5 Easy Steps to Shop Smarter and Make a Huge Difference

cotton bailer

On the morning of April 24, 2013, I was sitting at a computer in Northern Uganda organizing the paperwork for a shipment of cotton. Machines ginning cotton whirred in the background. I was working for an agricultural company that worked with poor farmers, one where livelihoods were being rebuilt and improved.

My friend Shahd messaged me on gchat: an article about a garment factory that had collapsed in Bangladesh earlier that day. People were trapped inside and thousands feared dead.

The gravity of the fact that I didn’t know where our company’s cotton would end up hit me for the first time. It was being sold to a broker. Would the cotton our farmers had worked so hard to produce end up in a factory like Rana Plaza?

Then I looked down at my bright pink neon t-shirt from H&M. I had a moment of clarity.

As a development professional, committed to changing lives for the better, I hadn’t thought about who made my clothes or that what kind of impact each purchase I made could have. It hadn’t occurred to me to ask: “Were the workers who made this shirt paid unfair wages in unsafe conditions? Was the neon pink dye of this shirt harmful to the water and the community around those workers?”

“Was the shirt I was wearing made in a factory like Rana Plaza?”
That friend, Shahd, became my co-founder in Project JUST and we started to research the industry that spring in 2013. We talked to members of the industry, suppliers, designers, and retailers to understand how and why things worked the way they did. We asked our friends where they shopped and why. We learned that information about how clothing is made is difficult to find and complicated. We all mostly shop largely unaware, and have to settle for hoping our choices don’t have a negative impact.

But do we have to settle?
We came to the realization that nothing was going to change unless we (all shoppers) started asking: “Who made this? How was it made?” and “Where CAN I shop?”

We started Project JUST so shoppers could know the stories behind their clothes: we collected everything we could find in one place, summarized it and made it easy to search, learn, dig deeper, contribute and share info on the brands. To answer the question: Where can I shop?

project just 2

But if we’re honest, that isn’t enough. We need more than just this information.

We have to start changing how we shop, too.
So I’m issuing a challenge this month to my friends and my family and to all of you reading this. It’s earth month — it’s also Fashion Revolution Day/week. If you feel compelled to shop smarter, this is the week or month to do it. In the same way we changed the way we shop for food — supporting local farmers at the farmer’s market or choosing to buy organic — we can do that for clothing. We can make sure children stop making our clothes, that families are paid fair wages and that their communities aren’t polluted. We can make sure those farmers in Uganda, the men and women who cut and sew the cotton into clothing have dignity in their work. Every time you shop you can make a difference. Imagine all that piled together: real change happens through the accumulation of small choices we make each day.

Here are five small easy steps to shop smarter and make a big difference.
Try one, or five, because really with all of us together taking these steps it does make a difference. I polled our ethically shopping team at JUST for these 5 starter tips (thanks, ladies). Consider yourself challenged. Game on.

  • Watch The True Cost— 1.5 hours. This will give you a primer on why this matters and why I took the time to write all this down. You may find that you don’t feel like shopping for many months. It’s on Netflix, you can host your own little screening, and there are tons of screenings happening around the country.
  • Don’t buy any clothes for one month. We’re all buying stuff at an unsustainable rate and it’s feeding this crazy machine of fast fashion. You buy more of their clothes at low prices, so they keep producing. TBH, you probably have more clothes than you could wear in a month already. You will give the people who make clothes a break and give the planet a break. So take a break yourself. To some it may sound really easy to do (it’s actually not) and to some it may sound really hard to do (it’s not THAT hard) but we promise you’ll feel refreshed a bit and creative in your closet. It might feel like a juice cleanse or something (if you’re into that sort of thing).
  • Shop like all the cool kids: shop vintage. After you take your month off, start with vintage/consignment/thrift shopping. There are a ton of quality beautiful items sitting in these shops right now that people have given away. It’s often higher quality, lower price, cool stuff with a story. Buying vintage means you’re not using new resources but rather reusing (the second of those free R’s you learned in elementary school). And while people say don’t buy unless you need it (the first R, reduce:), this is a little workaround if you’re feeling like buying something new, something for spring. Also, it’s actually more thrilling than a Zara or an H&M — you don’t know what you’re going to find.
  • Do the math! When you do go shopping, pause for a second and actually think about how this is going to play out in the long term. For example: I’d have to give up 6 glasses of vino for this black sweater, but I’d GAIN 20 bottles of champagne in the long term cuz my sweater will last me for much longer and I won’t have to keep buying new ones. Boom. And also, if a shirt costs about the same price as a bag of candy, maaaaaaybe something isn’t right there. I mean, really, what is that shirt made of (covered in?)? Probably the same stuff that makes those gross neon gummy worms look so good — but then you feel sick after eating them.
  • TOTAL plug but seriously- Use Project JUST. Check out brands before you shop so that you’re at least a little informed about what you’re buying. Shop at online marketplaces like Modavanti, Zady and Ethica which have done research and know the brand stories. Sign up for our newsletter and get more information, learn about alternatives, read about styling tips which keep you looking cool, and confident in the ethics of your choices.. We don’t want people to stop buying things. We know that’s not realistic. But we just want you as a consumer to support brands whose practices are aligned with your values. It’s your right to have the information.
    And one more tip: please share the tips you have. And share this with your friends, share with us, let us all know how it’s going so we can do this together. #ProjectJUST #ethicalfashion #fashrev #fashionrevolution

At JUST we are building a community to help shoppers learn the stories behind their clothes. Our online platform, Project JUST, features brand profiles researched by ethical, social, and environmental factors and a magazine of features including shopper profiles, neighborhood guides and styling posts to help shoppers put their values into action. We are committed to fostering transparency in the industry, and to growing a community of shoppers, journalists, brands and retailers who can positively exercise their knowledge, ultimately, championing the farmer or worker at the bottom of the supply chain.

Images: TPSdave, Project Just