"What Are You Wearing?" When Fashion Matches Ethics

"I wear ethical fashion because I want every aspect of the way I live to be an expression of my ideals."
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The question, "Who (or what) are you wearing?" brings to mind innocuous questions posed to starlets on the red carpet, but more and more this question keeps popping up in everyday life. Perhaps it was the Toxic Fashion campaign led by Greenpeace or the multiple factory tragedies that occurred in Bangladesh, but college students, activists and people working in social responsibility roles are all starting to hear the rumblings of "where did you get that?" and "who are you wearing?" as both a recognition and response to the diverging ethically ways in which apparel is manufactured.

To mark the one-year anniversary of Rana Plaza (April 24), where over 1200 workers died in a factory producing clothes for brands like Joe Fresh and Benetton, a global campaign of academics, activists and bloggers have joined forces to create the "Fashion Revolution." Anyone can join, participants are asked to wear their clothes inside out for the day, exposing the brand labels. Aimed at bringing attention to "who made your clothes, organizers hope the campaign will not only raise awareness but also start dialogues about the differences between ethical and non-ethical fashion."

Ethical fashion, also known as eco, green or sustainable fashion, can take many forms; it can be items that have been passed down (through family or from thrift and vintage shops), clothes from small-batch or local designers, even big brands are getting in the game with fair-trade certifications and using environmentally preferred fibers like organic cotton or tencel.

If that all sounds a little too granola, take note that mainstream companies like Patagonia, Nike, H&M and Eileen Fisher are joining locally known brands like Raleigh Denim and Alabama Chanin in efforts to be more sustainable and ethical.

If anyone should be worried about Fashion Revolution day, it might be those working in the fields of environmental or social responsibility. It's not the only day they should be concerned about what they are wearing, really, but certainly a day they might be asked to discuss the role their chosen apparel has in the welfare of people and planet.

Two New York City professionals working in the field, who will be safe if asked to show their labels, are Jennifer Gootman, Social Responsibility Consultant for West Elm and Jennifer Barckley, Director, Brand Communications & Values at The Body Shop USA, both known for their sartorial style and their ethical stance when it comes to what they wear.

When asked why she dresses to match her work Gootman stated, "I wear ethical fashion because I want every aspect of the way I live to be an expression of my ideals."

While Barckley, posited it in a different way: "I inherently believe that the beauty of our clothing goes well beyond the cut of the cloth or the outer look and feel. If someone has been treated as "less than," abused or unfairly paid for his or her (animals included) personal investment in my shirt, skirt -- you name it -- then to me, it's not truly beautiful. I'm an advocate for true beauty -- in all, holistic aspects."

If this is the first time you have ever thought about what you are wearing and how it impacts the planet -- don't panic. Being an ethical dresser only requires a few modifications. Here are four tips:

1) Buy from known ethical brands -- online stores like zady.com and shopethica.com already do the research for you about which labels are ethically or sustainably made, or seek local designers in your community.

2) Read the label -- H&M has the Conscious Collection made of recycled and organic fibers plus other well-known brands like J. Crew and Club Monaco do "Made in the USA" pieces.

3) Shop vintage or second-hand -- you might have found yourself exclaiming "they don't make things the way they used to" and you are absolutely right, quality of workmanship and materials has decreased over the years in the race to the bottom. Vintage and second-hand, already exist, and are usually better quality than can be purchased today.

4) Shop your closet -- rather than buying new items, repair, mend or alter existing items you have.