My ethical fashion mission: parties, voluminous shorts and a year of second hand

Swishing photo

photo: Nick Cobbing

I used to be a pretty frivolous shopper. I hate to admit that, but there it is. I bought items of clothing with little thought for their origins –  for the people who made them or the environmental consequences attached to them. I vaguely recognised there were problems with the fast fashion industry, but it seemed too much like hard work to go looking for alternatives options when I could get what I needed so easily, and so cheaply.

But as I became increasingly aware of the real issues behind the labels – once I’d read books such as Lucy Siegle’s To Die For and Naomi Klein’s No Logo –  I couldn’t continue justifying my habits to myself. I resolved to take action.

I knew I needed to start by changing my personal approach, because any protest on fashion would be hollow without a genuine attempt by myself to stop funding a broken industry. But while ethical fashion was becoming both increasingly available and desirable, it wasn’t necessarily easily affordable. So I  needed some additional, alternative approaches.

As a way of testing out some options, I set myself a number of challenges. They included trying out Project 333 –  an online experiment that asks you to dress in no more than 33 items for three months – wearing only second-hand clothes for a whole year, and becoming a swisher (which involved attending clothes swaps, also sometimes known as ‘naked lady’, parties).

The results inspired a chapter in my own book, The Armchair Activist’s Handbook, which is all about finding accessible and fun ways to make a difference in the world.

There were difficulties, without a doubt. A couple of bad choices for Project 333 caused me considerable frustration during the winter months (poorly fitting voluminous shorts and a cardigan sporting multiple holes were the main offenders). Then there were the gleaming high street stores, tempting me. And I was, frankly, a little bit scared of clothes swaps and the every-woman-for-themselves atmosphere I expected to find there.

photo: Nick Cobbing

photo: Nick Cobbing

But together, these little challenges began to change my shopping habits, and it was genuinely enjoyable. When I’d started out, I fully expected to get fed up somewhere along the line. Instead, I loved the experience. I began to relish discovering unique vintage or second-hand finds, looked forward to the friendly and sociable atmosphere at swishing parties and felt less and less like going to high street shops.

Meanwhile, Project 333 had made me see that I didn’t need as many clothes as I’d previously thought. There were plenty of things sitting in my cupboards unworn week after week, so I now made a concerted efforted to give my less-loved items away. I took some to organisations such as Traid, which resells some items and upcycles others to give them a new lease of life. Others I used as currency at swishing events.

Finally, my journey also led me to resources – such as Style With Heart – that made ethical shopping easier.

All this made up my mind. I decided I was going to stay away from the high street, and stay away from fast fashion. I had so many different options for my purchases now. Plus, the longer I stayed away, the less I liked what fast fashion stood for and the more I couldn’t imagine ever going back.

Recently, I’ve started going to make and mend events, such as The Good Wardobe’s ‘Sew It Forward’ and Traid’s ‘Sew Good’, where I’ve managed to make some old broken items wearable again. I don’t have much spare time for this sort of thing, but I think that’s OK.  Because, after testing out the various options, I now realise that doing good doesn’t have to mean hard work.

Ethical fashion isn’t about that; like any fashion, it’s about finding clothes you love – clothes that make you feel and look good. For me, knowing that I’m also saving something from landfill or backing the fight against exploitation in the industry only increases an item’s value.

Ruth Stokes is a freelance journalist and author of The Armchair Activist’s Handbook. She tweets @armchairaction and @ruth_stokes

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