I will never forget how good it felt to purchase that lime-green, stretchy polyester miniskirt and matching Spice Girl-inspired baby tee. I was 12, and these were the first items of clothing I bought myself, choosing them because they emulated the look of my girl-power icons. The best part was that it only cost all in six English pounds from a market stall, so I still had something left of my birthday money to get McDonald's. Through my teens, I bought cheap clothing with clockwork regularity, and I was excited to be able to experiment with what suited — and a lot of what didn’t suit — me. Flipping from Sporty Spice to a Green Day fan with only as much purchasing power that weekend jobs afford meant that I needed budget options. As I got older, my feelings on fast fashion certainly evolved. By the time I was an 18-year-old fashion student, I did a full 360 to being strongly against the entire concept. Sitting in my buisness class at the London College of Fashion, we were tasked with looking at ethics, and once I started my research, I couldn’t stop. I was suddenly confronted with a horrible library of information about all my favorite stores that I could never unsee — from the soaring rates of cancer caused by the pesticides used for growing cotton to the child labor practices in the supply chains of many brands. So, I went from being the ultimate mall rat to always on a soapbox about the issues involved in garment production. I decided to only wear vintage, as it was the only option that was affordable and a resource that created no waste. (Yes, I do realize the irony inherent in making this choice while spending my days drawing concepts for new clothes.) I had chosen a career in fashion, an industry that is about new ideas, the zeitgeist, creating a vision of what is now, and fundamentally, that means getting rid of what is old. This seemed at impossible odds with being a smarter, more ethical consumer. I was so torn that I even changed my course of study in my final year to try something that wasn’t related to fashion. However, when I finally started my first full time job, it was at a style magazine. I couldn’t give up on something I loved. I’m a little older and wiser these days, and try to look for a middle ground rather than lurching between my own conflicting personal extremes. But, every time there is another horror story in the news about sweatshop tragedies, I get that awful feeling in the pit in my stomach. I know that for every headline-making event, like Rana Plaza, there are thousands of unreported daily struggles for some of the most vulnerable working women and children on the planet. Last week saw the release of The True Cost, an in-depth look at the harsh realities of clothing production, in particular highlighting some of the scariest aspects of the fast fashion industry. It presents women in Bangladesh who try to form unions and are consequently locked in rooms and beaten by their supervisors. There are also laborers earning less than $3 a day. Workers in some factories put in 140 hours overtime each month in order to try and meet huge production targets, and to earn enough to survive. These facts and figures are often thrown around without context, but this film puts a face to the statistics. For instance, there is a woman called Shima who is still fighting for a union, facing abuse, sewing the $7 crop top many of us are likely to have bought without a second thought, and she has a fierce look of determination when she explains why she is doing this. It’s easy to ignore a number, but not to ignore the bravery of this woman fighting for independence. It’s hard to ignore Shima. Should I be picketing the brands that I know aren't pulling their weight to bring about change? How can I express my appreciation for fashion and my pursuit of empowering personal style without compromising my ethics, nor spending beyond my means? This time, I’ve set about trying to seek doable steps in the right direction — we all have the power to make informed choices for our own realities. This is not about blame or shame. We all have different circumstances and priorities, and those can even shift throughout the course of our lives; if anything I am proof of that. For me, it’s about constantly making sure that my decisions are informed, and pressuring companies and governments that have power to regulate. Take what’s happening with food as an example: The ban on battery eggs in the U.K. was driven by the public, horrified after TV chef Jamie Oliver showed the disgustingly sad 39-day life cycle of a battery hen. Viewers literally stopped buying these eggs, and launched petitions which brought about the change. Or, look at how the French government has made it illegal for supermarkets to throw away food that could be donated to food banks. This was spurred on by the country's “Ugly food” movement, again a moment where people voted with their euros and actively bought odd-looking fruit and vegetables, to show that imperfect produce shouldn't be thrown away and wasted.
So, what are the little things we can do for fashion? Firstly, we can lobby our governments. This isn’t about shutting down the factories in developing countries and leaving millions without ways to support their families. We should be creating pressure for laws that promise better living wages, safer working conditions, and the opportunity to form unions. Countries in the developed world need to have some sort of legal accountability for the conditions their companies are creating abroad. Next up, personally, I’m trying to just buy less. This obviously is an affordable change, and if we think about the amount of clothing our mothers or grandmothers had and then look out our own overflowing closets, it really brings into question whether we really need as much as we feel we do. The way we throw clothing away has an environmental impact and serves to devalue fashion as an object all the way down the chain. Ask questions of your brands, too. Vote with your wallet when you can and buy from ethically produced brands like Everlane, Reformation, or Eileen Fisher. Or, buy from the ethical lines within your usual favorites. H&M has its Conscious line, and ASOS Africa supports community-led production. I know that many people have different budget constraints, but I would sooner pay $20 more when I add an item to my wardrobe, or buy one less, as a way to show I value the people behind my purchases. Buy vintage. Use online consignment shops to sell what you don’t need, and use the money to buy someone else’s pre-owned item that you love. Upcycle. Says Livia Firth, activist and creative director of green consultant firm Eco Age, "Only buy things that you really like and know you will use minimum of 30 times — you'll be surprised how many people wear things only a couple of times, and buy with an eye on quality and sustainability. Ask yourself, will you wear this in ten years’ time? My wardrobe is full of old clothes — every single item has a memory and I love that." Most of all, just try to take moment: Pause when you pick up an item and spare a thought for the series of hands that have touched it before you. A lot of humans put a lot of energy into making a garment that’s priced so that you can more easily buy it. They deserve heaps of respect.