
        Lu & Ed in particular uses all fabric scraps for her creations, which I love from a sustainability point of view, not to mention everything being super cute, not that that has to do w/ clothing but anyway..

  7. Kristian

    As someone who lives somewhere where it WOULD be surprising to find vegitarians, the analogy made me laugh though I think this is a really interesting point. How odd that we don’t have more of these conversations about clothing.

    For example, I am curious and feeling a bit ignorant about your “Made in America” point. I guess, I’ve always assumed that if an item is made in America, you are at the very least, ensured that workers are paid minimum wage (and have access to government aid if needed), the possibility to get benefits from their job, and that at minimum their workplaces will live up to OCSHA standards and there are limits to hours worked etc. I mean, I thought that the law required those things (not that minimum wage is enough in many places to live well or even off of government assistance but …). So, I’m curious and eager to know more. Have you come across instances where this is untrue or perhaps where things are iffy, or is it rather, even if all of those things I’d assumed are true, that you feel those conditions are still not good enough (as I know very little about these conditions, I don’t know!)

    • Rebecca

      Hi Kristian, great questions!

      The Made in America issue is so much bigger than I can adequately respond to in a comment – I really should do a post about this soon. We have minimum wage laws in the US and obviously many workplace standards. This does not mean that many factories are not without violations. Especially knowing that there are illegal immigrants employed within factories supporting the fashion industry, there is a lot of opportunity for violations, such as overtime or inadequate pay. I can also say that the more that I’ve learned about many garment factories specifically in LA and NYC, the working conditions and facilities might surprise a lot of Americans.

      That said (and recognizing that a lot more explanation is needed), I think a lot of people blindly subscribe to the idea of “Made in USA” without really understanding what that means or who is truly making their clothes. And some companies ARE doing this really well – companies like Alabama Chanin, Billy Reid, and Raleigh Denim are just a few of the companies trying to source their whole product (or at least a few of their products) entirely within the US. In that example, we can assume a much lower carbon footprint and a win-win situation! Alabama Chanin specifically I know has very high standards for working conditions, wages and respect for workers. That’s the ideal, but that’s not the norm.

      I hope people will dig in to the “Made in USA” labels and question it before they equate it with “ethical fashion” or environmentally or socially responsible manufacturing. There’s definitely a lot more “meat” here too and I will try to address soon in a post.

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