|Diane von Furstenberg Wrap Dress, purchased via TheRealReal|
I'm still putting serious thought into how to be a responsible consumer while still living within my budget constraints and trying to fulfill both my wardrobe "needs" and some of my wardrobe "wants." I still don't anticipate having any good or clear answers anytime soon, but I have come to a few conclusions.
The realities of my budget dictate that fast fashion will still be part of my life, even after I graduate and begin working. I've done calculations for what my student loan payments will look like and thought about my financial and other priorities. With all that in mind, the truth is that I will still buy basics like tights or plain tank tops for layering at decidedly fast-fashion places like H&M or Uniqlo. My activewear, when I need to buy it, will most likely continue to come from Forever 21.
I have no illusions about the serious problems with how these items are produced. By making the decision to stick to the fast-fashion price point for certain wardrobe components because of my financial needs, I am contributing to global environmental and social problems. I have some of the relative economic and other privileges that could facilitate better decisions, but I also have other constraints and needs that take precedence.
I have to believe that if I do my best to approach my Uniqlo or H&M shopping carefully (buying as few items as possible with the intention that things last as long as humanly possible, often in my experience for at least two to three years even with frequent wear) and consciously, that it is enough, that it is as ethical as I can and should have to be.
If it is not enough, then I am not sure what to say because I can't easily change my approach. I can't put down $40 or more to try out a pair of fleece-lined tights of unknown durability from a more expensive brand, for instance. Heck, I don't even know if paying more for a brand means that it is more ethically produced, since one argument in both Overdressed and Deluxe is that many higher-end brands also try to cut costs and outsource production to the same factories as H&M or Forever 21.
All this is to say that I am still figuring things out and that I will be for a long time. One thing that I am more confident about is that thrift store or consignment store shopping can be a good way to get around some of the thornier issues. Just by virtue of buying things secondhand rather than at a traditional retail shop, some of the ethical issues are mitigated. One reason why I buy certain things at H&M et al. is that I am sure that I won't reliably find reasonably-priced basics like black tights elsewhere at the exact moment I need them. However, when it comes to other clothing purchases that don't arise from urgent needs, thrifting becomes a more viable option.
Quite a few of my favorite business casual appropriate pieces came to my closet by way of digging through the racks at Buffalo Exchange in the East Village. As far as I can tell from Yelp reviews and my assumptions about the wealth of other thrift and consignment options that must be out there in NYC, Buffalo Exchange is far and away not the best in the genre. Nonetheless, I've found something great almost every time I've gone. It isn't the place for higher-end pieces, but I have good luck with heavily discounted ($15-25 per sweater or silk top) like-new or very gently-used items from the likes of J. Crew and Free People. In short, I've found Buffalo Exchange to be a surprisingly great place for the graduate student who is starting to think about dressing like a young professional.
I've also recently made a first purchase at the online consignment shop TheRealReal and I found it to be a great experience. I got a Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress in perfect condition for a fantastic price ($60 with a 20% off sale from the original $75 price, though it comes with $11.99 shipping, which is less nice, and buyers are also obligated to pay shipping for returns). They don't always have them in stock and what stock they get seems to move quickly, but I see myself continuing to scour TheRealReal when I have a particular type of higher-end clothing item in mind and know exactly what size I want.