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.