How To Talk To Your Teen About Ethical Fashion


I recently gave a talk about ethical fashion to 8th to 12th grade girls. Before doing so, I solicited the advice from colleagues and deliberated about the best way to transfer my important yet often depressing knowledge about the problems within the fashion industry. I decided in the end that truth, power, and hope would be the themes of my message.

As a teacher, I know students appreciate honesty, even around difficult discussions. Without the truth, it’s impossible to change. Having been through the information myself, I know that changing something as behemothic as the fashion industry can feel hopeless, but knowing you have power over some of the changes helps tremendously. Hope can be found in the advancements of technology and awareness forcing positive changes everyday.

Use the information and resources below to help you talk to teens about fast fashion, ethical fashion, and how it all relates to them.

Educate yourself first.
Don’t get caught with your organic cotton pants down; be prepared for a lot of questions. While you may not be able to answer them all (and can even search for them together) try to be ready with the basics.

Some articles to get you started:

7 Ethical Fashion Resources 
Shopping Ethically: An Infographic 
6 Myths About Buying Ethical Clothing 
Catwalk to Ethical Fashion on Ethical Consumer
Sustainable Fashion 

Watch The True Cost.

A documentary called The True Cost has made inroads by exposing in clear terms the incredible destruction of the fashion industry. From factory collapses, to fast fashion, to pollution, to capitalism, this film is tough to watch but necessary to see. I will warn you that there are some disturbing images during the parts about the Rana Plaza collapse and other violence in the industry (it’s PG13). If you don’t want your teen to watch it, please watch it yourself and relate some of the information instead.Idita film

Other informative videos:

Unravel is about garment recyclers in India and relates the incredible volume of cast-offs we send out of our lives.
Udita (Arise) is about the grassroots movement of female garment workers in Bangladesh.
See my media section for more resources.

Make it personal.

Ethics are personal. While some metrics should always be upheld—like fair wages—others are more subjective. It should also be noted that it’s difficult to overhaul your entire outlook in one swoop so to make transitions more successful and less painful, help your teen determine priorities. Love animals? Consider cruelty-free fashion first. Passionate about the environment? Research fabrics, dyes, and raw materials. Child labor can be especially relatable to those who are still children themselves. While it may seem insensitive to share, it is unconscionable that it still happens. Teens deserve the right to know about it and the opportunity to lend their voices to the fight against child labor.

fast fashion sale

The unrelenting nature of materialism and consumerism can be difficult to discuss. For children and teens today, it’s the water they swim in. They don’t remember the internet without ads or fashion that wasn’t fast. Researchers discovered that the convergence of desire and bargains in shopping results in neurological pleasure. In other words, we become addicted to bargain hunting promulgated by fast fashion companies.


I believe unpacking the way we are manipulated through marketing and advertising is crucial to slowing down consumerism. Personally, once I examined this manipulation I became less vulnerable to it; I stopped following trends, reading fashion magazines, and trying to keep up with fashion in general. Impressionable young people will likely have difficulty resisting the onslaught of ads aimed at them and their future dollars, but opening up the topic for discussion and observation is an excellent start.

Parents out there, how do you teach your children about materialism?

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Make it tangible. 


Research is mounting about the chemicals used in textile production and the effects they have on us. Toxic chemicals used on the clothes we wear do not magically dissipate when the garments reach the store—they persist on the clothing and on us. We worry about what we put in our bodies, the products we use on our skin, but not about the health of our clothing. Check out Greenpeace’s Fashion Detox campaign which calls out the worst offenders and agitates for change.

Environmental pollution is directly related to this chemical use. If just the residue is toxic to us, imagine the destruction chemical use causes to workers and the environment. Companies in countries with few environmental regulations routinely dump toxic wastewater into waterways—in fact low regulations is one of the reasons they are there to begin with. Having grown up in an era of the biggest storms, the hottest years on record, and an ongoing discussion of climate change makes teens the ideal audience for issues around pollution (not to mention they will be living in the world irreparably damaged by past generations).

washing machine

Besides buying, washing and recycling are two activities directly under our control. According to a lifecycle analysis done by Levi’s, 23% of water consumption and 37% of climate change impact comes from consumer care—mainly from laundering. Listen closely: You can tell teens to wash their clothes less. Not always the cleanliest of populations, they will surely find solace in this recommendation. But if you are scrunching your nose at the thought of unwashed and unkempt adolescents, allow me to offer some advice:

  • Natural fibers (cotton, hemp, linen, wool, etc) are breathable and retain odors less than manmade fibers
  • Hanging clothes up in a steamy bathroom or outside on a clothesline can air garments out and extend wears between washes
  • Stick jeans or dry clean only clothes in a bag and pop them in the freezer for a week to kill bacteria and the odors caused by them
  • Definitely use a natural cleanser when you do launder

Responsibly disposing of unwanted clothing is a major teachable moment. Americans get rid of 82 lbs of clothing and textiles per year. Eighty-five percent of what we toss ends up in the landfill and only 15% gets donated. Textiles rotting in landfills contribute to greenhouse gases, so recycling, upcycling, downcycling, donating, and swapping are all better options. Tailoring can often save an ill-fitting garment from disuse. Unwanted clothing can be donated to a local charity shop; stained textiles can often be given to them as well (they sell them for downcycling into insulation). Another option is to help teens host a fashion swap with friends. Send out fun invitations and make it a party—all you need are snacks, music, racks, and hangers.

Make it hopeful.

fashion revolution day

Just being a teenager is depressing enough, so try to end the conversation on a hopeful note. Technology, consumer awareness, and activism are all promoting change within the industry. Mobile apps like Orange Harp and Yerdle are changing consumer habits. 3D printing is making on-demand production a reality in addition to other exciting innovations. A Brooklyn startup called Modern Meadow is growing leather in a lab, Re/Done and Reformation make second hand materials cool again, and brands like Aaks are bringing artisan goods to new markets.

Seemingly everyday there is a new blog or brand centered around sustainability—the change is slow, but it’s happening. Consumer awareness is increasing and we are demanding better conditions for everyone. This awareness is stimulated by activism among the workers themselves and campaigns like Fashion Detox and Fashion Revolution. Fashion Revolution Day bridges that space between consumers and workers by commemorating the collapse of Rana Plaza and urging consumers to ask brands, “Who Made My Clothes?” on social media. It’s a campaign made for the digital era and activism. Tell all the people in your life about the campaign and participate together on April 24, 2016. Learn more here.

Ultimately, the goal is to foster inquisitiveness in your teen. Encourage them to question retail workers and brands about issues in line with their personal ethics. Although they don’t have much purchasing power now, the next generation is vital to the fight against materialism. Learning about and questioning the systems in place in the fashion industry will prepare them for the changes that must take place for the sake of workers and the environment. I urge you to give them the knowledge and the power to make those changes now.

Lead image: Greyer baby