Written by Kasi Martin of The Peahen
We can’t buy our way to an ethical or sustainable world.
Regardless of what you read in ads, the news, or even on eco fashion sites like this one, consumption is not an effective vehicle for change-making, at least not by itself. It may sound lovely, but anyone who claims their clothes are ‘changing the world’ or ’empowering’ people is exaggerating.
Look, I cover a lot of ethical and sustainable brands here and I don’t want to discredit their importance. What they do it damn admirable. They’re providing an alternative to conventional fashion, which relies on pesticides, toxic chemicals, and exploitation so that brands can peddle cheap products to meet our insatiable desire. It’s harder to do it their way, much harder. And on the other side, the women and men who are researching brands, asking questions and, most likely, stretching their wallets to choose ones that meet their standards are equally impressive. But to say either, designing or buying, is an end-all-be-all solution is a troubling narrative.
Alden explains why in her Quartz piece, arguing for advocacy instead of consumption. Now, I don’t agree with all of it. For instance, I think if we stop buying ethical fashion outright in favor of advocacy, we’d be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I think it should be BOTH ethical consumption AND advocacy, rather than EITHER ethical consumption OR advocacy. For instance, what happens when your rep just doesn’t care about environmental issues? In my case, I don’t think Ted Cruz will ever advocate for environmental regs so I rely more on my economic choices (or abstention from) to send a message.
I hope I haven’t overwhelmed you.
THESE ARE COMPLEX ISSUES THAT ARE HARD TO UNPACK, SO FIRST OFF, DON’T STRESS IT. TRY READING UP ON THE ISSUES THAT INTEREST YOU AS A FIRST STEP.
I curated this list of the best books on ethical and sustainable fashion and broke it down into four categories so there’s something for everyone. It’s short because fashion is still a niche field. It hasn’t been studied like, say, philosophy because it’s stigmatized in intellectual circles. People see it as ‘trivial’ and therefore, don’t research it. This is something I’m fighting hard to change through my writing and reporting. And I’m constantly on the hunt for new information, so if you know other books, share them in the comments.
FOR: THE POLYMATH
Books that are good introductions to topics in ethical and sustainable fashion. These go broad but not deep for the most part.
11OVERDRESSED: THE SHOCKINGLY HIGH COST OF CHEAP FASHION
This is the ‘ethical fashion’ book that’s cited more than Sean Spicer deflects media questions. Really. It’s a good place to start if you’re a total novice to ethical fashion. In it, Elizabeth Cline answers a fundamental question – why are clothes so cheap? And, more importantly, what is the impact of our addiction to them? Amazon.
Kate Black is a seasoned writer and speaker in this field. After pumping out thousands of articles on the subject for her site (of the same name), she compiled them into this – the ultimate guide to sustainable fashion and beauty. Dive in for a quick historical overview and the good stuff – her favorite brands, designers, and tips. Amazon.
9SLOW FASHION: AESTHETICS MEETS ETHICS
Safia Minney started People Tree, one of the first fair trade brands on my shopping page to produce wearable, contemporary designs (don’t believe me? Check out their newest capsule). As a someone who pioneered this new approach and proved it could also be a lucrative business model, naturally, she’s got a lot to say on the subject. In this book, she talks about how she made Fair Trade work and argues that it’s the best for brick and mortar and e-commerce shops across the globe. Amazon. If you like this one also check out her latest, Naked Fashion.
8WEAR NO EVIL: HOW TO CHANGE THE WORLD WITH YOUR WARDROBE
Greta Eagan’s ethics-driven approach in this book is balanced with practical advice. You’ll find out how to gradually transition to more ethical habits that help you create a cleaner wardrobe and beauty regime and, ultimately, cause less harm. Amazon.
FOR: THE ANTHROPOLOGIST
Books for lovers of humanity and learning through stories.
7HIGH TECH AND HIGH HEELS IN THE GLOBAL ECONOMY: WOMEN, WORK, AND PINK-COLLAR IDENTITIES IN THE CARIBBEAN
Forget what you thought about globalization and all the terms associated with it. White-collar, blue-collar, pink-collar. And while you’re at it, toss out your preconceived notions about gender and economics. Carla Freeman upends many of these norms in this book, which is based on her observations of a group of women in Barbados in an emerging field in tech called ‘informatics.’ Through their newly formed habits and dress, she argues, these women are reshaping notions of formal and informal economies and first and third world production. This is a very specific case study, but if you’re a detail oriented person it’s worth it. Thriftbooks.
6THE IRONIC SPECTATOR: SOLIDARITY IN THE AGE OF POST-HUMANITARIANISM
If staring at a picture of Angelina Jolie with refugees makes you cringe, dig into Lilie Chouliaraki’s thought piece. Amazon.
5SHOPPING FOR GOOD
Nike started using sweatshop labor to produce its clothing in the 70s but consumers didn’t take notice until the 90s. This was thanks to David O’Rourk’s prescient reporting. Still, years later, even the most well-intended companies and consumers say they want to support ethics and sustainability but are at a loss for how to do it. David came back with this book to discuss why it’s so complicated to ‘shop for good.’ Thriftbooks.
4WHY PEOPLE BUY THINGS THEY DON’T NEED
Get to the root of overconsumption in Pamela Danziger’s investigation. She’ll make you think more than Maria Kondo and organize your sock drawer less. Win, win. Thriftbooks.
Keep reading on The Peahen, here to read about the remaining three categories:
3FOR: THE RACHEL CARSONS
2FOR: THE LEAN IN CREW
1FOR: THE SMITHSONIAN
Kasi is a fashion writer and consultant. She created The Peahen to put ethical fashion on mainstream consumers’ radar. She’s a fierce questioner and advocate for brands that honor sustainability or have an ethical conscience. Sign up for her emails to keep up with her work.