Sustainability For Beginners: A Tried and True Guide To Shopping Smart

Stacks of shoes greeted me from floor to ceiling as I sauntered past the hallway in my apartment. Though I’ve had great city views of Marina del Rey, I was accustomed to the familiar sight, an array of funky footwear that I bought from Dolls Kill and Nasty Gal, coupled with a few from Miista, Doc Martens and secondhand vintage footwear from Depop. While my early 20s identity crisis was at its peak, I was constantly shopping to help myself fight against teenage body shaming.

My closet was filled with racks of Reformation dresses, Nasty Gal crop tops and leggings, a handful of cute trendy pleather overalls by LF, Rag & Bone skinny jeans and at least 50 percent of dope vintage purchases from Etsy. A few stacks of Uniqlo sweaters sat inside my closet, too. Ditto with a few cool unique vintage purchases from Tunnel Vision, a cult vintage boutique that also stores under-the-radar LA-based designers. At 22 on the brink of 23, how was it possible that a soon-to-be college graduate could accumulate *this* many things?

Now with the apparel business at a 50 percent slump since Miss Rona took over the world, it’s made me wonder if any of my past shopping habits truly changed. While it’s great that I am taking accountability for my own habits, I am beginning to realize that when it comes to sustainability, I haven’t shopped smarter. Although I still want to have fun with fashion, it doesn’t mean that I have to give it up altogether. Given that we still need to shop for essential apparel, we can do our part to still be supportive of the business, but be more responsible on where are contributions are going.

Here are the top 10 lessons I’ve learned about shopping sustainably:

  1. Buy vintage (but, be selective!)

Who knew that a raccoon coat from the ’20s can start the craze for vintage back in the late ’50s? After all, we’re surprised that one used coat can start a fashion revolution in consuming secondhand. As a lover of all things vintage, I have to admit that what I love about vintage is that you have the freedom to be flexible with your budget whether you’re at a thrift store or a boutique. Physical or virtual, the access to finding cool stores is always one search bar away.

I always love buying vintage due to its one-of-a-kind appeal. Plus, clothing from way back when has unique designs with materials that don’t feel too cheap/disposable. Not to forget, I am fascinated by the unique labels I’d see sewn inside dresses (e.g. the ILGWU tags), old brand logos and/or its history.

Although I love to buy vintage, I’m basically drawing a line on footwear as a few of my past purchases on vintage shoes (even when it’s deadstock) have ended horribly. The soles came apart and the paint on the leather strap peeled. The shoes were beyond repairable that I had to throw ’em away. If you must buy vintage footwear, I recommend sticking with Dr. Martens as the design is very durable and I’ve had zero issues with ’em. Outside of Dr. Martens, my limit for secondhand footwear is when it’s from the last five to 10 years as there’s a lot of life left in ’em!

As for underwear and swimwear, I have no comment as I don’t buy vintage in those categories due to how quickly the materials can degrade due to constant wear.

If you do choose to purchase vintage swimwear, underwear and footwear, please do your part by asking the owner of the shop.

2. Eco-friendly and sustainable are NOT mutually exclusive

Before y’all get mad at me, let’s not forget that it’s so easy to get greenwashed. While there are brands like Reformation reusing deadstock materials (i.e. unused fabric) and H&M joining in on the bandwagon, perhaps we need to consider looking at the composition of the fabric.

Speaking of deadstock fabric, Virtue + Vice has uncovered that this term is used as a loophole for companies like Reformation to use overproduced non-eco friendly fabrics like polyester. The tea is that deadstock fabric is also slashed at a deep discount, which then leads to fashion brands to play into the “sustainable” label by calling it “vintage” or “eco”. Although it’s great to have access to deadstock fabric, you are more than welcome to use it and buy anything you want as long as it’s not horribly made.

Before you even think about buying your new eco-friendly garment, look at the composition and research its manufacturing process. If you find more pros than cons, go ahead and buy it. But if you encounter the converse, perhaps you need to consider why the cons are greater than the pros.

When it comes to clothing, I usually try to avoid buying newly manufactured rayon (with all its iterations) and fossil fuel-derived fabric, which sadly includes your beloved faux fur, nylon acrylic, Spandex and polyester. What’s worse is that polyester production produces carbon emissions two to three times more than cotton.

But if I am buying a vintage/reworked vintage item that’s made out of rayon, nylon and poly, then it’s a sustainable option as buying secondhand uses up less water and chemicals. And if an item is happily reworked, it deserves all the love as I believe that old clothes deserve a second chance at life.

3. Limit fast fashion purchases

Fast fashion is our Kryptonite, the Big Bad Wolf and the White Walker rolled in one. Whether it’s Topshop, Missguided, H&M, Zara, Pretty Little Thing, I Am GIA, Public Desire, Boohoo or Fashion Nova, the influence that fast fashion bears has a strong presence that dominates our feeds, minds and closets. Because of how famous and powerful these brands are, they have the power to influence us to wear a garment at least seven times before it’s thrown away.

If you feel like some designs look familiar, it’s because brands like I AM GIA are reported to purchase via Alibaba, then slap a label on it, which is basically called private labeling. In fact, this practice of buying wholesale is ALL too common among Instabrands.

While we all wanna look trendy, but save money and keep up with fashion, I think that we need to re-evaluate about the economic and human cost it takes to make a fast fashion garment. As someone who has shopped fast fashion in the past, I am also guilty of perpetuating the cycle of us throwing away an average of 70 pounds per person, which then leads to the costly process of finding and filling up landfills.

4. Order custom made

Growing up, my grandma always sewn custom made clothes for me. That has greatly influenced me to customize my own designs with her. If you are your own seamstress (like me), I always like to hit up family-owned fabric stores at Arab street. My go-tos are Osman Silk House, V.K. Abdul Samad & Co, Bobby Fabrics and Gim Joo. Not only do I save more money on buying my own fabric, I also get to have access to deadstock designer fabric, too.

If I find that a garment is too challenging for me to make on my own, I always hit up a seamstress, tailor or e-mail a brand. However, look into what they can custom make. If you’re looking for dope party clothes, I always hit up Bebe Aguirre. Some of my favorite brands like Poster Girl will be here to make you THE best birthday dress! I have to admit that if you’re looking to go the extra mile to do party hearty catsuits, I highly recommend EKAT. Oh, and if you want sick ass jeans, a flirty lil two piece or a tie dye tee, come hit me up, too! Just slide into my @soengsignature DM and I’ll be more than happy to help! 🙂

5. Download a resale app

I LOVE a good resale app. I cannot tell you how many times I am OBSESSED with hunting down pre-loved fashion. Whether it’s a rare Anna Sui runway piece or a pair of tie dye Levi’s Made and Crafted jeans, I have never regretted any of my purchases. However, each resale app is like oranges, apples and bananas.

If you want pre-loved clothes from the IG cool kids, I always swear by Basic Space. You can find vintage dresses, sneakers, GREAT denim, PR samples and unworn goodies! I never really had any issues shopping there as the CS has been responsive and greatly accommodating.

If you want handmade or vintage, I prefer Depop and Etsy. However, I use the former to also hunt for pre-worn rare one-offs of long-defunct designers (e.g. Meadham Kirchhoff) made within the last 10 years. What I like most about both apps is that they have great user-friendly interfaces that cover simple things from adding an item to the cart to payment. Similar to Basic Space, you will find a few celebrities selling their wares on Depop. But if you want something more unique and extra rare, Etsy’s my #1 choice.

Shall you be on the hunt for designer, Vestiaire Collective‘s dope. I sell my vintage designer gear in VC and I also use it to find rare runway pieces (but within my own budget!).

6. Think about the cost per wear on your clothes, bags and shoes

This sounds whack to you, but the idea of cost per wear basically is super duper helpful if you’re looking to think about your longterm purchases. Basically, you look at the cost of an item, add the maintenance cost and divide it by the amount of total wears.

Image courtesy of Heddels

See how easy it is? Based on my experience, this worked best on expensive items as it encouraged me to think about the longterm investment, which makes it more sustainable in the long run compared to a fast fashion purchase.

7. Shop local

I love shopping at my local mall. I really enjoyed thrifting and making trips to flea markets when I lived in the States. I feel that with so much access to local shops, it makes me feel less guiltier about shopping online as retailers like Amazon basically use up 44.40 metric tons of carbon emissions.

Given that I live in Asia, online shopping’s the best way for me to access things if I want to score a better deal or buy things I cannot find. However, I think that with shopping local, it makes me more knowledgeable and give support to the local economy. Also, if stores offer to do pickups in person, this option is the best if you wish to reduce more carbon emissions.

While there are local stores that have an online presence, it’s honestly more convenient if you do shop local compared to say, an online retailer that’s far away from you where you have to pay taxes, plus shipping.

8. Google the ingredient list

As someone who consumes beauty products, I do everything I can do be more mindful about what I put into my skin. Nowadays, I’m hyper paranoid about the toxins that I unknowingly consume. My makeup stash isn’t 100% clean, but I have to admit that I’ve started to incorporate clean beauty brands that happen to be cruelty-free and vegan, too. If you are concerned about what ingredients you want to stay away from, Safe Cosmetics has a long list for you to peek at!

9. Buy your food in bulk and go green!

Grocery shopping isn’t my greatest strength, but I am beginning to realize that I haven’t been the most sustainable when it comes to buying my groceries. I cannot tell you how many times I had to throw out bulky cardboard and plastic packages. It makes me feel disgusted.

Now that there’s a grocery stores that specialize in bulk foods, I’ve found that it’s made me feel less guilty about wasting food. Also, it helps me to plan long-term about how long I need to have this item. It also enforces me to calculate how many trips I need to take. In regards to buying bulk, I’m so thankful to have The Source and Scoop near me. Most importantly, if I need to buy healthy food and they’re stuck in packages, I mainly hit up Eat Organic, Brown Rice Paradise or Little Farms. Thankfully, Singapore has a farmer’s market and Green Circle is so great for farm fresh local produce! Even if you don’t live in Singapore, shopping small at your local farmer’s market or Whole Foods dupe is even better. I firmly believe that healthy food shouldn’t come at a high cost.

10. Invest in maintenance

Being in quarantine has made me more creative. Whether it’s sewing face masks or reworking vintage denim, the whirring sound of the sewing machine is so therapeutic. However, I bumped into some technical issues with my beloved 10-year-old Brother sewing machine. Although it’s an old model, I was tempted to purchase a newer model. But something told me NOT to change it so fast as my machine was still working. So, I had it repaired and ta-dah! My machine was wonderfully restored back to normal. No matter how tempting it is to change your equipment, I’d always stick to what is tried and true. That way, I feel less guilty about consuming more waste and throwing away my already perfect electronics!

If I can treat my sewing machine like a princess, my clothes, bags and shoes deserve equal love, too. Shall you feel the need to fix up a tattered tee or a hole in your pants, you can always learn how to sew. No matter how busy your schedule is, doing something as simple as sewing a new skill that you can absolutely squeeze in. There’s no such thing as “busy” unless you are willing to make an excuse for yourself for being lazy to do something new.

Published by

Michelle Varinata

Lapis - (n.) a layer Shrek once said that "onions have layers" as he was peeling one. Like an onion, I have layers. Born in Jakarta and raised in Singapore, I grew up being surrounded in a multicultural environment. Then, I moved to the States, where I lived in NYC and L.A. The creativity, hustle, bustle and vibe of those cities inspired me to become a blogger, journalist and influencer. Writing by day and living it up by night, I slay in the streets one OOTD at a time. Full-face makeup included, too. ;)

3 thoughts on “Sustainability For Beginners: A Tried and True Guide To Shopping Smart

    1. Thank you! Glad you like my tips. 🙂

      And yes, I totally feel you!! Please don’t feel discouraged. I’m sure that you can find a way to find clothes for your body. If you wanna make the most out of your thrift purchases, you can remix them by creating your own design out of it. ❤

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