When Ethical Fashion Isn’t Cool

When Ethical Fashion Isn’t Cool

Many of you know I shop ethically for my family’s clothes. It was a long and humbling process, but I’ve been doing it for about 3 years now, so it’s become easier and more routine. It no longer bothers me that I wear mostly secondhand clothes and I don’t balk at higher prices driven by ethical manufacturing practices. My older kids currently go to private school, so they wear uniforms (mostly secondhand) and the rest of their wardrobes are secondhand or hand me down.

Sounds simple and blissful, right? Think again. Did I mention that my kids are only 9, 6 and 4 and I still make the vast majority of their clothing decisions? Do you know that my daughter Campbell (9) has never been super particular about clothes so it’s made the kid-switch to secondhand super easy? But here’s my dirty secret: while I got over much of my own vanity in shopping secondhand for myself, Mama Bear is still pretty prideful when it comes to how my kids look.

I want them to look good, fit in and gain the approval of the world by how they’re presented (Don’t lie, friend – you’ve done it too). It’s still really easy to do that with kids ethical shopping because secondhand stores are crawling with the “cool” name brands, especially for boys athletic clothes (Which by the way, if you’re not there yet, somewhere between ages 5 and 8, 99.9% of boys will insist on wearing ONLY this genre. Even on Sundays when this Southern-Baptist-raised Texan married to a well-bred guy from the Deep South can’t fathom the thought of “non-church appropriate attire.” So half the time, I end up in a battle to shove him into the “proper” brand collared shirt or I resign to let him wear (AGAIN) the only collared “cool” athletic shirt I’ve been able to find secondhand. See, told you I still had pride issues). STILL – at the end of the day, I’m still able to stick to my secondhand guns.

But then…THE BACKPACK. Ok, so I live in a part of town where backpacks are almost laughable. Almost every child at my son’s Pre-K has a backpack from one of about two overpriced brands and 99% of them are monogrammed with perfectly coordinating thread. I’m telling you – I don’t know why these brands bother to set up professional photo shoots. They could just walk down the hallway at this place at 10am, snap the camera 50 times and be done for the year. JUST TO BE CLEAR: My little guy Lincoln is not exempt from this stereotype. I’m just as guilty as the next mama for wanting the right Pre-K look. I mean it might determine their success on the SAT, right?! Lincoln sports his perfectly coordinated monogrammed cuteness all the way down the preschool hallway, people.

Enter: The Struggle. My first grader, Hutch, came home from school the other day and announced that he wanted a new backpack. He tried to feed me the line that his current (carefully selected and monogrammed “big boy”) backpack was too small. Then he tried to tell me it was “baby-ish.” But after some digging, I finally got the truth behind why he wanted to ditch his perfectly functional and stylish backpack: (names and brands altered, of course) He wanted a Cool Guy or Awesomesauce backpack like Charlie or Joey.


There I was in the middle of the dilemma I’ve been able to avoid for so long. I had to choose between cool and ethical. I wasn’t ready for this! I mean, until now, I’ve been able to buy them “cool” secondhand. And choose the clothes I want to buy for them. And my oldest (the girl) has been so easy-going about all of it. Why NOW?! He’s only in first grade, for crying out loud! How does he know what “cool” is?!

But he does.

It’s been easy to buy secondhand clothes for them (okay, I’m not totally nuts – socks, shoes and underwear are a different story), but you can’t buy a backpack secondhand! I was caught between my desire to uphold my ethical shopping principles and my desire for my son to be happy and fit in. No one wants their kid to be the odd kid out! Of course I know it’s just stuff and it doesn’t define us and it doesn’t determine our worth and we shouldn’t care what other people think, but let’s be honest – even though we KNOW that stuff, it’s really hard to DO that stuff when it comes to our babes. I legit struggled over this!! And do you know how I responded??

I told him, “No.”

I got down on his level and looked into his gorgeous puppy dog eyes (they really are, I’m not biased at all) and I explained to him that mommy and daddy had made a decision not to give our money to brands like Cool Guy and Awesomesauce because their products are made in places that aren’t good or safe for their workers and the people who make them aren’t paid enough. He was crushed. He didn’t understand. He kicked back, “But why do I have so much Cool Guy and Awesomesauce stuff?” Then I explained to him that I got those clothes at a store for clothes that other kids had worn before. And that we couldn’t really buy a used backpack, so when we buy something new, we’re going to try our hardest to find something made by people who are treated well and paid well.

I took him to a website for a brand known for responsible manufacturing. I told him he could have any backpack he wanted (within reason, of course) as long as it was on that site. He jumped on board and was so excited about his new backpack, he could hardly stand it! Did it cost me more than a backpack at Target? Of course! Things cost more when workers are paid properly. In fact, I paid about three times as much. But it comes with a clear conscience and a hefty repair guarantee that will outlast 4 Target backpacks. That’s worth it to me.

Two days later, we were on our way to school and I told Hutch that his backpack would arrive the next day. He turned to his friend Charlie, who had just hopped in the car, and said “I got a new backpack!” Charlie, throwing his Cool Guy backpack in the car, said, “Really?! Is it Cool Guy?” And I am not lying – Hutch turned to him and responded, “We don’t buy Cool Guy or Awesomesauce because they treat their people bad.”


Welp! So much for tact and kindness and good Southern manners. Looks like we still have some work to do!! And I might have gone just a little too far on explaining the whole ethical fashion thing to a six year old. But I was also super proud of him and of myself. We did it! We resisted the desire to do the cool thing and instead shopped more responsibly. It was so hard for this mama to look at her little boy and tell him no for something seemingly harmless. But it’s not harmless. Every purchase we make affects other humans and I want to make sure those humans are being treated fairly.

The next day, Hutch tore into his package like it was Christmas. He loves his new backpack and he learned a lot in the process too. And guess what?! He’s still a cool kid and mama survived his disappointment! I’d challenge you parents out there to think twice before you say yes or hit the easy button on a purchase. It really is more than a purchase. It’s giving approval to the manufacturing practices of a company, whether their good or bad. Be willing to disappoint your kids for the sake of what’s right.

What brand did we buy? Hutch now carries a Patagonia* backpack to school (and will for the next 15 years). The other brands will remain nameless, but I’m sure if you walk down your kids’ school hallway, you can figure it out.


*Patagonia did not compensate me in any way for this endorsement. They don’t even know about it – or about me for that matter. I’m not that cool. But you should go check out their website. They have fascinating information on their supply chain and manufacturing…well…if you’re an ethical fashion nerd like me.