Remember that time in our nation’s history when we didn’t fully understand how unhealthy fast food was? And then we groggily stumbled out of our artificial sweetener-induced haze into our current reality: that of avocado toast, farm-to-table, and kale, kale and more kale? It’s a pertinent metaphor for the clothing industry because we seem to be on a similar journey. Think about it: clothing is SO much cheaper than it was 20 years ago. Which means something is terribly wrong. Prices should be going up due to inflation, not down. And yet, what drive-throughs did for food seemed great at first too. The convenience! And it’s so cheap!
I felt that way when fast fashion first came onto the scene. Forever 21 single-handedly rescued our threadbare closets in college. It was the first retailer I could really afford, and we no longer had to wait for years to try the latest trends. We were free to explore style and express ourselves with clothes for the first time (which I believe is a very valid desire, one I would even argue is at the center of a woman’s heart).
We are living in the fast food age of fashion, but documentaries like The True Cost, campaigns like Fashion Revolution, and a crop of fair trade brands like Reformation and Everlane are working to change that. And I’m over here a mix of excited and horrified because I think it’s possible we are completely missing the point. Or, at least, the very valid third option in between.
Because let’s examine much of fair trade's response to our nation’s insatiable appetite for junk food: soggy broccoli. Really?! How is this going to solve the clothing industry’s problems? (Which, btw, is literally killing people. Many workers who make our clothing overseas are essentially slave labor and it’s the second most polluting industry in the world after oil. The Aral Sea is now known as the Aral Desert thanks to cotton. It’s truly a global crisis.) The fair trade industry often relies on guilt to sell, but how about focusing on great design, and creating things people really want to wear? Many who consume fast food (fashion) are not necessarily ready to forgo donuts (cheap t-shirts) and switch to an organic plant-based (certified fair trade) lifestyle just based on feelings. And when you judge them for not wanting it on a moral basis, you only push them farther and farther away.
If I sound frustrated, I am. I was a kid during the rampant materialism of the ‘90s and witnessed the relentless pursuit to buy bigger and bigger houses and fill them with more and more things. Like so many Millennials, I just don't flow with that way of life. I rarely care about objects and I live a pretty minimalist lifestyle. I choose to spend most of my expendable income on things that matter the most: experiences like travel, and giving back through nonprofit donations. And then a small sliver goes to the passion, hobby and art form that I choose to pursue in my free time: fashion.
And so, from that perspective, I started this fashion blog in 2010. You’ve heard me say it a million times – I don’t quite identify with fashion magazines. I don’t vibe with the idea that my outer appearance is the most important thing about me. (I grew up thinking that I'm smart, witty and compassionate and if someone liked my outsides that was cool, too.) I don’t want to spend all my time and money chasing a dream to be thinner, younger, or achieve some pre-determined ideal of beauty. I’m not buying it. So when I learned about the concept of blogging for the first time, I set out to prove that you didn’t need all that money or the same physique to have just as much fun with personal style as your favorite celeb. I have a realistic clothing budget (same one for going on 10 years now), and I aim to show what you can achieve with an “everyday woman’s” closet, how re-wearing what you already own versus buying new is just as exciting, and how being responsible with clothes can actually be kind of cool.
In some ways, it took off overnight. Within a year I had over a million readers, and in a five-year span I made more than a million dollars from blogging. In other ways, it went over like a load of bricks. I am a total odd ball in the fashion world, and I will definitely never be a part of the “it” crowd. I don’t look like other fashion blogs and bloggers, I certainly don’t have as many Instagram followers because the preference is for sites with expensive new designer duds each day. (No judgment though. You should definitely follow whoever strikes your fancy.) I am so basic and boring over here wearing no-name brands that I’ve had for 10 years, and yet I’m also having the time of my life (what I call the “audacity to enjoy myself”) which is probably what keeps people reading. (That and clearly some sort of divine intervention – I sometimes think that can be the only explanation.)
I’m totally good with all that. Because my career and blog were designed to not fit in with that side of the spectrum, and not fitting in is a healthy indication that I’m doing something right. But something much more disturbing started to occur to me over the years: that I will never fit in with the “other” side either. I will never be a minimalist in the purest sense, and I will never have a capsule wardrobe or wear all fair-trade fashion (until there’s major change), and so essentially, I’m extraneous to both sides! Yay!
Or rather, I’m utterly irrelevant to one side (soooo boring, eye roll) and then hypocritical to the other. (In one breath I will say something supporting materialism, and the the next I'm supporting minimalism – because, hello, I agree with and disagree with parts of both. That’s what choosing balance and eschewing extremism looks like.) I essentially belong nowhere, with no one (media-wise). So it’s not surprising that my blog is often not embraced, or totally misunderstood. (To use a metaphor, I’ve been part of the tiny house lifestyle from the start, but people keep asking me “Have you heard of the tiny house movement?” UM, YES. That’s literally what I’ve been promoting since day one. Which is such a huge compliment on one hand, because it’s right under their nose and they don’t see it? I’m making the clothes I’ve had for years look so exciting that you don’t immediately realize it's an ethical fashion site? Brilliant! It's both a marvelous compliment and incredibly frustrating.)
But I suppose this misunderstanding about ethical fashion is another sign I’m doing something right. too? Because I’ve done the whole extreme minimalist thing before and I’m never going back. In my early 20s I operated from a place of guilt clothing-wise and lost out on an exciting job opportunity because I was too cheap to buy the proper suit. I was constantly freezing living in Boston, and embarrassed for being dressed too immaturely at work. I tried the Henry David Thoreau route, but it didn't eliminate the hassle of clothes from my life, it made them a problem. So I set a clothing budget, and pushed through my legalism (my feelings were mostly religious in nature) and bought the clothes I really needed. And the craziest thing happened – I discovered I really enjoyed the forbidden fruit. That it actually didn’t turn me into a vain, superficial, narcissistic person overnight just because I pursued it responsibly as a hobby. And, after years of feet dragging and squirming, I finally let go and embraced that enjoyment fully.
So, back to that fair trade you’re pushing. From an ethical standpoint, I would love to buy it, but aesthetically it's not what I'm shopping for. Where is the color, embellishment, texture, pattern, structure?! The pizzazz?! My style motto is “more is more and less is a bore” so it all falls... a little flat. And me giving in and buying it out of pity (I tried that approach for awhile, too) is just making clothing industry problems worse. Women who were guilted into buying fair trade now simply own more. The things they really like, and then the fair trade stuff that just hangs there, a grim reminder of their failed attempt.
I'm championing a different approach to fashion partly because I do think aesthetics matter. I do think that me feeling confident and happy is a worthy cause, especially as a woman. (Repeat after me: You. Are. Worth. It.) Our desire to look beautiful comes from this amazing, magical place that’s innate and we are up against two sides each day: one side screaming that our bodies our everything, and the other shaming us for caring about our appearance at all. But I refuse to be shamed. I refuse to accept the directive to just cover up (modesty), or just don’t draw attention to yourself. Just stuff those sartorial desires down deep and by all means, don’t express yourself, ladies! (No thanks.)
Perhaps most importantly though, I think forcing us to only buy fair trade (or things that support our favorite charity) is impractical. If we really want to revolutionize the industry, it starts with us healing our broken relationships with clothing, one-on-one. It’s us deciding once and for all that we are only buying things we actually like, not just what’s cheapest or fastest, or most ethical, or so that we fit in with any one particular group, and that includes fair trade. We are worth the investment. Our clothing should make us happy and properly communicate with the world around us. Our clothing means something.
When we start buying things we actually enjoy, we stop buying as much. It eliminates the need for repeat purchases. Sometimes it requires spending more up front (or you can also keep your budget exactly the same and just buy fewer items), but you wind up saving money in the long run. And can we please not be extra about it? One of the most misconstrued messages from ethical fashion is that it’s either fair-trade certified or super modest, etc., or nothing at all. When in reality plenty of things exist that are neither extreme. J. Crew, for example, does not market themselves as fair-trade, however they give great consideration to the environment and how workers are treated overseas.
I’m not choosing fast food anymore but I’m also not going full Whole 30. Because there are so many perfectly balanced, healthy meals in between. And, interestingly, when we stop feeling guilty or judging others we're actually motivated to make better choices. (Like maybe don’t call out the person at McDonald’s because they'll just run further and further from being willing to try kale. Kale is delicious when prepared correctly, so hopefully they try it someday.)
I can already feel some comments brewing so let me address this one: “But J, you are literally the most guilty person of pushing fast fashion ever in the history of blogs, and your hypocrisy is astounding.”
- I am honored that this blog looks exciting enough that you may have missed that it’s been about ethical fashion from day one. Huge compliment.
- It’s possible you're using the term “fast fashion” wrong as that’s often the case. Fast fashion means clothing was produced quickly. The clothing industry quickly put a runway trend in stores for mass consumption. So according to that definition, YES, I do shop fast fashion at times. But, “irresponsible fashion” is what you’re accusing me of here. Which is the decision of a person to treat fast fashion as something disposable, to be worn once and thrown out, which has huge negative environmental and economic impacts, and that has NOT been promoted here from day one. A person can eat healthy and still go to McDonald’s; there are grilled chicken salads on the menu. It’s the same with fast fashion stores. Once you take a deep breath and stop judging for a sec, you can see that many do sell items made of quality fabrics and you just have to be picky. And what you do with it (being responsible and keeping items to re-wear for years) matters the most.
- People do this amazing thing where they become more educated and change. It happened to me after traveling to Haiti in 2015 and India in 2016 to shadow fair trade companies, and in doing in-depth research for my book. I've changed my approach to shopping quite a bit, which is something you can see unfolding right here. Me championing "fast fashion" in the early days came from a good place; I wanted and still want to be a good steward of money. I understand now how a person can take it too far and be too budget-conscious, and I’ve certainly adjusted my approach a bit.
- Ultimately, I’m not perfect, nor do a claim to be. And one of the ways I live out that claim is by not judging how other people choose to live their fashion life. The space between two extremes means balance, but it’s also an incredibly expansive gray area with so much room for disagreements. And that’s okay with me. You do you and I’ll do me, kay?
Watching the clothing industry change over the last 7.5 years of blogging has been exhilarating and inspiring, and also incredibly frustrating. We seem to be on the cusp of a tiny house/farm-to-table movement of our own and I’m excited to play a small part. Someday we will have what I call “the Whole Foods of fashion” with thousands of options and I can’t wait. (Please get with the program, clothing industry.) Someday that will all be a reality. But for now I’m out here orbiting somewhere in the gray area. Please feel free to join me in a “middle fashion” revolution that's all our own.
Also, my book – which is a further exploration of this topic and others such as the importance of art and self-care, body image, and finances - is, thanks to my publisher, only $2 on Kindle for the whole month of January! So grab your girlfriends for book club and get ready to take a deeper look at the way we get dressed. There’s so much to explore. And there’s not one, universal answer for anyone. This book – and being in the middle - is all about freedom.