About our guest: Leah Wise is a writer, thrift shop manager, and conscious consumer based in Charlottesville, Virginia. In addition to freelancing for sustainable companies, she blogs on ethical fashion and living at stylewise-blog.com. Social Media: @stylewiseblog
"I’m trying to expand the conversation to talk about the ways social, political, and economic constructs inform our thinking as consumers and citizens."
[MK] Leah, you write on ethical and sustainable fashion on your StyleWise blog. Could you tell me how you started your blog and what motivated you in the first place?
[LW] I started out as a conventional blogger in the heyday of personal style blogs, around 2009. By 2012, I was totally burnt out on overconsumption and the mindless rat race of fitting in with my fellow fashion obsessed bloggers, so I took a break from blogging. That triggered a period of introspection, and I began to realize that there were real people making my clothes in sweatshops abroad, and even in this country. I knew I needed to find a community I could discuss these issues with - it was very hard to do web searches for ethical brands at that point - so I started StyleWise.
[MK] What are the two features about your blog that make it a unique mix and put it above other blogs in this domain?
[LW] Rather than simply promote diverting all of our consumerism to ethical brands, I’m trying to expand the conversation to talk about the ways social, political, and economic constructs inform our thinking as consumers and citizens. All justice issues are related, so it’s important to be mindful of what’s happening close to home as well as what’s happening in the garment industry all over the world.
I also believe that small, intentional steps matter, and that being kind to your cashier or neighbor can really start to change your whole perspective. It’s important for us to keep our eyes open and encourage more collectivism instead of rampant individualism. It’s about us, not me.
"...our missions are about people..."
[MK] What change would you like to make in the world in the nearest future via your blog?
[LW] I would like for people to stop seeing themselves as consumers. Thanks to consumer culture, we’re taught to believe from a young age that our value as citizens and advocates rests primarily in how, when, and what we consume. We need to work hard to clear that false belief from our systems if we want to figure out how to change the fashion industry and our local communities for the better. Yes, it’s important to shop ethically, but as we do that, we need to understand that our missions are about people, not about curating our individual brand.
[MK] When you talk about ethical fashion what do you mean exactly? Are you taking into account how the garments are manufactured? Are you digging into how the fabrics are made? What does ethical fashion stand for from your perspective?
[LW] I use “ethical” as the umbrella term for a combination of fair labor, eco-friendly, quality, and financial sustainability standards. I like to focus on fair wages, but as I’ve dug more deeply into the industry, it’s become clear that we need to think about the health of the workers and our natural resources, because all of these things affect flourishing. And, of course, a company has to be able to survive over multiple seasons to make a positive impact, so sustainable business goals are important, too.
[MK] As a blog writer you probably hear a lot of great stories about how products are made. What is the most memorable ethical fashion story you can share?
"I believe very strongly in the value of cultural tradition and handicrafts..."
[LW] Probably the most affecting story for me is about Abrazo Style. Abrazo Style works with artisans from Oaxaca and Chiapas to produce beautiful, high quality, hand embroidered clothing. I have one of their dresses and the raised embroidery work is stunning. A member of staff told me that these traditional arts are dying out in Mexico because there isn’t enough demand at a livable wage, so some of their current embroiderers actually had to re-learn the craft from veterans. I believe very strongly in the value of cultural tradition and handicrafts because we are at risk of losing those skills if we don’t make space for them. Through brands like Abrazo Style that sell items at a fair price for artisans, hopefully we can retain and build upon these traditions.
[MK] What can you say about ethical fashion trends in 2017 and going forward?
[LW] Hmmm, well, the “trend” part concerns me a bit. As the ethical fashion industry has grown, I think there are more bandwagoners who market their goods as sustainable, but aren’t really producing things with an eye toward long term wear. I think we have to be careful to think long term with our purchases and design decisions so we don’t continue to encourage overconsumption.
On the positive side, the ethical market has expanded to accommodate lots of different tastes, which means it can appeal to more people. I love the freedom of wearing what I want, and choosing things based on the human story as well as quality.
[MK] Do you see any parallels between mainstream fashion and ethical fashion?
[LW] Well, at the end of the day, they’re still a part of the same industry, and they can learn from one another. Ethical fashion needs to scale, and perhaps they can learn how to do that from more prominent fashion brands. Fast fashion needs to slow down, and perhaps they can learn from the success of ethical brands that it’s worth it to try to think about people and the earth over profit margins. I also think that we’re all influenced by the same larger trends. I’m inspired by traditional fashion spreads, for instance, but I seek out secondhand and fair trade options to recreate the silhouettes.
"And I cherish those carefully selected items because it took up a larger part of my budget."
[MK] Do you think it matters to the consumers how the products are made? Are they willing to pay premium for ethically manufactured goods and have a reduced inventory to chose from? Any stories of successful products and sales you can share?
[LW] It definitely matters at a basic level, at least for most consumers. The question is whether they are willing to pay a higher price for those ethical goods, and many aren’t quite there. That’s why we need to focus on quality and help people re-frame their budgets to accommodate ethical goods. We don’t need so many multiples of our garments, but we’re taught by fast fashion advertising that we have to practically hoard clothing.
I think the best success story I can share is my own. I was a shopaholic who frequently binged at Forever 21 because everything was so cheap. I would never spend more than $25 on a new clothing item, or even a new pair of shoes. But slowing down and considering what I like and wear has helped me realize I don’t need 4 new pairs of shoes each season. Instead, I can buy one pair for $100 and be more satisfied overall. And I cherish those carefully selected items because it took up a larger part of my budget. You can’t impulse buy as easily, and that’s healthy.
[MK] What is your personal fashion style?
[LW] I’m very into cotton knits, stripes, and mix and match pieces. My wardrobe consists mostly of vintage and fair trade dresses, high waist denim, v-necks, and striped tees, but I like a good kimono jacket or cropped jean jacket. Though my style is fairly simple, I’ve been told I sometimes dress like a “middle school art teacher.” I like to have a bit of fun.
[MK] What is the most recent fashion garment you have purchased and how you style it?
[LW] I just bought a pair of vintage, high waist mom jeans from the thrift shop. I style them with studded sandals and an Everlane tee with a minimalist necklace or earrings.
[MK] What is best ethical fashion purchase under $100 that you have made?