As conscious consumerism and “slow fashion” take root, technology can help consumers gain direct access to meaningful, classic, high-quality products they can actually afford.

By Shilpa Shah (Co-founder, Cuyana)

Over the last 20 years, Americans have become obsessed with cheap fashion: coveting brand name and low prices over quality and craftsmanship. Consequently, the clothing industry has become yet another victim of our disposable society in which this season’s trendy must-haves become next season’s cast-offs.

Instead of buying classic, well-made wardrobe staples, too many of us have fallen victim to the latest trend forecast that prompts us to run out and buy the latest “it” style.

Furthermore, when each fad passes, many of us think we’re doing a good deed and helping our neighbors in need by donating unwanted clothing to local charities. But the truth is that a surprising amount of this clothing actually ends up as landfill waste or is sold overseas — hardly the image of philanthropy we have in mind when donating.

As the co-founder of a fashion e-commerce startup, I believe in fewer, better things; this issue of mindless consumption resonates deeply with me. My hope is to bring light to the current all-too-pervasive disposable fashion mindset and give you pointers on how to become more aware and intentional about shopping — and living.

The Move Toward Fewer, Better Things

Even as some of the major labels and manufacturers continue to move production to China, Bangladesh and other countries in search of cheap labor and low-cost materials, a new consumer movement is afoot.

The recent trend against trendy has thrown the fashion industry for a loop.

Fashion-conscious consumers have become socially, environmentally and quality conscious. Shoppers have a renewed desire for products that are created from the best-quality raw materials, designed with a timeless aesthetic and made to last by skilled craftsmen who have perfected their trade over decades of experience.

More and more consumers want meaningful products — pieces with stories behind their creation, pieces that will last a lifetime, pieces that serve, in a way, as conversation pieces. This new conscious consumerism and “slow fashion” trend has become an anti-trend of sorts, fueling a growing desire for quality things and an increased transparency in the supply chain. It’s taken effect much in the same way that the farm to table movement changed the way we think about where our food comes from.

Let us be clear that “fewer, better things” is not a message of minimalism. At Cuyana, we believe if you love expensive designer jeans, then go ahead and buy 20 pairs — if you love them and will wear them, you have nothing to feel guilty about. Instead, we believe in finding your style, investing in what you really love. We think you should fill your closet with things that are meaningful — instead of just filling your closet, period.

The Challenge of “Farm to Table” Fashion

Unlike farm to table — where buying produce and other food products from local sources is feasible because farms exist within a reasonable transportation radius — clothing is another matter.

There simply are not that many cotton farmers, fabric weavers, textile artisans and clothing designers closeby, not to mention the lack of specialty materials and garment producers. While a local farmer can conceivably grow the finest quality tomatoes and broccoli, the best alpaca in quantity can only be found in Peru, and Scotland is the global epicenter of the cashmere heritage.

The problem of meaningful fashion is scale. Sourcing the materials, producing high-quality clothing and accessories and delivering them to market through traditional means is incredibly cost-prohibitive for the consumer. Transportation, wholesale distribution deals and retail markup can send the price of sought-after items soaring far beyond the reach of all but the most affluent consumers. Fortunately, technology is changing that.

3 Simple Steps to Buy Your Clothing Intentionally

Because of sophisticated technology platforms, you now have options that never existed before to live meaningfully and shop consciously.

Now, you have access to many brands that sell direct-to-consumer with responsibly sourced, high-quality items at price points that are actually attainable. In the last decade, we’ve truly seen the rise of conscious consumerism, a movement we hope you enthusiastically support.

Take advantage of these new options available in the marketplace. Change the way you consume by going through a few simple steps, before you buy something:

1. Evaluate where the product is sourced from and the environmental effects of its production. There are so many methods to produce ethically and sustainably that it’s possible to entirely avoid buying from companies who have a complete disregard for these tenets.

Some questions to ask: Is the material made in the country the product is made? If not, how far did the textiles have to travel from the source to the construction, and finally to the retail outlet?

2. Think about the cost-to-value ratio. Do the math. If the item costs X to you at retail, back into the amount it actually cost to make the product, and see where the discrepancies lie. Transparency from the brand to the consumer is key. Product markups can be anywhere from 4 to 20 (or greater) times from the cost of the finished good.

It’s safe to assume that the materials used in the piece are half the cost. If you accept the lowest end of this range, do you still feel comfortable purchasing it?

3. Ask yourself if you actually love the product. Will you wear this item? How often? How many contexts of use does it support? Will the quality of the piece allow repeated use?

If you simply change your consumer behavior to shop intentionally and buy things you actually wear and use, you will have less waste and thereby inherently make the biggest difference.

The fashion industry is at a turning point in consumer behavior. Rather than continuing to fill our closets with cheap, mass-produced trendy pieces that, years from now, we’ll wonder what we were thinking when we bought that, help shift the focus to timeless, premium pieces with stories that resonate. Feel good about what you buy and wear.

What other tips do you have to shop more consciously for quality clothing?