"What is Sustainability Shaming?" - Courtney Hilley Blog Title, Overlaid on Photo of Rust Linen Top

What is Sustainability Shaming?

"What is Sustainability Shaming?" - Courtney Hilley Blog Title, Overlaid on Photo of Rust Linen Top


As a western culture, we have to unlearn so much of what we were taught was okay during our childhood. It seems most of us are all learning at the same time how to make better decisions for ourselves and the earth.

There are many people new to sustainability, who I’ve been told are literally throwing things away that they previously bought from big box stores, with intentions to replace those pieces with more expensive, “sustainably made” pieces. There are instagram influencers out there telling people, “Be sustainable with me! Throw out everything made at H&M or Target!”, when a main point of being sustainable is *not* throwing things out as often. Sadly, this lack of understanding or research on the subject is creating in some cases an atmosphere of shame attached the word “sustainability”. To advocate for ethical decision making and educate your friends/hold similarly-minded friends accountable is one thing, but using shame or guilt to manipulate any person to make any decision is incredibly wrong, for so many reasons.

TLDR: Shaming someone is never okay, and we don’t do sustainability shaming here.

Why is this? Because instead of focusing on making sustainable choices moving forward, people think about how unsustainable their past looks. They feel shame about wearing clothes they can’t trace. They don’t know who made their top, they just know that earlier this year, they bought it for $22, which means it probably wasn’t very ethical. Don’t let the joy of helping people and helping the earth, be stolen from you by a shame that wants you to focus on your past self, and your ignorance to the issue of fast-fashion previously (and what a concept to include in other areas of your life!). Y’all I am SWEATING writing this and it’s just the intro! Let’s get down to it:


What sustainability is not:

1. Going into debt to “look sustainable”. This sentence, in itself, is an oxymoron. If you have decided to throw lots of items away to replace with fewer, well made pieces, that can sometimes be a financially sound decision. However, if those pieces weren’t broken and have more life to give, don’t throw them away; take those items to a local shelter, or a charity organization so someone else can use them. Also, sustainability and minimalist living are about using less, using better, and among many other things, creating a financially responsible lifestyle of investments. Sustainability means needing a table, and instead of buying a $100 table from a big store that you’ll have to replace in a year or two, you invest $700 on having a table built that will be in your family for generations, meaning you’ll never have to spend money on a table again. If looking sustainable on the outside means that you have to go into debt, or you don’t have what you need, it’s not sustainability.

2. Throwing your fast-fashion clothes away. Please, if you remember nothing else of this blog, remember this: the clothes currently in your closet have already been made, purchased, and need to be worn. The transaction has already happened, and those clothes will, like so much else, end up in a landfill one day. That is, unless we recycle those clothes. Wear those pieces! Time for transparency: I have multiple pieces in my closet purchased over the years from H&M and others- but instead of purchasing new pieces to stay “current” or throw out last season’s pieces, I will continue to wear what I have over and over, for as long as I can. When you feel you’re finished with an item, send it to be recycled or given to a charity! Women’s clothes are *especially* needed at battered women’s shelters and safe mid-way houses around the country, for tenants who have been victims of trafficking, or are otherwise in need of clothes. Waste not, want not.

3. Sustainability is not an all or nothing lifestyle. I would be shocked to meet an individual who could have enough resources, both financially and via vendors, to purchase only ethically sourced, farmed, made, grown, etc. items from this day forward. In the world we currently live in, such a lifestyle is hardly possible, but just one ethical purchase makes a difference. Intentional purchases when possible are a huge step in the direction of sustainability, and if everyone could make even just one sustainable decision a week, we could see a huge change in the world we live in. If your resources allow you only to practice sustainability in a few areas of your life, or if perhaps you can only purchase one ethically made piece for every five pieces you need, your intentionality in purchasing ethical goods is just as important. Sustainable decisions that don’t require money are heavy hitters too: things like keeping a refillable water bottle handy instead of purchasing plastic bottled water, bringing a reusable bag to the grocery store, using reusable Furoshiki instead of wrapping paper for gifts at Christmas or celebrations, and taking a cold shower every now and then. Ultimately, It’s about living a life of thoughtfulness.

Sustainability in fashion is about investing in pieces that allow us to make fewer purchases. Ethical, slow fashion is about making sure all people included in the process are respected and compensated fairly for their work. It’s about making sure the earth isn’t being harmed any further by how the pieces are made, and not continuing down a road of mistreating and abusing people and resources. If your road to sustainable choices and ethical purchases leads you into feeling shame and embarrassment about your imperfect purchases, instead of joy and peacefulness about the positive impact made by your good decisions, remember to be as kind as thoughtful to yourself, the woman making the purchase, as you are being intentional and kind to the women behind the sewing machines. 

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