How To Shop Fast Fashion Without Being A Jerk

Yes, it’s actually possible

Ah, fast fashion: the reason we no longer have any room in our closets and dressers. Oh, and also one of the main reasons why the fashion industry is one of the most polluting ones in the world.

As much as we all know how toxic the fashion industry is to our planet (and just in case you don’t, read this) and how fast fashion retailers are the biggest culprits, it still can be really hard to resist an occasional Zara shopping spree (guilty as charged). Sure, in an ideal world we would all strive to invest in pieces that will last for years and years and shop only the brands that are creating beautiful, sustainable apparel, but sometimes those just don’t quite line up with our budgets. We get it.

That said, we wanted to find out if it’s possible to still shop fast fashion without being a complete jerk to our dear planet Earth, and, if so, how. We chatted with the experts—from environmental activists to sustainable fashion gurus—to get the lowdown on shopping fast fashion while keeping eco-consciousness in mind. (Hint: It takes a bit of discipline.)

Read on, below.

Aim to only shop the eco-conscious pieces availableThe next time you walk into your favorite fast fashion retailer planning to go on a major shopping spree, take a second to breathe and look around before grabbing every trendy bomber jacket and pair of culottes in sight. Next, seek out the pieces that are less harmful to the environment.

Alden Wicker, journalist and founder of sustainable lifestyle blog EcoCult, is a big fan of fast fashion’s sustainable efforts. While eco-conscious fast fashion may seem like an oxymoron, efforts have been made, and these special lines and collections do exist. “Look out for green tags that indicate an item is sustainably made—using organic cotton or recycled polyester, for example,” she says. Tons of fast fashion retailers have made efforts to create more sustainable collections—including some of our favorites like H&M and Zara. While they may be only a small fraction of their offering, the more their consumers shop these items, the more positive effect will be on the supply and demand chain for eco-friendly fast fashion, thus leading to more eco-friendly options.

Even if a retailer doesn’t have a specifically labeled eco-conscious collection, you can still take the time to examine the tags and choose to shop only sustainable fabrics. Debora Pokallus, CEO of Bel Esprit Showroom: The International Showroom for Ethical Fashion, suggests examining what the items you want to buy are made of. “Sustainable buying in fast fashion outlets can be as simple as planning your wardrobe and looking at labels for the fiber content. Buying items that are made from natural fibers can be a simple, first, sustainable step,” she says. Look for fibers that are organic (like cotton or silk) or recycled (like polyester).

Don't be afraid to ask all of the questionsNot every fast fashion retailer may have a specific eco-conscious line, but they may still have great initiatives to work toward environmental consciousness (like by hosting clothing recycling drop-offs) and sustainability as a whole. At the same time, others may be hiding unsustainable—and sometimes even unsafe and unethical—practices from the public. These are the things you shouldn’t be afraid to ask about.

Fashion Revolution is a movement that’s demanding more transparency in the fashion industry. Carry Somers, founder and global operations director, wants you to take your questions directly to the sales associates themselves. “Don’t be afraid to ask the shop assistant if they know where the clothes they’re selling were made, and what they can tell you about the brand’s human rights and environmental commitments,” she says. Of course, they may not know the answer up front and you may be able to access this information online before you even enter the store, but asking still makes an impact. “The more people ask, the more brands will listen,” says Somers.

One initiative Fashion Revolution is working on is the #WhoMadeMyClothes movement, asking for more transparency about production from clothing brands—and hoping to encourage consumers to want to find out more about the stories behind their clothing. At the end of the month, they will be releasing the second edition of their Fashion Transparency Index, which ranks 100 different brands and retailers by how transparent they are to the public about the clothes they sell—something that will provide insight to just how much or how little we know about the most popular retailers.

Of course, the fast fashion retailers that rank high on the list and are able to openly answer questions about their production and sustainability efforts are the ones you should choose to shop from. If they don't pay their employees fair wages and treat them with respect or don't engage in any sustainable practices, you may want to reconsider.

Be a more mindful shopper, in generalIf you’re still going to shop at fast fashion retailers (despite what their practices may be) but want to be more green, then you need to learn how to be a more mindful shopper overall. What this means is learning to buy less and shop with longevity in mind.

“The biggest problem with fast fashion is that it perpetuates over-consumption that both wastes consumers’ money and adds to landfill waste,” says Pokallus. “Fast fashion is cheap, and the lower prices draw us in to buy more. The nonstop cycles of new merchandise drive this industry even more into unsustainable territory. The best way to be sustainable, if you shop fast fashion, is to take a practical approach to shopping—your budget and the planet will thank you.” Fighting the urge to shop constantly is the first step. Just because a new season is coming or the newest round of merchandise just dropped, doesn’t mean you have to go shopping.

Stocking up on a bunch of trendy pieces that won’t be so, well, trendy next season not only is a waste of money (despite how cheap the clothing may be) but contributes to landfill waste as you’ll likely be inclined to toss them to make room for next season’s must-haves. We have to learn to only buy pieces we truly love and see ourselves wearing for seasons to come. Remember: The more basic and staple-like a piece of clothing is, the longer you’ll likely be wearing it for.

So, if you’re going to wear that pair of tie-waist striped culottes from Topshop for the next four years (or all five of those basic crop tops you’re planning to snag in every color), then go for it. However, if you think you’ll be over them before summer even gets here, then maybe you want to reconsider your purchase.

Learn how to take better care of your clothesThis may seem like a no-brainer, but the better we take care of our clothes, the longer they’ll last. The longer our clothing lasts, the less we’ll be contributing to landfill waste. It’s pretty simple in thoery—but the way things seem to be going might suggest otherwise. In fact, more than 90 percent of today’s clothing is thrown away long before it should be.

Many of the laundry practices that have been instilled in us since childhood are outdated, and we’re simply washing our clothes too much. The lower quality our clothes are (ahem, thanks to fast fashion), the faster our favorite pieces will begin to fall apart and become unwearable, thus reducing them to landfill trash.

A new initiative called The Care Label Project—which involves 16 major fashion brands such as adidas—is urging us to change the way we care about our clothes. By creating a new “Don’t Overwash” care label, a modern fabric care guide, and even an exclusive collection of designer garments with lab-tested care advice, the project aims to turn around out-of-date clothing care practices. You can learn more about the project (and better practices to adapt) here.