Or, more accurately, what’s the most ethical way to consume, particularly frivolous (read: fashionable) items? Or, what, no pictures? I’m not reading this shit! Anyhow, back to the question at hand:

The obvious answer is, unfortunately, to consume less.

But in America in 2010, that’s probably the hardest way, isn’t it? How counterintuitive–the simplest way, the do-nothing way, the path of least resistance, is the hardest choice to make. Hell, I make little more than enough to meet my needs and have a bit of fun with my friends, and I find it hard to resist clothes, shoes, lipstick, earrings. To say nothing of the $20 I waste in a month on fashion magazines (which are probably a large part of why I feel compelled to buy things I don’t need anyway).

Well, I am trying to cut back. I’m trying to rely more on the fabulous clothes I already own and less on H&M and Forever 21 and their other sweatshop brethren. But even the most ascetic among us want a little indulgence occasionally, right? So what’s the least-harmful way to indulge?

I think that the lowest-impact way must be to thrift. Depending on where you thrift–Housing Works, Salvation Army, Angel Street, Goodwill–your money often goes toward a good cause. And even at the for-profit places, like Beacon’s Closet and Buffalo Exchange, you’re not supporting any new production, and thereby greatly reducing your contributions to child labor, sweatshops in general, and the environmental damage caused by clothing factories, conventional cotton farming, etc. Thrifting can be heartbreaking–I just found a $10 pair of shoes, gorgeous, and a half size too small. But the smaller selection alone is enough to curtail one’s consumption.

So thrifting is, I think, the best way to go. But after that, it gets hairier.

For me, the next important thing is to avoid animal products, and not to patronize sweatshops. This is HARD, and while I never buy leather (and obvi no fur), I do thrift a little wool and silk, and when I needed socks the other day, I did stop in at H&M. I also tend toward Target a bit more than I’d like. What can I say? I simply cannot afford to spend hundreds of dollars on clothes. This is another tough call, though–for example, American Apparel does have a pretty damn good labor policy, but, um, the CEO has been accused of sexual harassment. Of course, he’s not the entire company, and they employ a lot of people, so… tough call. Would I rather buy my clothes from a misogynist or from a factory that employs 9 year olds? Hm.  My impression is that Alternative Apparel also doesn’t use sweatshops, but the prices are pretty jacked up. No Sweat Apparel is another good option, but they just closed down their online boutique, so I can’t tell you where to find them.

I think that next down the line is green fashion–many, many green brands are also conscious of the needs of their workers and don’t use sweatshops. I have heard (but not verified) that the brands at The Green Loop are sweatshop free and fair trade, meaning that the people who supplied the raw materials were paid fairly for them. Brands like Edun, Loomstate, Deux FM, and Del Forte are incredibly stylish as well as green. Their downside: price. I do have a couple Loomstate tees, though, and they’re all a few years old, have been laundered and loved, and are holding up well. So, a $50 t-shirt that lasts 7 times as long as a $12 t-shirt is something to consider. H&M is also doing clothes in organic cotton now, which has a great effect on environmental impact, though I don’t necessarily trust their labor practices.

Then there are independent labels that aren’t owned by a LVMH or Gucci Group or some other mega-corporation, where your dollars are at least not feeding corporate America. My favorite independent designer of all time is Built by Wendy. I’m also pretty smitten with She-Bible, and Grey Ant has been a perennial favorite of mine; I’m having trouble verifying that Grey Ant is still an independent label, though. Anyhow, La Rousse and Chocosho have a great selection of independent labels.

Beyond that, I don’t think there are any guarantees (though please feel free to correct me if I’ve mistaken anything or overlooked). Like in all areas of life, there are no easy answers as to how to ethically consume. It’s well known that if you buy your clothes at Walmart, they were probably made in a sweatshop (Walmart has consistently been exposed as one of the largest sellers of sweatshop clothes). But what about that $400 dress you got on sale at Barney’s? Did part of your $400 go toward health insurance, decent working conditions, and good wages for the people who made it? There are no guarantees. It’s also worth noting that there are factories in China and other places that pay their employees fairly and provide them with health care and other considerations; on the flip side, there are factories in the USA that use illegal immigrants so as not to have to pay them a living wage. I guess that the most practical thing to do is to curtail impulse shopping (errrr, oops), only buy what you need, when you need it, and seriously consider the larger cost of what you get.