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4 things I've learned in my year in Sustainable Fashion

Keen to live my business values as a founder of a new sustainable fashion retailer, l made a simple New Year’s resolution a year ago – to buy only ethically produced pieces from sustainable materials or vintage, only those I truly, truly needed, and to never buy on a whim.

Aware of the problematic circumstances in which many garment workers make our clothes, as well as the fashion industry’s classification as the second most polluting industry globally, I wanted to find out whether for me personally, it was possible (as well as affordable, enjoyable and easy) to be a much more thoughtful consumer of fashion.

In the age of fast fashion, with many garments costing less than a cinema ticket and ads for this season’s latest trends constantly screaming at you, you might think this was hard. And I probably wouldn’t have felt overly guilty if I’d cheated a little.

The truth is, shopping for ethical clothing was not difficult at all. There are now countless sustainable fashion brands that produce aspirational, beautiful clothes – some of which Sheer Apparel already works with. Some brands that have been making beautiful clothing for decades, such as Filippa K, do so without their branding even really leading with sustainability. But it does take a long time to find a great selection of ethical fashion brands. 

However, a real eye opener for me was that, while I thought each purchases a lot and I did buy fewer clothes, I still bought a sizeable number of new throughout 2016.

In the spirit of transparency, one of Sheer Apparel’s core values, these were my new purchases or swaps.

  • A dress made of ethically sourced, grey llama wool. Wonderful. I will love it forever.
  • A poorly looked after shirt from a frankly terrible fashion swap (I felt compelled to take something. The items I had brought were amazing.)
  • A beautiful Kooples lace shirt, pictured, from my own – awesome - fashion swap. Absolutely love it, wore it to my birthday dinner and as it turns out I am already the third owner. It helps to have stylish friends.

Fashion swap sustainable fashion Kooples top

  • A bikini – bought on a whim, not specifically ethical as far as I know, not particularly sustainable, unflattering. Terrible.
  • A bathing suit from recycled nylon. Amazing! (One-pieces are the future.) We don’t stock this brand, but what the heck: Auria, I love you!
  • A vintage retro print silk dress that, with a few alterations, I will wear to my friends’ wedding. It also helps to have friends who can sew.
  • A hideous pink shirt, also vintage, that I thought I’d wear loads and didn’t at all. Turns out that buying a heap of vintage clothes in a frenzy of newfound enthusiasm for vintage does not make you a sustainable fashion consumer.
  • A skirt made of surplus leather from the shoe industry. My favourite thing. Future bodyshape permitting, I will wear this forever. Whatever your thoughts are on leather, if you own a leather garment already, it definitely gets better with time and deserves looking after.
  • A merino wool top by Filippa K, one of the original sustainable fashion companies before that was even a thing. Brilliant capsule wardrobe piece I have been wearing a lot.
  • A pair of ankle boots from Toms, the ethical shoe company. Very comfortable.
  • A pair of sneakers from Veja, the coveted French brand setting an example in radical transparency. Also a purchase I think I’ll enjoy for a long time, because I thought about it for several months prior to buying.
  • A supersoft Tencel Shirt from Armed Angels (pictured) that we stock. Well we do pride ourselves on hand-selecting each garment, so...


Ethical fashion Tencel shirt by Armed Angels

Before I started to properly reflect on the outcome of my new years resolution, I thought I had done really well. And, with one exception, I managed to only buy new clothes from companies that demonstrably ensure good working conditions throughout their supply chain.

Overall though, I am still a little surprised about the length of the list. How much was I buying before I started to specifically make an effort to buy less?

That said, I strongly believe that making step by step, but enjoyable improvements is more likely to lead to lasting change than radical but personally unsustainable changes - much like with dieting. And particularly with only one garment being at least questionable in provenance, I think I did ok.

There are a number of positive takeaways from my (first) year in sustainable fashion. Here are my 4 favourites:

  1. Exclusively shopping from ethical fashion brands is easy. I can give you three suggestions of ethical options for any fashion need you have – challenge me! I genuinely have no interest in a top that’s been hastily assembled in a sweatshop and is not going to last three washes.
  1. Buying on a whim is never worth the money. The clothes I had lusted over for a while from brands I admire will stay with me for a long time. The ones I bought quickly without thinking are already halfway to the charity shop.
  1. Make it last. Noone, and I mean NOONE, gives a crap if you wear the same dress to three weddings, two christenings and two dinner parties in the space of 18 months. I’ve done it and I still love the dress. Buy great quality and think of cost per wear, it always pays.
  1. Buying fewer and better things is immensely liberating. I sometimes allowed myself to go for higher quality, slightly pricier things that I will love for longer, saving time and effort hunting for something new next time I need something for a special occasion. In fact, I have more to wear because all that fast fashion synthetic garbage isn’t cluttering up my wardrobe, crowding out the quality pieces.

While there is always room for improvement, I believe that sustainable fashion is about incremental, positive change. My relationship with clothing certainly has permanently changed for the better.

At Sheer Apparel, we continue to learn all the time about fabrics, processes and beautiful, ethical fashion brands, to enable our customers to continue to dress well and fell great about it. Luckily, that is a rather enjoyable job!


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  • Sue on

    Great article, Paula. Thanks.
    Your customers might be interested in the Directory of ethical companies on sustainability blog ‘Where stuff comes from’ (www.wherestuffcomesfrom.org/directory).The Directory includes fashion brands and retailers (including Sheer Apparel, of course). And it also lists ethical companies selling products for homes and gardens, food, ideas for ethical eating out, and much more.
    The aim of the Directory is to make it easy to discover the huge range of ethical options available to us – no matter what our style, age, income, and all the other aspects that make each of us unique!
    There’s also a portrait/interview series – ‘Where my clothes come from’ – to provide more ideas and inspiration.


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