5 Fashion Activists On The Small Ways You Can Make Your Wardrobe More Ethical

The climate crisis has reached boiling point. The Amazon rainforest – known as 'the world's lungs' – is on fire, Greta Thunberg is doing more to raise global awareness than most world leaders by sailing across the Atlantic to attend UN climate summits, and Extinction Rebellion is staging a funeral for London Fashion Week this month to protest the industry’s contribution to global warming. 
Environmentally speaking, it’s a terrifying time and it can often feel like we have no agency as individuals. How much impact can we really make by cutting out meat, reducing our plastic consumption and using public transport when global leaders are climate change deniers and powerful corporations aren’t changing their harmful practices? It’s hard to know, but the best way to combat our collective eco-anxiety is by taking action. 
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In the past few years, education and resources for tackling fast fashion has improved tenfold. Thanks to initiatives like Oxfam’s #SecondHandSeptember, Extinction Rebellion’s Boycott Fashion pledge, and sites like Good On You, taking steps to change your fashion habits is easier than ever. There are still plenty of unresolved issues within sustainable fashion – its class problem, for example – but there are tireless campaigners and activists making the space as accessible as possible so that, as consumers, we can make small changes to benefit the planet. 
We asked five fashion activists how they stopped shopping fast fashion and reduced their wardrobe’s carbon footprint, from getting old pieces tailored to hunting for vintage treasures. 
Illustrated by Axelle Rose ZWARTJES.

Bronwyn Seier, Fashion Revolution 

When did you first commit to sustainable fashion? What was the turning point for you?
I became concerned by the ethical implications of the fashion supply chain about six years ago, after I began my BA in fashion design. As I learned to make clothes, I realised the labour intensive nature of everyday garments like a collared shirt. This made me question the cheap prices we pay for clothes on the high street. I figured, if it takes me two hours to cut and sew a T-shirt, even if a garment worker can do it in a quarter of that time on an assembly line, there's no way an £8 T-shirt can factor in a living wage.
What steps in fashion do you take on a daily basis to reduce your impact on the environment?
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I'm lucky because I work for an organisation that holds all of the information – and many of the solutions – to become a really conscious consumer and a wardrobe activist. My favourite impact-minimising tactic is to borrow clothes from friends. In life, there are many occasions where we want to wear something fancy, or special, and we might not wear it many times over. That's where sharing clothes can help minimise consumption, not to mention save money.
Earlier this summer Barnardo's released a study that estimated Brits will spend £800 million on outfits for a summer wedding that they'll only wear once. It's a pretty relatable situation, because many of us will be faced with a lineup of weddings and not feel inclined to put on the same dress for each one. Having borrowed dresses from my friends or my sister for many occasions, I can attest that it feels just as sparkly and exciting as buying new, without all the environmental havoc.
How hard have you found it to practise fashion consciousness?
It's easy once you get the hang of it. Our cofounder Orsola [de Castro] often reminds audiences that it's not about buying the most sustainable garments or spending a fortune on the kindest brands – it's really about making sure the clothes we already own are well taken care of and treasured for a lifetime.
What can our readers do to reduce their fashion footprint?
1. Read the Fashion Transparency Index. It's not a shopping guide and it's not an evaluation of brands' ethical or sustainable performance, but it does disclose how much information brands share about their suppliers' human rights and environmental objectives. Ultimately, it cuts out the confusing, greenwashed sustainability information that's become mainstream, and gets down to business.
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2. When you clear out your wardrobe, be mindful of your mistakes. If you're putting together a pile for the charity shop, make note of what's going in. Is there a jacket you only wore once because it turned out to be not really your style? Or a jumper that was really itchy and you'll never wear again? Clothes discarded are a lesson in what not to buy in the future.
3. Mend your clothes. Or if you aren't feeling crafty, bring them to a local tailor. A little professional help can save the awkward, torn, ill-fitting garments. Whether it's something you've bought online that looked different than expected, or you've worn something to shreds, there are always creative ways to save clothes from landfill. For inspiration, check out Fashion Revolution's free zine, Loved Clothes Last.
Which fashion activist should we be following to inspire us?
I won't be so cheeky to give a shameless plug to Fashion Revolution but many of our teams around the world also run massively inspiring social media platforms. So if you're based outside the UK, look for your local team, like the USA or Germany.
Illustrated by Axelle Rose ZWARTJES.

Sophie Slater, Birdsong 

When did you first commit to sustainable fashion? What was the turning point for you?
I started buying secondhand for myself when I was a teenager but my parents were always quite good at giving us hand-me-downs, and we had to get a job and save up for any clothing we didn't 'need'. My dad brought home Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth one night when I was maybe 15. I watched it and didn't sleep for a week. When I was still at school I got a Saturday job at a vintage store, then American Apparel when I left home. Learning more about supply chains and exploitation in the garment industry made me swear off the high street at about 18 years old, but I've had plenty of moral lapses in those 10 years! Less so recently, but nobody is perfect.
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What steps in fashion do you take on a daily basis to reduce your impact on the environment?
I actively make sure not to follow or subscribe to any accounts or emails from people who are treating their workers or the planet badly. This involves quite a lot of research, but I'd just say bin the whole lot of who you follow and start from scratch. Websites like Good On You are brilliant for information. Then there are day-to-day steps, like airing out my clothes instead of washing on each wear, using eco washing powder, taking things to be fixed instead of chucking them out, and donating anything I don't wear to Traid or selling it on at my local monthly car boot. I try not to buy things that contain microplastics, which is easy because all Birdsong clothes are made from gorgeous natural fibres and I wear our stuff every day.
How hard have you found it to practise fashion consciousness?
After 10 years and a career in it, it's really ingrained in my values. However, I still get totally sucked in by shiny things! There are so many great ethical brands out there now that I don't find it as hard as I used to, or get high street FOMO as much. It's also easier to just wait two months and buy the flashy It trainers on Depop instead. Affording to buy things well can be tricky. I'm on a low income so for the five weddings I had this year, I bought a Margaret Howell suit for about £120 on eBay (it retailed at £1,000 new) and paid £10 monthly on my credit card. It was too big so I paid about £30 to get it taken in too, but I've been wearing it as separates day-to-day and it's hopefully something that will last for years. That's how I treat all my Birdsong pieces too.
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What three things can our readers do to reduce their fashion footprint?
Before you buy consider three points: 1) Do I need it? Will it really change my perception of myself and bolster my self-esteem, or would a life drawing class/yoga membership/meal with my friend cheer me up more? 2) Buy less, well. Saving up for something that will still look great in 10 years, you can wear from season to season and cherish isn't just more sustainable but helps me feel like I have more of a fixed identity. That way I'm less susceptible to marketing from brands trying to trip up my sense of self. 3) Consider what impact this garment is having on the world. Rather than greenwashed brands who throw around the word 'sustainable' but produce so much they have to go to sale every other week, consider shopping from social enterprises who give dignified work to people who really need it instead.
Which fashion activist should we be following to inspire us?
I can't name just one. This year I've had the pleasure of meeting Hoda Katebi, Aja Barber and Céline Semaan and they've inspired me no end. For everything from eco-fascism to colonialism and sizeism in the fashion industry, follow and learn from these three people and you can't go wrong.
Illustrated by Axelle Rose ZWARTJES.

Alice Wilby, XR Boycott Fashion 

When did you first commit to sustainable fashion? What was the turning point for you?
I fell for fashion’s transformative, storytelling power as a teenager, rifling through rails of secondhand and vintage, never knowing quite what I’d find. But after years of styling commercial jobs I’d become disillusioned with mass production and the constant cycle of consumption. Discovering the fashion industry’s detrimental environmental impact and the existence of sustainable fashion came hand-in-hand. I was able to reconcile my ethics and love of fashion as a means of expression, but found a new way to work.
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What steps in fashion do you take on a daily basis to reduce your impact on the environment?
I’m signed up to not buy anything new for a year, for XR Boycott Fashion. We are challenging people to say no to new clothing and material, both to address fashion's environmental footprint and give ourselves breathing space to reframe how we have become programmed to constantly consume useless stuff we don’t need.
How hard have you found it to practise fashion consciousness?
Right now I’m more driven than ever. We have reached 'peak stuff'. We are completely saturated with synthetic, mass produced clothing that the majority of us really don’t need. We are also facing an unprecedented climate emergency and the way our clothing is produced has a massive environmental impact. From the half a million tonnes of microfibres washed into the oceans each year to massive biodiversity losses though over-cultivation of cotton crops, not to mention the staggering fact that total greenhouse gas emissions from textiles production are more than all generated by international flights and maritime shipping combined. Global apparel production is projected to grow by 81% by 2030. That’s an insane growth of an already unsustainable carbon footprint.
So while this information is really overwhelming, it also makes it really easy to be conscious and present in my choices. Especially when there are so many exciting ways we can enjoy clothing and fashion. It’s time we cultivate conscious style that is sustainable for people and planet.
What three things can our readers do to reduce their fashion footprint?
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Firstly, stop buying new stuff you don’t need and come and join #BoycottFashion in saying no to new. The largest environmental impact of a piece of clothing or apparel is made at the extraction and production stages, so stopping buying – or even massively limiting – the amount of brand-new clothing you buy will have a dramatic effect on your personal fashion footprint.
Stopping shopping and creating a space to pause will enable you to disengage from the machine of mass consumption and really reflect on how you engage with fashion. And if you really need something new, investigate other ways to shop. We have a wealth of secondhand and vintage clothes already made and you can also swap or hire an amazing variety of designer brands that are already in existence. If you can’t find what you need secondhand, spend your money supporting an ethical, sustainable clothing brand which takes its responsibility to people and planet seriously.
Secondly, just like trying to ditch any unhelpful habit, you need to change your daily behaviours. So start by unsubscribing from mailing lists, and unfollow fast fashion brands and influencers who are paid to push pointless products. Instead, follow individuals and organisations who are driving and inspiring change, like Boycott Fashion, Fashion Revolution or Oxfam’s #SecondHandSeptember.
Finally, care for your stuff! Love your favourite clothes like the good friends they are. Wash them at 30 degrees and invest in a Guppy Bag to wash all your synthetics. Fix them when they break and upcycle or recycle them when they have really come to the end of the line. Keeping our clothes in use for even nine months more will reduce the annual carbon, water and waste footprints of UK clothing by a massive 20-30%.
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Which fashion activist should we be following to inspire us?
There are so many dedicated women that I’ve been inspired by and had the pleasure of working with, including Caryn Franklin, Safia Minney, Orsola de Castro and Aja Barber.
And the amazing team of people behind Boycott Fashion. Including Sara Arnold, Bel Jacobs and Laura K Frandsen, who refused to show a final collection at her RCA graduate show this summer, instead using the showcase to protest about the climate emergency. They are all industry insiders who are challenging the status quo and inspiring change.
Illustrated by Axelle Rose ZWARTJES.

Bel Jacobs, Writer & Speaker

When did you first commit to sustainable fashion? What was the turning point for you?
I actually started out as an environmental journalist so fashion, when I joined Metro in 1999, was a big detour. After the initial excitement, disillusionment came pretty quickly. Two aspects were particularly disheartening: the sheer quantity of clothing being produced by fast fashion and the emptiness of seasonal trends, many of which seemed constructed by big brands purely to sell more clothing. It was also depressing watching young shoppers being pulled into the myth that you really only had value if you were wearing the right things, right now. The turning point was Rana Plaza; when I realised the brands I was writing about had in part caused the deaths of innocent hardworking people, I realised I had to leave my job and focus on the ethically and environmentally aware labels that were trying to transform the industry.
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What steps in fashion do you take on a daily basis to reduce your impact on the environment?
I wouldn’t describe it as 'steps', more a change in mindset. I’ve stopped buying new and regard fashion imagery and advertising as just that, imagery, not a compulsion to buy. I’m learning to repair my clothes where possible and have unearthed several long-unworn pieces from the back of the wardrobe which I now wear regularly. None of this is without joy: I love experimenting with things I already own. And if I really need the buzz of the new, I go secondhand. There’s masses out there.
How hard have you found it to practise fashion consciousness?
Not hard. Once you hear what the fast fashion industry is doing to the planet, to people and to the billion animals killed for fur and leather, you don’t want any part of it. It takes research and imagination – putting yourself in the place of others who work hundreds of miles away from our comfortable lives – but once you’ve done that, you can’t go back. If you can, it means you haven’t quite absorbed the reality of what really goes on and you need to find out more.
What three things can our readers do to reduce their fashion footprint?
Stop buying new stuff. Stop caring about new trends. Start finding like-minded groups to have fun with. Sign up to Oxfam’s #SecondHandSeptember campaign and take the pledge to buy no new clothes for the month. Together, we want to send a message to the fashion industry that we want them to produce clothes in ways that are better for the people who make them, and the planet.
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Which fashion activist should we be following to inspire us?
There are so many: Tansy Hoskins, Kate Fletcher, Dilys Williams... But Safia Minney, founder of People Tree, is one of the most passionate, learned and practical voices I know.
Illustrated by Axelle Rose ZWARTJES.

Alec Leach, Future Dust 

When did you first commit to sustainable fashion? What was the turning point for you?
There wasn't a specific turning point for me, I just got tired with the industry's obsession with growth and newness. Compare that with what's happening in the news. It didn't take much to realise that fashion is doing much more harm than good right now, and that this giant crazy machine needs to change.
What steps in fashion do you take on a daily basis to reduce your impact on the environment?
It's really about changing the way you look at clothes, realising that it's not just something you do for the sake of it. Shopping is a luxury, it takes its toll on the planet, and it should be practised responsibly. In April I joined the Extinction Rebellion Fashion Boycott – which is a pledge to buy only secondhand, upcycled and recycled for a year – and I've not looked back.
It's been so refreshing to disengage from the trends, the It pieces, the hot designers and whatever. Because you have to really look for stuff, you have to go through a bit of a journey, figuring out what you really want out of your clothes. I guess it's more about style than fashion. So now, I don't really check Instagram or online stores for inspiration, I just think about what I really want to wear, how it makes me feel, how it should fit and how to take care of it. It's a much healthier way of engaging with clothes than scrolling through an endless feed of shiny new things.
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Of course you have to be patient, there's no instant gratification, but if you really dig you can find some ridiculous bargains. I've bought two suits made with Woolmark wool from Italian mills for €19 each. Getting them dry cleaned and altered cost more than that!
How hard have you found it to practise fashion consciousness?
It's a frame of mind. It's not a thing you have to practise. By shopping consciously you're acknowledging that we can't carry on trashing the planet just because we like buying new stuff. And once you realise that, all of the eye candy that the fashion industry throws at you – the lookbooks, editorials, influencers, new collections or whatever – starts to lose its power. It's not hard at all – it's really liberating.
What three things can our readers do to reduce their fashion footprint?
Buy secondhand, buy secondhand, buy secondhand. There are mountains of amazing clothes out there already. Think about it – how many garments has your favourite brand produced since it started? It doesn't make sense to put even more pressure on the planet when there's so much amazing stuff out there already. The clothes that were made one year, two years, 10 years ago, are still valid, they're still beautiful and they're still worth wearing. We can't discard the resources and the hours of work that went into making old clothes, just for the sake of some more new stuff.
Which fashion activist should we be following to inspire us?
It's not an activist but Good On You is a really great website and app that rates brands on their sustainability credentials and gives you in-depth but super easy-to-understand information on how to shop consciously. It's even got guides on specific fabrics which are really helpful.
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