It’s the dead of winter here in Ottawa, the dead time between New Year’s and the return of normal life. Back in the day, I would fill this weirdly unreal time (between the craziness of Christmas, and the start of the school term) with marking. After Christmas, when boxing week sales made me not want to venture downtown, and Hubby was mesmerized by hockey on television (World Junior Hockey tournament, Spengler Cup, plus the regular NHL games) I’d allot a few hours a day to marking the major essays that my senior students had submitted on the last day before the break. And when school started again, I’d have that Herculean task all done and dusted instead of hanging over my head.  

So what do I do now, when the chaos of post Christmas traffic, crowded restaurants and stores, not to mention all that hockey on TV, keeps me in limbo? I do my closet inventory. Naturally. Nothing like a good stock-taking to start the year off right. This year, I’m asking myself if I’m any closer to being an ethical shopper. And, if I’m honest, if it’s even possible to be an ethical shopper.

Consulting my little book of lists
So as I said, I’ve been surveying my closet this week. And perusing my wardrobe inventory, taking note of my progress this past year in the quest to be a more ethical shopper. According to the website Racked, the ethical shopper is an “educated shopper” who “has an interest in conscious consumerism.” And, I’d add, one who understands the impact their shopping habits may have on the planet, and attempts to minimize that impact by controlling what they buy and how much.
Last year I did some research and evaluated how I stacked up against the “average shopper,” as identified in articles I’d read. I did quite well in overall numbers, giving myself an A+ for quantity since I’d purchased only 26 new items in 2016, as compared with the 70 items purchased by the average American woman in 2013. There appears to be no similar data on how much Canadian women buy. Then I considered other elements of the ethical shopper, such as planning and organization, thrifting and recycling, creativity in re-purposing old pieces into new outfits, and shopping “ethical brands.” I gave myself an overall grade of B-.

So, let’s see how I did this year. In 2017, I purchased 25 new items of apparel. Here’s the breakdown.

Travel Clothes:

I bought seven new pieces for our South America trip, and for travel in general. Two base layer turtlenecks, ski underwear bottoms, two long-sleeved tees (one not shown), a zippered track jacket, and a striped cotton sweater. Travel fashion is as close as I get to fast fashion. I try not to spend a lot because usually by the time we come home the clothes have been through the wringer. Then they become camping clothes.

What I wore in South America

Spring and Summer:

This past spring I tried to expand my horizons and change up my look. At least a little. I bought seven pieces. A new longer skirt, cropped pants, a pink cashmere sweater, two linen tee shirts, and a pair of flats.
New spring 2016 stuff
Oh, yes… and the infamous, confidence sapping Eileen Fisher tunic. Ha. Who can forget the overreaction by moi to a few simple pictures of me wearing that top? I also added a new pair of cropped jeans to my wardrobe by not spending a cent, but by taking my cue from Alyson Walsh over at That’s Not My Age and hacking off a pair I already owned.
Love my DIY cropped jeans. The tunic, not so much

Fall and Winter:

This past fall I bought six new pieces. Two pairs of jeans, a white shirt, a white short-sleeved tee, my burgundy turtleneck, and a wool zippered jacket with a quilted front. I’m happy to say that, of the six, most were bought at the Nordstrom Anniversary Sale and saved me big bucks.
My fall purchases. All of these items hit my sweet spot, and passed the sigh test.
Not shown here are three “ath-leisure” pieces I bought at Aritzia late last summer: Adidas sweat pants, a light hoodie, and a sweatshirt. And two new tops I bought just before Christmas, and which I’ll tell you about next week.


So how did I do in 2017?


Total new acquisitions this year = 25 pieces. A small improvement over last year. As a fledgling ethical shopper my progress is pretty good. But is it good enough? Because, of course, it’s not just about the number of items we buy is it?

If, as the article in The Rack counsels, we’re to be more “conscious shoppers” (as opposed to unconscious shoppers, presumably) we have to shop wisely, and make fewer impulse purchases. Of course that entails knowing what we already have in our closets. I chuckled when I read this article which said that one in seven women admits to buying a new, duplicate piece, because they couldn’t find the original, or had forgotten that they already owned it. We have to know our style, what will look good on our bodies (as opposed to on the mannequin or on that nineteen year old celebrity on IG.) And we have to be able to find pieces to buy that we’ll love and will wear for a long time. This can be difficult. And takes patience, and time many of us don’t have. This part of the ethical shopping equation is my forte: organization, knowing what I have, and what I want, and don’t want, and having the patience to pursue the perfect piece. I’m there already and have been for years.

One area in which I think I’ve improved from last year is the recycling/re-purposing old pieces into new outfits bit. I love my new DIY white jeans, made from a five year old pair of Hudson jeans which were on their way to be donated. They worked out so well that I tried the trick again with a rarely worn pair of brown boot-cut jeans, making them perfect to wear with my old Prada ankle boots. And since I was on a roll with reviving old stuff I own, I inquired at a tailor shop a couple of weeks ago about taking the shoulder pads out of my houndstooth blazer from the eighties. The oldest thing in my closet may just see the light of day sometime soon. So that’s pretty good, I think. Three old pieces getting a new life.

But one area in which I’ve made no progress whatsoever is in buying “sustainable” brands. Or even finding sustainable brands. Other than Eileen Fisher, that is. And we know how that turned out. I’ve found a couple of sites which list brands which are supposedly “ethical” and “sustainable.” Sites like Sustainably Chic and Racked. Racked sourced its recommended brands from a list produced by an organization called Project Just which says it is “committed to documenting the production practices- and specifically their environmental and social impact- of some of the biggest names in fashion.” I tried to access the Project Just website and their “Seal of Approval” list but it appears to be off-line for the foreseeable future. I did, however, find this little article on which tells the story of six hard-working researchers from Project Just who tried to investigate the Ivanka Trump clothing brand. It’s pretty interesting.

And then I read the article So You Say You’re an Ethical Shopper by Michael Hobbes, written in response to his earlier article The Myth of the Ethical Shopper which I linked to in a post last year. Hobbes pretty much says that trying to buy “fair trade” whatever, or even to ascertain if something is “ethically sourced,” or “sustainably produced” is an exercise in futility. And doesn’t achieve what we want to achieve anyway, which is to pressure companies and governments to get rid of sweatshops. Hobbes says that the days of consumer boycotts are gone; they don’t work anymore; that “we are not going to shop ourselves into a better world.” For as much as we may feel ethically superior because we buy fair-trade coffee and locally made tee shirts, what do we know about everything else we consume: from cars to dental floss?

Quite frankly, my friends, this whole research thing is beginning to give me a headache. It’s soooo hard to know who to believe. And what to believe. And therein lies the source of my headache.  Sigh. It’s just all so complicated. And a little discouraging. Does any of this ethical shopping do any good, I wonder? Is it even possible to be an ethical shopper?

But back to my evaluation. Here’s my report card for myself for 2017… such as I might have given to a student back in the day when I’d have spent this whole week marking, instead of fun things like evaluating my closet and reading about shopping.

Teacher’s overall grade for teacher.

I’ve not given up on the idea of ethical shopping. For one thing it’s always good to spend our money wisely, and not waste it on fast fashion items which are so poorly made they end up in a landfill after a few wearings. I think it’s better for our mental health to have a well organized closet, and not stress each morning about what to wear because we don’t know what’s in there. Thrifting, recycling, and re-purposing old pieces is good for the environment as well as being fun. And as for buying only ethical brands, well, if I can find them in the bricks and mortar stores around here, I will. But the brands I liked in the lists on Sustainably Chic and Racked were from the UK or Sweden or other places far away from here. It seems counter intuitive to buy them for one ethical reason and at the same time hurt the environment with all that shipping. Michael Hobbes says in his article that shipping is perhaps the least overseen part of the supply chain. So… as I said…it’s complicated.

One article I read today suggests fledgling ethical shoppers like me need a simple mantra to follow, similar to Michael Pollan’s formula for healthy eating: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”  A shopping mantra? Wouldn’t that be good? I love to follow simple rules.

So how about this?


Plan carefully. Purchase wisely, not too much. Mostly quality.


And ethically… if possible.

How about you folks? Anything to add? About “ethical shopping?” Or about anything, really. Or are you still lolling on the couch, waiting for normal life to resume next week when the kids go back to school and everyone else except us retirees goes back to work?


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47 thoughts on “Is It Possible To Be An Ethical Shopper?”

  1. This is great food for thought.

    I try hard to shop thrift, consignment, vintage or anything that is secondhand. I'm not immune to the pull of Anthropologie every once in a while though and it most certainly does not align with my personal values. Try as I might to leave regular retail behind I'm still not 100% successful. Like you, I'd give myself a B+. There is always room for improvement.


  2. Such an interesting read, as ever, and I like the EF top! I'd say I must be a C, I've been a B for most of the year, then have recently been sitting at the back of the class with the naughty girls going a bit crazy stocking up on boots and jeans. So I'm a C with a "See me!" in red pen, underlined twice.
    Hugs, x.

  3. If I like the look of an item and the price is right, I'll buy it… but I try to shop with my conscience as much as possible.

  4. It's so complex! I wonder if there is one single gigantic Dr. Seussian Clothing Factory somewhere chugging along. I am almost an exclusive thrift shopper and I have cut back on my buying significantly lately (I have no more room!). And my local thrift shop seems to be laden with more and more fast fashion, as though the buy-and-toss trend has fully trickled down to the point of dominating thrift inventories. Or my eye is becoming more critical. Maybe both.

    I think we know when we are being sensible shoppers. I'd give you an A for overall mindfulness, including this post.

    1. I hate it when all I can find at thrift or consignment shops are things I'd not even buy when new, let alone used. I don't have very good luck thrifting. Now vintage… that's a whole lot more fun.

  5. I would say that as far as clothes shopping goes, this last year or so I have bought very little, having always been more of a looker than a purchaser. Pretty sure I would score low on being an ethical shopper but my mantra would be: buy clothes if you need to, not too many, think hard first. Actually, that would be my mantra for all shopping. I don't like hoarding or constantly topping up the cupboards JUST BECAUSE. I think it smacks of pointless greed. With just about everything I buy, I think: do I really need this? Having said that, I need to go and buy some very thick socks because we are heading to Poland soon and it will be very cold. And you never grow tired of thick socks.

    1. I'm thinking that in 2018 I will have to buy almost nothing for spring/summer. That's mostly because we didn't have much of a summer here in 2017. The thinking hard first is important, isn't it? We're investing in new rugs and a new living room sofa and chairs this year. At the rate I shop…I may have picked them out by in…oh.. 5 or 6 years:)
      Have a good time in Poland.

  6. I do try give all this proper consideration . As a post war baby in the UK , living in a family with little money to spare , it was very much ‘ make do & mend ‘ . Waste is bad . This is ingrained in most areas of my life despite good pensions , life savings & a comfortable retirement . I don’t stock up with towels , bedding etc . We have what we need & replace when necessary . Anything worn or shabby can be used by the local animal home or sold by them as ‘ rags ‘ – quite a good earner I understand . Our home isn’t perfect but we like it & don’t feel the need to update & replace constantly . I can’t bear to waste food . On the rare occasions I have spare food then the dogs have first go then either the garden birds or local fox/ hedgehogs/feral cats/compost heap help us out . I’m disciplined with books too . Most are passed on to the charity shops or read on kindle . I always try to buy make up & skincare products that are not tested on animals . So plenty of ethics going on here & no hoarding . But clothes are different . I like plenty of choice & make regular little tweaks to my wardrobe , when I add a few things & subtract others ( off to the charity shops , never resell ) but I have far more than I need of course . In my defense I still love & wear pieces I’ve had for over twenty years . I don’t buy from the cheap high street chains but do the more quality suppliers have higher moral standards ? Who knows . I like your shopping mantra but you’d give me low grades for the planning . I’m a love at first sight type .
    Wendy in York

    1. It's not all about clothes shopping. I know people who trash all their dishes and get new ones when they change their kitchen decor. I don't get that change for change sake. If you love it when you but it why not keep it for years and years? I still love the dishes my mum and step-dad bought Stu and I as a wedding gift. After 28 years. We don't have the quality charity shops here like you guys do. I couldn't believe the number of shops like that in Bath when I was there in October. And I've never heard of a fox/hedgehog/feral cat compost heap.

    2. Ha , I should have said fox or hedgehog or feral cat or compost heap & yes we have dishes we got for wedding presents – now retro !

    3. I'm laughing so hard at our little misunderstanding. When I read it I visualized an actual community compost heap where animals came to feed. When Stu and I were staying at a lodge in Tasmania, the leftover food, and vegetable peelings were dumped into a heap nightly in a lighted area outside the dining room window. We saw all kinds of nocturnal animals that we'd never even known existed (quolls etc) and were sorry we did not get to see the Tasmanian devil that had appeared the week before.

  7. I'm working hard at not buying what I don't need. The after holiday sales are always a temptation for me: if I have something I like and I see it on super sale, I am tempted to buy another color. But one of the lessons I've learned over time is that I don't need two colors of any given thing (usually sweaters or T's). I tend to wear one more always. So I'm putting things on a list and waiting for a few days to buy anything, and by then the urge has passed. We'll see how that works out over time. Ha!

    It is SO hard to buy ethically sourced clothing. Having worked in the commercial textile world for a big chunk of my career, I know how the sausage is made, and it's not a good story. Not for the environment, and often not for humans in general. A whole lot of green washing goes on. Like you, I find a lot of EF clothing not that flattering. I have her T's and some pants and a jacket or two for travel (and luckily, they're going strong after 8 years), but overall, I find she looks best on body types not mine.

    Ah, well. It's below zero and snowing again here. I am walking away from the tempting catalogs and email solicitations and back to purging and organizing. January always gives me a jolt of cleaning energy. Or maybe I'm just trying to stay warm. Which I can also accomplish by reading with a nice warm throw. 🙂

    1. Sometimes it works, other times not so well. I also like to put items of clothing in my shopping cart on sites I frequent and go back to see if they get cheaper or (better for me!) are now sold out or unavailable. I read Ann Patchett’s essay on a year without clothes shopping and thought about it hard, but I think it’s more realistic for me to try to delay. I often have what we call “Ferrari Enthusiasm” – I am really fired up about something until I buy it and then the balloon bursts. Another way to describe buyer’s remorse, I suppose.

  8. First, I love you in that Eileen Fisher tunic. Second, I think your mantra is a good one. Third, I am so glad you raise this issue. It is something that I think about periodically, and not more often than that because I am really not that much of a shopper these days. However, since I did stalk a number of items last year – until Black Friday and cyber Monday when I could get them at a great discount – I was looking to do ethical shopping wherever I could…

    Specifically, I was looking to get two purses that I needed to go with some ankle booties that I knew I would be living in for the next four or five months, and reusing next fall and winter as well. Having purchased these (fab, fab, fab) booties previously and knowing them to last a number of seasons – I was thrilled to find them again! Incidentally, the booties are faux leather, not real leather. And this is part of my ethical dilemma and part of the complexity of this issue.

    I was proud of myself for finding booties that were incredibly comfortable, affordable, and faux leather. (Cute AND comfy!) I was looking to find two purses that would also be faux leather. I wound up finding one that was faux and another that was suede. The dilemma: faux leather is actually plastic, and we all know that environmentally we are polluting everything with our overuse of non-reusable and non-recycable plastic. And of course there are all of the chemicals and pollutants that are involved in the production of plastics (and dyes), not just their non-biodegradable status for those that are not properly recycled. And in the US, recycling can be very complex. It is something I spent a chunk of time researching not quite two years ago so that I could do a better job of it. (Peek here. Fascinating and challenging:

    So where does this leave those of us who wish to do the environment a favor with our purchases when we can? How do we know if we are being less ethical consumers by purchasing products made of plastic – however wonderful they look and feel as “faux” – rather than from the skins of animals? And even when we are seeking to make responsible ethical purchases, such as from Eileen fisher whom I love, what about affordability?

    And on the affordability issue, there are also concerns with the treatment of labor forces in Asia that may enable us to purchase items inexpensively, but at great human cost, however far away it may seem. That too is an issue of ethics.

    A worthy site: where its author (the lovely Nath) explores all kinds of products for their environmental, health, and general safety as well as efficacy when it comes to beauty and personal care. She is located in Europe. I only wish she had more access to products that we routinely might find in North America.

    All of this ties my head up in knots, and brings me back to the reasonableness of your mantra. On this note, I think I need some chocolate.

    1. My head is in knots too. So I've decided that if I'm planning to make a purchase I'll do targeted research then. It may be just a form of procrastination. Probably is, in fact:)

  9. Interesting subject. I think for women the whole concept of shopping is a very loaded subject. We shop to feel good about ourselves….also to create a certain persona, to portray a certain style…project an image. I think that’s why when looking in my closet there is a sea of black, grey and denim, with very small splashs of white….no patterns. I have three drawers of scarves and shawls in wild combinations of colour. It’s easy to look put together this way. I know it’s not a very exciting look for most people, but it works for me. Shoes and boots are another matter. All colours.
    I don’t like fast fashion because it tends to be very trendy and of very poor quality. As far as ethical shopping is concerned, I do love Eileen Fisher….and have some pieces.
    I guess the answer for me, is to wear clothes for years and most things go together so that buying is not really necessary. Looking is fun to see how to rework an old favourite.

    1. I love reworking old things too. But in winter…it's all about the coat for me. Mostly because now that I'm not working…I don't get to take it off and walk around in whatever outfit I'm wearing. I miss that.

  10. HI Susan – I enjoyed this post (and all your posts) so much. Check out Slowre for selling your Eileen Fisher tunic. At least someone will enjoy it!

  11. I'd give you an A,too(nobody is perfect,but you are close to it). I like your mantra (and a font,too) and,believe it or not,I actually like your EF tunic this time-maybe we need time to adjust(and there are posture,movements,personality….all together,it is nice!)
    I love their garments-it would be lovely if they can ship from EU
    I could sign Wendy's comment-except for the last sentence :-). I could fall in love,but very rarely with something that's not on my list
    I've written about our shopping trips to Italy chez Lisa/Priviledge-from my childhood,our shopping had to be very carefully planned.
    So,yes,I make lists,audit my wardrobe regulary (I plan to do the math in February,we have unusually nice and warm weather now and snow in weather report for next month),purchase not much-something to refresh and update,from time to time to replace-,I love beautiful things but don't feel the need to have all of them (only a couple:-))
    I don't do thrifting,but it is connected with the fact that we actually don't have a lot of shops and they have predominantly fast fashion
    70 new items per year look like an enormous number to me
    I like to repeat outfits,it may be boring,but not to me
    I try to investigate where the items are produced (but there are only a few that declare the origin of the material!) and how goes the shipping-but,it is a very complicated issue

    1. It would be fun! But I bet,Frances knows more than me now
      Lucky you! Preparations for the trip are the best part

  12. I was inspired by Ann Pachett's piece in the NY Times about her year of no shopping ( and am going for it this year. Like Ann, I will allow myself books (Kindle, so the only clutter is electronic) skin care and make-up (I do have a day job, after all) and if I need new trail shoes for my Camino hike in Portugal this summer, then I'll get those, but I'm going to shop my closet and see what happens.

    1. Carol, I was about to type in a non-snarky way: "Why don't we just stop buying clothes for a year? I assume none of us actually NEEDS more clothes. Yes, we WANT the entertainment of buying new clothes. But what's our gnawing need for more stuff really about?"

      But I'm no different from any other readers. I also feel a gnawing need for more, different, better, newer clothes. Although I'm already smothered by clothes, I still keep shopping. No, I don't spend more than I can afford, so it's not a financial issue. And yes, I now shop mostly for high-end used clothing at consignment stores at the lowest price points I can find, so I'm participating in the recycling effort and contributing to my local economy, not some corporation.

      But if I were truly committed to making more ethical decisions around my clothes shopping issues I'd take a 2018 time-out and donate the money I would have spent on clothes to causes that are unconfusingly, demonstrably ethical — like microloans to women who are investing in their own small businesses to improve their family's lots.

      But I doubt I will do that. I expect I'll keep buying more clothes. And right now, I don't feel good about that prediction.

    2. I will have a look at that article. Carol. Thanks. Hope you have a great trip. Friends of ours did the Camino. She had a difficult time… not with the walking but with finding vegetarian meals at the inns where they stayed. Her Hubby ate well, but she lost lots of weight.

      The donating of money that could be spent on clothes to a truly ethical venture sounds like a fabulous idea. Hmmmm.

    3. This is my third Camino, so I know well the vegetarian issues (the sandwich vegetal has tuna in it, for instance!). Fortunately I'm not an actual vegetarian, I just try to eat like one. But walking 25 kms/day will make anyone lose weight, I think. 🙂

  13. I like to buy consignment but buy too much. I am getting better about going through my closet and looking at what I have and talking myself out of yet another white or gray t-shirt! My excuse for the amount of clothes I have is the 145 degree difference in temperatures I experience in a 6 month period. I would love to never wear socks, gloves, scarves, and boots again!! You inspire me to be more conscious of my shopping and I cut off my white jeans after reading your post! I cut the hem off a pair of black jeans too. Love your thoughts.

  14. Hi Susan, I've just read Catherine's post on Atypical60 and agree with everything she says and you've said. I buy primarily from charity shops (and blog about it) and hardly ever from the High Street. If I do I go to the lower, cheaper end of the High Street because I've also written on ethical clothes shopping and done a little research, and nearly all manufacture in China. Hardly any in the UK actually make clothes in the UK, and like you I don't like the ethical baggy look either!!! Yes, know your body and plan and above all, declutter so you know what's in your wardrobe. It's been really good to find you and read your post. It's a great post!

    1. Thanks, Penny. Welcome. I don't hate the look of Eileen Fisher, as much as Catherine does. Just on me, mostly the neckline. Too droopy. I'm much more of a structured girl..ah..woman. Ha. When I was in England I noticed lots f charity shops with interesting things. Not so much here…at least in my part of the country.

  15. I thought I was well organized, but you have me beat by a mile! In the middle of reading this, I decided that I would keep a list of all the clothing purchases that I make this year which, hopefully, won't be too many as I've reached the point where I feel that there's very little that I need. Thank you for inspiring me to do this. I, too, want to be an ethical shopper and I face the same confusion and frustration that you do.

    1. Good luck with your list, Elaine. I keep a record of what I own in my little book. And update it twice a year, then add on when I've purchased something. And the book is always in my purse. That way I never buy something I already own. It's way easier to do all this now that I'm retired, have more time, and buy much less.

  16. Good luck with your list, Elaine. I keep a record twice a year (spring and fall) of what I own and what I've added new in my little book which lives in my purse. It's worked well for me over the years. Helps prevent me from buying something I already own:) Much easier now that I'm retired, though. More time to do this, and I buy less.

  17. I'm thinking about buying more clothes – when I need them – made from bamboo. I've read the little fibres which come off all clothes during washing and wearing are less harmful to the creatures than micro plastic bits from washed plastic based clothes, eg fleeces. Any thoughts?

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