How to Shop the Mall Consciously

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One of the main catalysts for this site was to help folks shop better. We’re not naive enough to think that y’all are quitting the mall and buying 100% local and sustainable. Naturally we want you to—we encourage you to—but if you have an addiction to J.Crew (ahem…my personal weakness), we want to empower you with the tools to simply shop better.

Before you Shop

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Discover your Values

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First, work out what matters to you most. This will help guide where you’re shopping and what you’re buying. Things to consider: labor practices, sustainability of the garment and social responsibility. If you’re shopping the mall, you’re not looking for conscious perfection; it’s about looking for better, to be better. If you’re seeking perfection at the mall you’ll set yourself up for failure and get overwhelmed fast.

Do Some Research

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What are the stores you like to frequent at the mall? Hop online and check out what information they share through their Corporate Social Responsibility channels. Corporate Social Responsibility can include anything from environment policies to supply chain transparency to charitable works, so think about the values you’ve determined matter most and get to researching!*

It’s worth noting that there are no regulations forcing companies to share this information, nor are there regulations requiring companies to maintain any social responsibility practices or reporting. As a result, any transparency demonstrated is a result of a conscious and voluntary effort. Some (Target for example) make an extensive effort, whereas others make zero effort (Urban Outfitters).

*Good news is, once we launch our CSR Project we’ll be doing this research for you! 

Reward Good Behavior

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If we’re being realistic, we can agree that the mall isn’t going anywhere, and neither are these big retailers. So when they do something good, it’s worth rewarding them. The more money spent on efforts like H&M’s Conscious Collection or Target’s Made to Matter, the more incentive the company has to invest further in sustainability and other conscious efforts. Ultimately we’re working with capitalists here, and money matters.

Create a “No Fly Zone”

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On the flip side, there are going to be companies that just don’t care, don’t match any of your values, or are just plain terrible. Take them off your mall itinerary. I haven’t stepped into a Forever 21 in years. Urban Outfitters joined the No Fly Zone a few years back also. This prevents the temptation of buying something from a company that you just can’t support.

In The Mall

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Look at the Origin Labels

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In the USA the Federal Trade Commission requires all apparel, textiles and footwear to be labeled with the place of origin. Whilst even choosing an item labeled “Made in the USA” does’t guarantee fair labor practices, or even a garment that was 100% manufactured in the US (an item can be simply assembled here to gain Made in USA status) it can be useful in helping guide that conscious purchase.

Made in the USA, or anywhere in Europe (that’s part of the EU), whilst not a guarantee of fair labor, at least have stringent labor laws that protect their workers and make it more likely your purchase was produced ethically.

Business of Fashion has a great section on “Made in” labels if you want to learn more.

Put Fabric First

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If sustainability is your priority value, the good news is that this is an area in which the conscious shopper can exercise a lot of control. Natural fabrics are best, pure blends are better. Why? Natural fabrics are biodegradable, pure blends are both bio-degradable and recyclable. Much like country of origin, the Federal Trade Commission also requires apparel, textiles and footwear to be labeled with fabric content.

Look for 100% cotton, linen, hemp, silk, cashmere or wool, all natural and bio-degradeable options. It’s worth noting that cotton is not without its issues: water usage is high, pesticides are relied upon, and the crop requires more land than other plants. There are partial solutions to some of these issues, however. Organic cotton reduces the impact of pesticides, and Supima cotton uses less water. Aside from cotton, wool and cashmere have their own environmental issues to consider: farming and farming practices—such as the practice of mulesing sheep (which is specific to merino wool)—can be serious considerations to those seeking both a low environmental impact and an animal friendly option.

Other options are synthetic materials. Rayon is synthetic, but made from cellulose (plants, trees, bamboo). It is biodegradable but the process to make it uses a toxic chemical, harmful to both the environment and factory workers. Lyocell (Tencel is a brand name version) is another cellulose fabric, but the chemicals used are safer and it’s a closed loop process (all the chemicals are used up in the making of the fabric) and therefore it has less environmental impact. Lastly, another bio-based synthetic to look out for is Modal. It’s biodegradable and renewable.

Fabrics to avoid? Acrylic, polyester, acetate, triacetate, nylon and anything labeled static-resistant, wrinkle-resistant, permanent-press, no-iron, stain-proof or moth-repellant. These will be chemical heavy. Most will include plastic (petroleum) in their creation and they are not bio-degradeable.

If the Bargain is too Good, it’s at Someone’s Expense

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This one’s simple, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is, and someone is paying for it somewhere down the line. For example, right this second, you can buy a t-shirt from H&M for $3.99. Let’s imagine that t-shirt was made in Bangladesh, where a living wage is about $1.50 an hour (according to Labour Behind the Label). H&M is only committed to paying the minimum wage which is actually only 16% of that (about $0.25) which is ultimately the only realistic wage that will get you a $3.99 t-shirt and H&M a profit.

The big caveat with this is, the $50 t-shirt isn’t going to guarantee you a shirt made under fair labor conditions either, but it’s not driving demand for unrealistically priced garments that demand poorly paid workers.

Consider Your Purchase Beyond the Impulse

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Lastly, be sure to ask yourself some serious questions before you purchas: Do you really need this? What void does this fill in your wardrobe? How much wear will you get out of it? All good considerations in making a conscious purchase.

Good luck out there, and happy shopping.

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