Can Shopping Save The World?

Probably not, but that’s no reason to stop trying

It’s Earth Week. From Standing Rock to Flint, from fashion to festivals, we’re diving into the fight for our planet on all fronts.

If you’ve frequented style sites over the past few years, you’ve encountered headlines like “Three Ethical, Sustainable Shoe Labels That Are Actually Chic,” “Five Ways to Cultivate a More Conscious Closet,” and “Emma Watson Promotes Sustainable Fashion During Press Tour.” The horrific 2013 collapse of Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza (which housed manufacturing factories for brands like Benetton, Joe Fresh, and Mango), documentaries like 2015’s The True Cost, and an increased awareness of how fucked our planet is have all led to a rise in conscious consumers. Advice on how to do better is almost exclusively about buying better: shop local, shop sustainable, and shop vintage. Google searches for “sustainable fashion” peaked in 2017, a level of interest matched by the rising number of eco-friendly fashion brands on offer. Small companies like Everlane tout their own transparency, and even fast-fashion brands like H&M are angling to get in on the conscious-consumer demographic with special eco-friendly capsule collections.

I like to think of myself as someone informed about the goings-on of the fashion industry. I am aware of the human rights atrocities that occur in the name of fast fashion, familiar with the environmental toll of garment-making in general, and no stranger to the idea that we simply don’t need all this stuff. As such, I often feel as though ethical, eco, or green fashion are positioned in diametric opposition to fast fashion on a scale of morality, with local, ethical shopping becoming an increasingly important form of protest. Organizations like PETA offer guides to environmentally friendly, cruelty-free shopping options, while the World Wildlife Fund has tried to work within the existing industry to create change, partnering last year with H&M for a five-year "sustainability project." The efficacy of these campaigns isn't yet quantifiable, but the rising number of ethical and sustainable shopping options speaks to the rising popularity of protesting with your wallet.

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These ideas are wonderful in theory, but can be difficult to follow in practice. I often feel unqualified to speak out against the fashion industry because I am an active participant in both its ethical and unethical spheres. But you can believe that buying vintage is the only sustainable form of fashion commerce (as I personally do), understand the ecological tolls of the industry's waste, and hold a fierce set of moral beliefs. A dollar put toward more ethical, sustainable fashion isn’t everything, but it isn’t nothing. Here, four women in fashion explain what ethical and sustainable clothing means to them.

Gaby Wilson

Correspondent, MTV News


years ago, I watched a documentary called The True Cost that outlined the life cycle of a piece of fast-fashion clothing, from the cotton farms to the garment's inevitable disposal. As a child of the ’90s, I was always aware of the questionable and often abusive labor practices of the fashion industry — particularly on the assembly and factory side thanks to how well-publicized the issue of sweatshops was at the time — but watching this documentary and learning about the way fast fashion is also having a negative impact on the environment and human existence at the beginning and end points of the cycle really shocked me in a way that stuck.

I had no idea that genetically modified cotton was an inherent monopoly, leading to cotton seed prices becoming so high that Indian farmers were losing their land because of their inability to pay for them. Or that unregulated pesticides used on cotton crops were leading to mental and physical disabilities and cancers in the communities flanking the farms, both overseas and domestically. Or that only 10 percent of donated clothes actually go to thrift stores and the rest go to landfills, usually in developing nations, and end up polluting the land and water there because they're made of materials that aren't biodegradable.

As a fashion writer, I was upset at both about my own role in the overwhelming global consumption of fast fashion and the fact that this cycle is happening at all. But I was more upset that I largely didn't know about all the ways in which fast fashion was so detrimental to the environment. I shifted my buying behavior immediately and have since dramatically curbed how often I buy clothes. I also buy mostly secondhand, or, if I'm buying new, I support brands like Ethica or Reformation that value sustainability, ethical production, and supply-chain transparency as core values. The most difficult part about making that shift, though, is that too many brands don't make that information readily available. The care labels in your clothes are not the same as FDA Nutrition Facts labels — even if a garment is made of cotton, who knows whether it was farmed in an ethical, sustainable way. Because of the way the industry is set up now, your safest bet is buying thrifted or vintage clothing, which also gives clothes a second life and keeps them from entering landfills, at least for now. It might also be the key to getting companies to really take sustainability seriously if it starts to affect their bottom line.

Amanda Carter

Founder, Mode PR


terms of ethical fashion, I try to stay away from anything animal-derivative that’s not on the food chain. I never wear fur and I don’t wear leather in anything other than accessories. For me, using anything reworked, recycled, or vintage is ideal. One of my favorite brands that falls into that category is B Sides Denim. Hesperios knitwear is knitted from wool that doesn’t harm animals. Also, LACAUSA is an L.A.-based brand that manufactures its apparel in the U.S. and gives jobs to local L.A.-based talent.

I buy a lot of vintage on eBay rather than buying new things from stores. The reason for that is because there is already so much stuff in existence. I don’t want to contribute to that problem. Anything I buy new, I buy from the brands that I represent because they produce their collections ethically.

Paloma Elsesser



and sustainable fashion is extremely important in navigating the new narrative for fashion. We have to do our best in achieving a better way to dress well but be conscious. My most continuous way in doing so is shopping secondhand. It is both a cost-effective and conscious way to contribute. Thrift shopping IS recycling.

We must make greater strides in representing for those who slave away at our luxuries by supporting brands with fair wage and trade initiatives. Some brands I love are Patagonia, Nanushka, Everlane, and Girlfriend Collective.

By supporting these brands we create a new standard for how we, as consumers, want to be consumed. For me, that means ethically and fairly.

Jenna Sauers



have yet to see any evidence that climate change is a problem we can shop our way out of. On a systemic level, I think solutions to the problems of waste and abuse in fashion's global supply chain can be found in political action: Fighting back whenever the right attacks organized labor or attempts to undermine workers' rights or safety, and pushing to include meaningful labor and environmental standards in our international trade agreements. Workplace safety and environmental protection can't just be a matter for corporate social-responsibility policies — these have to be a matter of law.

It’s Earth Week. From Standing Rock to Flint, from fashion to festivals, we’re diving into the fight for our planet on all fronts.

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