I have a complicated relationship with fashion. I love seeing new styles. I love shopping. I love expressing myself through clothes. However, I also know that the fashion industry is guilty of numerous sins, including human rights violations and environmental degradation.
When I first started to learn about these problems, it all felt so overwhelming. I mean, I still needed to wear clothing but I couldn’t see any way to do that without directly contributing to the problem.
What I found helped me the most was not putting my head in the sand and ignoring the problem, but instead actively trying to educate myself. Once I did, I was able to better understand what I could do that was actually helpful (buy less, buy better, buy used) and I started to have some hope for the future again. Below is a list of the books I found most helpful, I hope they help you too!
Consumed: The Need for Collective Change: Colonialism, Climate Change, and Consumerism by Aja Barber
If you only read one book from this list, Consumed should be it. Barber’s writing is clear and aproachable as she explains the harms of our current fashion system and how to break out. She lays out concrete actions that we, as individuals, can take to change things without letting the large corporations that are directly causing harm off the hook. Additionally, the author goes deeper into the racial and colonialist elements that have shaped the way clothing is made. Purchase here.
Fashionopolis By Dana Thomas
If you read nothing else on this list, read this book! Fashionopolis is an excellent deep dive into the current fashion production landscape. By taking a storytelling approach, rather than lecturing, reading Fashionopolis feels a lot like reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Throughout both, I found myself thinking of ways to change my consumption habits from a place of inspiration, rather than guilt. So, if you’re looking for a nuanced take on both the current state and future of the way your clothing is made, this book is very much worth a read. Read my review or buy.
Deluxe: How Luxury Lost it’s Lustre By Dana Thomas
One of the challenges in the fashion system today is that people have lost the ability to understand how quality and price. That’s not surprising, given that luxury fashion has become focused on high prices and visible labels, rather than design and craftsmanship. If you’ve ever wondered how Balenciaga went from a company that sold elegant couture ensembles to one that sells ugly sneakers, then this is the book for you. Buy here.
Secondhand By Adam Minter
While not exclusively about fashion, this book on the afterlife of products is a must-read. In Secondhand, the Minter traces the paths and lives of objects after they’ve been given away. The book alternates between large scale, macro views of the industry and intimate profiles of the buyers and sellers involved. Read my review or buy here.
The Day the World Stops Shopping: How Ending Consumerism Saves The Environment and Ourselves by J. B. MacKinnon
Another book that isn’t completely focused on fashion, but rather consumerism at large, that nonetheless is a great read for those interested in sustainability. This book explores what would happen if we all significantly slowed down our consumption, both in our own individual lives and on a macro level. It includes things like an interview with a data scientist who modeled how a drastic reduction in spending would effect the economy as well as case studies of communities where people have collectively slowed down. Buy here.
Overdressed By Elizabeth L. Cline
A great introduction to the social and environmental problems caused by the fashion industry and our own fashion habits. Cline frames this book as an exploration of her own shopping habits, which closely align with those of the standard American consumer. If you can relate to having a large wardrobe full of cheap clothing, this book is for you. Buy here.
Sustainable Fashion Handbook by Sandy Black
This massive collection of essays and photographs is a great read for anyone who is looking for a deeper conversation about the future of fashion. I’d highly recommend leaving this out on your coffee table and diving in whenever you need a little inspiration or food for thought. Buy here.
As much as I love all the books on this list, sometimes it helps to ease into a topic. The documentary and article below are a great place to start.
The True Cost
This 2015 documentary is one of the best introductions to the problems in the fashion industry. It’s a fast watch, but full of information. The content is pretty similar to the book Overdressed, listed above, so they make a good pairing. Rent (A) or visit the website for more options.
If Your Jeans are Cheaper than this You’ve Got a Problem by Alden Wicker
This is one of my favorite articles to send people when they want to know about the problems with our current fashion system. The author essentially does a back-of-the-envelope style calculation to figure out how much your jeans need to cost before there is any possibility they were ethically manufactured. It looks at the problems with the fashion industry holistically but because it focuses only on one type of clothing it isn’t too overwhelming. Read at Refinery29.com
The fashion industry clearly needs to change and a good first step for most people is to educate themselves about how their clothing is made. I’ll continue to add to this as I find new resources, so please leave a comment below if you have anything you think should be added!