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3 questions to ask before you buy new clothes

Sustainable fashion is the new black -- but how do you shop for clothes ethically?

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MUD is one of the brands working to make Black Friday -- and every day -- more ethical.

MUD Jeans
This story is part of Tech for a Better World, stories about the diverse teams creating products, apps and services to improve our lives and society.

Everybody likes to bag a bargain, but not every deal is good for us -- or for the planet. After Black Friday and Cyber Monday, with holiday and New Year sales coming up, there's never been a better time to think about shopping ethically and sustainably. If you want to freshen up your style, here's some tips on exploring sustainable fashion with stylish brands dressing you ethically.

Fashion doesn't look so good when you consider the amount of waste in both making and discarding clothes. Many big-name stores offer cheap clothing, but their "fast fashion" model exploits workers, uses vast amounts of natural resources and pollutes the environment with toxic carbon, dyes and microplastic waste. Chillingly, fast fashion is the second-most-polluting industry after the oil and gas business.

On top of that, millions of tons of clothing are simply thrown away every year. According to ethical-fashion monitors Good on You, 80% of discarded clothing items in landfill or incinerators have been worn (on average) just seven times.

So what can you do? Good on You suggests three questions to ask before buying new clothes (and you can apply these ideas to the technology deals we recommend, not just this weekend but year-round):

1. How much do I already own?

2. How much will I wear it?

3. How long will it last?

"If you do still want to buy new, empower yourself to make ethical choices," says Good on You. "Do your best to choose something from a brand having a positive impact on the planet and its inhabitants." The Good on You online directory and app rates brands, from boutiques that may be new to you all the way up to familiar big-name stores. Each brand is rated on labor practices, environmental record and use of animal products, on a sliding scale from "Not good enough" through "It's a start" to "great."

Buying clothes from sustainable brands can be expensive, but Good on You notes that pricier, better-quality clothes last longer and are a better investment when you consider cost per wear. And when it comes to cheap clothes, you often get what you pay for. "So many products offered as 'great deals' are products of planned obsolescence," says sustainable-fashion expert Aja Barber. "That sweater you bought which you don't really love but felt compelled to buy because it was 'on sale'? It was made with low-quality material to be offered at a lower price for Black Friday. You're not getting a deal on something you never actually truly wanted. You're getting a dopamine rush."

And put yourself in the shoes of the person who made that sweater. "We need to have a conversation about wage inequality," says Barber. "If everyone in our world gets paid fairly for their labor, then perhaps folks won't balk at the price of a dress where everyone in the supply chain was paid fairly." 

"If in doubt," suggests Lauren Bravo, author of How to Break Up With Fast Fashion, "try to stick to the #30Wears rule. No matter how good the deal seems, ask yourself: will I wear it at least 30 times? If the honest answer is no, step away." 

"It's important to understand that we can't shop our way to sustainability," says Bravo. "The most sustainable garment is the one already in your wardrobe, and the easiest and most accessible way to reduce our impact is: just don't buy anything. Don't be seduced by bargain deals for clothes you won't wear -- we're in a pandemic, what Christmas parties are you even going to?"

So before you go bargain hunting, start by repairing and reviving your existing clothes. Shop for preowned, vintage or refurbished items through eBay or Depop or your vintage store of choice. You can also make space in your closet by recycling or donating clothes, shoes and other items you no longer wear or use.

If you are keen for a new look and ready to do it in an ethical way, there's a growing movement away from fast fashion to a much more sustainable circular fashion model, with stylish brands reusing and recycling materials for each new look. Here's some cool brands and initiatives keeping you warm with both snug clothes and the glow of doing your bit as an ethical shopper.

Shutting up shop 

Some brands, like Asket, close on Black Friday and direct you to their repair services, or show you how to extend the life of the clothes you already own. Dutch denim brand MUD jeans, which will rent you a pair of jeans made from recycled cotton, shut its online shop and sold only preowned vintage items. The proceeds went to Justdiggit, an organization dedicated to regreening deforested land and regrowing vegetation.

Black Fridye

Annual event Black Fridye has a simple and genius idea: revive your existing clothes by dyeing them black. Beginning with jeans brand Citizen Wolf, the initiative is available to Australian consumers -- but you can follow the lead and dye your clothes yourself (it's as simple as throwing your jeans in the washing machine with some black dye). Sustainability is the new black!

Giving Tuesday

Forget Black Friday: for brands like Article22 and Whimsy + Row, it's all about GivingTuesday. Taking place on Dec. 1, it's a global movement to give back to communities and the world through simple acts of kindness and generosity.

Check out Good on You's Black Friday blog for more sustainable brands doing interesting things.