How to make an ethical choice when shopping for clothes

clothes closet
CC BY 2.0 Brian J Matis

In this edition of out Town and Country series, Margaret and Katherine discuss how they approach the ethical dilemmas of buying clothes.


As a New Yorker who walks just about everywhere, my shoes take a pretty tough beating. I’ve reached a point in my life where I rarely need to buy clothes, but shoes are one item that I’m prone to wearing out and find myself needing to replace fairly often.

Like many people in the U.S., I own much more clothing than I truly need, and in the past have made a conscious effort to only purchase clothing that is absolutely essential. Because I regularly write about eco-conscious brands for this site, I give a lot of thought to where I’m going to buy my clothes, how they’re made and how they impact the environment.

So, when I realized that it was absolutely essential that I buy new shoes, I spent some time researching my options. I wanted a pair that was comfortable, look good with many different outfits, was ethically made, had a low environmental impact, and was relatively affordable. Because shoe sizes aren’t standardized particularly well in the U.S., I wanted to be able to try them on.

I’m a big fan of second-hand shops. In New York, my go-to spots are Buffalo Exchange, Beacon’s Closet and Housing Works, all of which have several locations. There’s also a slightly more expensive but wonderfully curated vintage shop in my neighborhood called Loveday. I can reliably find dresses, skirts, tees and sweaters, but shoes are a bit more of a challenge. I’ve scored some awesome second-hand boots in the past, but on this occasion I didn’t find what I was looking for.

Ultimately, I settled on a pair of black Toms, partly because I noticed myself borrowing my roommate’s pair often enough that she complained. Pretty much no shoe is completely perfect, and at the time most American-made shoes like Fye felt too expensive. Toms’ giving program usually outshines their sustainability story, donating one pair of shoes for every pair that’s purchased. Yet the company does make an effort to use organic cotton, sustainable hemp, and recycled materials. They are extremely comfortable, while being unassuming in a way that’s appropriate for my job. That’s a good list of pros when weighed against the impact of shipping shoes from overseas.

There is one other con. Canvas shoes, while being vegan, are definitely not the most durable. After 6 months of heavy use, the heels are not looking so hot. I’m also slightly pronated, which I think speeds the destruction. They are still useful to me for running errands, camping or other activities where appearances don’t matter, but I wouldn’t wear them out reporting in this condition. So, for my next pair of flats I may take the plunge and buy leather shoes from Oliberté or Fye. I’m hoping that while the upfront price may be higher, I’ll get a better cost-per-wear.

This may seem like a lot of fuss for a pair of shoes, but I do believe that we can do a lot of good by not overbuying and spending a bit more time thinking about the purchases that we do need to make.


I do not love shopping anymore. There was a time in my life when I flitted out of fast fashion stores such as H&M and Zara, snatching up what I thought were cheap deals, although now I know them to be just cheap, not deals at all. Over the past few years, I’ve learned so much about what’s really behind the fashion industry – from exploitative labour and toxic chemicals to unmanaged waste – that the thought of random shopping fills me with guilt.

As a result, my approach has changed. Shopping has become a deliberate and somewhat agonizing process that I engage in only when absolutely necessary. When I need a specific item, I follow roughly the same plan each time.

First stop: the thrift store. There’s one just a couple blocks from my house that rarely disappoints. Because I live in a town that floods with wealthy vacationers all summer long, their old rejects are far nicer than most things I could afford to buy new. I don’t feel bad about buying unethical clothing brands if they’re used, because I am extending the lifespan of an item that’s already been purchased.

Second stop: search online. If I don’t find what I’m looking for at the thrift store, I visit my ongoing list of ethical and green clothing companies, many of which I’ve found via TreeHugger. Another good source is “Overdressed” author Elizabeth Cline’s sustainable shopping directory.

Recently I ordered fair trade, organic cotton underwear from PACT apparel, a company that sells ethically made basics. I also like some of the items from Prana, which makes high quality workout and yoga-style clothes. There are great companies out there, but it’s undeniable that they’re much more expensive than your average shopping mall store. By interspersing the occasional ethical new purchase with thrift store items, it’s more affordable.

Third stop: local stores. Although none of the stores in my area offers certified fair trade or green clothing, I figure it’s better to support a local, family-owned store within my community than go to a box store. Sometimes I find great items – a line of tops and winter jackets made entirely in Canada and European-made shoes. By chatting with storeowners, I’m able to explain what my clothing preferences are. Sometimes it falls on deaf ears, but I figure the more questions asked, the more stores will start thinking about alternative options.

pink flat shoes© K Martinko - My favourite new flats bought on clearance at a local shoe store

Final stop (and hardest): Do without until a decent option presents itself. This is a tough one, but patience pays off. When I go to Toronto, I usually find what I need. More often than not, the sense of urgency dissipates and I discover I didn’t actually need that particular item nearly as badly as I thought.

How to make an ethical choice when shopping for clothes
In this edition of our Town and Country series, Margaret and Katherine discuss how they approach the ethical dilemmas of buying clothes.

Related Content on