My sustainable journey + what ‘sustainable’ means to me

People Tree label
A great sustainable brand… People Tree

Let me be honest, in the past I was a willing victim of the ‘fast fashion’ revolution of the ’90s. When I came to University, armed with a fully loaded bank account, fashionable new friends, a multitude of parties to go to and time to spare between lectures, I fell in love with the quirkiness (and disposability) of fashion outlets like Topshop. I could be whoever I wanted to be and constantly reinvent myself – at a price. But as I packed my clothes into an ever-increasing stash of cardboard boxes and lugged them from house to house (I never lived in the same place for very long), I started to think.

How have I managed to acquire this many clothes in the past 6 months? How are they all going to fit into this tiny wardrobe…? Do I really need all of these party dresses? Why did I buy this ugly sequin t-shirt – was it just for a 5 second rush of happiness at lunchtime, was I that bored? How much money have I wasted on clothes I’ve only worn once? Alright, sort out time. I’m taking them to a charity shop…but what happens to them after they go to the charity shop? Will the clothes be shipped off to Africa, racking up the carbon footprint and destroying local textile industries?

After going through this unsatisfactory high street to closet to charity shop cycle year on year, my eyes were opened further after news items about tragedies such as Rana Plaza and heightened awareness of issues such as unsafe and unhygienic sweatshop conditions, child labour and the destruction of local industries. Enough was enough, I decided to make a change.

Uashmama copper handbag
My new Uashmama copper handbag, produced by a family run Italian business from paper fibres

For me, sustainability was never just about fashion, it was a complete lifestyle choice. There are so many issues to think about – sometimes the complexity blows my mind and I wish someone would just write it down for me in a simple way (Any reading tips? Let me know in the comments!). Here’s my attempt to describe what ‘sustainable’ means to me:

  • Producing goods from natural materials (e.g. organic cotton, no newly produced polyester)
  • Using recycled materials (e.g. recycled polyester outdoorwear, recycled paper towels)
  • Minimising impact on the environment (e.g. minimising water usage or CO2 output, using ‘natural’ cleaning products that guarantee minimal impact on wildlife)
  • Caring about the people who make products and buying at a fair price (e.g. buying Fairtrade, good working conditions for employees, supporting communities and/or disadvantaged groups)
  • Reusing (e.g. by shopping in charity shops, using washable flannels rather than cotton buds to remove makeup)
  • Living with less, but buying quality when needed – no spur of the moment purchases
  • Supporting (preferably local) businesses who source their materials carefully and make items by hand (e.g. making my own body lotion or crochet blanket, or buying via Etsy)
  • Trying to avoid waste (e.g. avoiding packaging, or not buying if it isn’t recyclable or reuseable)
  • Thinking about the environmental impact of what I’m buying (e.g. how much energy has gone into producing this pair of jeans and how much waste/pollution have they created)
  • Exercising consumer rights (e.g. return something if it doesn’t fit or if it was a spur of the moment purchase)
  • Appreciating the time, effort and creativity that has gone into producing an item

I can’t remember exactly where my quest for a more sustainable lifestyle began; whether it was with fashion, beauty or food. I do remember that with increased awareness came confusion. Where do I buy the things I need? How do I make sure that the product is what it claims to be (I’m still a bit hazy on this – as someone who works in marketing I’m very untrusting of any claims made on websites)?

Sustainable shopping
An example of a sustainable farmer’s market shop

Food was easy – I happened to move to an area that had a weekly farmer’s market close by. I was introduced to it by a flatmate who raved about the curry breakfasts (top tip: hot coconut buttered chapatis are great for hangovers). I’ve been going to market ever since, buying my vegetables and meat from people I know who live and produce their goods in the local area. The human interaction you get at the market is a beautiful by-product of supporting the local economy, buying organic, and minimising waste (how much packaging does a supermarket head of lettuce really need?).

Natural and locally produced beauty products were also easy to source. Such items are widely stocked in health food shops across the country and there are many brands and online shops that you can buy from, even on a shoestring budget.

Pai Rosehip OIl
My sustainable skin saver – Certified organic Pai Rosehip Oil

Fashion was a trickier subject, and I’m sure it was the area of my life where I had the most problems adjusting. For someone who always bought from the high street, the world of sustainable fashion didn’t even exist until around 2010, when I first saw a simple organic cotton t-shirt stocked in Zara. Organic or Fairtrade clothing is still woefully underrepresented on the high street. Thankfully, on a lunchtime browsing trip to John Lewis I discovered People Tree and haven’t looked back. Yes, they’re slightly pricey, but you get what you pay for – the quality is second to none and I believe they really care about and support the people who produce each garment or piece of jewellery. Their online sales are amazing if you’re on a budget.

Since then I’ve been finding more and more retailers online who are following suit and warrant further investigation (I like to trial them thoroughly before I recommend them to you guys). Of course, you can always go to a charity shop for maximum sustainability points, but I’m always struggling to find something I like that fits me and am spoiled by the luxurious feel of organic cotton on my skin rather than old polyester (any charity shopping tips greatly appreciated). Now that I’m on the right track with sustainable clothing, my next step is to find good quality sustainable shoes that don’t cost the earth (literally…)!

Howies jeans label
Trialling sustainable jeans from Howie’s

With new sustainable fashion retailers popping up like mushrooms, leading a sustainable lifestyle has become easier for all of us, but I firmly believe that we’re all a work in progress. Recently, I fell off the wagon (and I’d been doing so well). I’ve been trialling sustainable jeans and of the two pairs I bought neither seemed to fit properly. I’d been trying to break them in for weeks but panicked when I found out we were going hiking for the weekend. I rushed out and bought a pair of my trusty old (and comfortable) Gap jeans. I felt a little guilty, but I really couldn’t have gone hiking in the other jeans and I would prefer to be comfortable. So I’ve recently learnt an expensive lesson in sustainability – return what doesn’t fit and look somewhere else. I’m a work in progress as you see, and I doubt my education on this subject will be complete for a long time (my quest for sustainable shoes might just do me in)! But when I do find a sustainable gem, I’ll be sure to share it with you on this blog, whether it’s a brand or a single item I’ve bought and loved, to make the journey easier for all of us.

I’d love to hear your sustainable lifestyle anecdotes and adventures! What are your favourite sustainable brands? Do you have any charity shopping tips? Can you recommend any sustainable shoe manufacturers?

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