Is Sustainable Fashion Only For Rich People?

And how to engage when sustainability seems too expensive

stella mccartney sustainable fashion
On the runway of responsible brand Stella McCartney

The relationship between brands and consumers, re: sustainable fashion, is complex. Sometimes it seems that the only brands able to truly be both sustainable and responsible cater to the “high-end customer”. While we, regular folks, often feel torn between what we’d ethically prefer to buy and what we feel we can afford.

That is the issue of exclusion, which we’ll hear about more and more. Let’s try understanding what that means because it can make or break fashion’s efforts to be more responsible.

But what is exclusion in a sustainable fashion context? And what actions are possible that can transform you from consumer into a partner of healthier fashion spaces.  

Fashion has always been associated with privilege

But with mass production, the styles that used to be reserved for the rich are available to everyone. This is known as the democratization of fashion and it allows more people to represent themselves through their style.

The flip side is lower prices can ignore worker’s fair wages or the environment. To raise wages and regulate environmental degradation, people suggest raising the price of clothing to it’s true cost. Economically, that could mean businesses account for all their pollution, for example. Businesses paying for their negative effects on society is great. They should strive to account for, say, fairer wages for their workers. But what happens when prices go up? People with little disposable income can’t afford to buy as much anymore. They’ve been excluded.

Now, if you’re like me, you wonder if it’s good to exclude people. Thinking about the system in which fashion functions is hard because it means thinking about big social and economic realities. This can be especially challenging for those who feel underrepresented or that their own socio-economic status excludes them from making any real change. Everyone needs to feel comfortable supporting sustainability in fashion for it to work. To further explore the concept of exclusion, here are some ideas we can all use to inform our own opinions.

We Can’t Cancel Fast Fashion

One view is that excluding people through pricing means they can’t support sustainability in fashion. “Your social and economic background is going to affect the way you practice sustainability” says Adama Lorma in her YouTube video about why we can’t cancel fast fashion. “We don’t want items to be cheap; that’s not the point. But if they are so expensive that… the average person has to save for months and months to buy them then it can cut a lot of people out of the sustainable market, and that’s not what we want to do. You want to find the balance between not too cheap and not too expensive.”

We Need to Pay the True Costs

Another stance is that prices need to rise, and we need to pay true costs. Teanna of Fab Socialist talks about this in her YouTube video on elitism in sustainability. “You might say ‘well, you know, we don’t have a lot of money, so we need these cheap clothes.’ When in reality, I don’t think so because you can buy second hand. That is a cheap way to get things that you want…It challenges us to be smart consumers”.

Fast Fashion Was Never Meant for Poor People In The First Place

Tatiana Schlossberg, author of Inconspicuous Consumption, talks about how fast fashion isn’t really for poor people in the first place; it’s for people who have plenty of disposable income, so they feel good spending it. But I believe, like Teanna says, there are other ways to participate in the sustainable fashion movement if prices do rise, whether we’re rich or poor.

How to engage when sustainability seems too expensive

Whether you can afford it or you’re priced out, the one way everyone can respond to higher prices is to get creative. Let’s not fear being excluded from fashion’s green revolution. Instead, we can engage in ways that tackle root causes of fashion’s faux pas. We can choose, regardless of our socio-economic footing, to paint with a different kind of brush.

The cultural brush

Acknowledge lifestyle of indigenous people. Braiding Sweetgrass, a book by scientist and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Robin Wall Kimmer, is a perfect inspiration. If you or a friend can’t purchase the book, check your library’s physical and digital options. You can also search online for reviews of the book. The culture of indigenous tribes is often looked to for its sustainability. Can you imagine how to apply their practices to fashion?

The advocacy brush

Advocate for better, living wages. Try researching how others define a good lifestyle. Learn about money in different countries. You can even think about what it means to live for yourself. A simple thing to do is to follow conversations about garment working. I recommend Garment Worker Diaries as a start. For necessities such as great jeans, fair and living wages could help everyone look for them from a more responsible label. You choice can help provide living wages for those who need it most.

The behavior brush

Confront your inner consumer. Rich or poor, our consumer behavior can be hard to control. But since it’s something we can at least try, remember that there are multiple ways to shop. Could you be okay shopping thrift? Can you go without new shoes? Is it really bothering you not to have a pink t-shirt? Can you rent or swap? Can’t you find that bag at a thrift shop or in a friend’s closet? Maybe talk to your friends about the idea of sacrifice in general since that’s a biproduct of going greener. I like mentioning how I’d rather sacrifice a clothing item or pay true cost today than sacrifice my access to clean air or water tomorrow (I mean, insert shrug emoji here).

The personal brush

Wear your closet. Seriously, let none (or any advertisement) fully manipulate you into buying something. If you’re comfortable in your own wardrobe, so be it. We should normalize wearing the clothing we do have however many times and whenever we want. Here’s a dare: wear something three days straight. This could even mean the same style; for example, I wear a black skirt with a green university top every day for my chosen uniform. I feel free, and nobody bothers me. Less time picking outfits means more time to paint with the next brush.

The passive brush

Observe the fashion climate. A fun thing to do is read fashion reports to see what things could apply to other areas you’re interested in such as art or technology. Maybe there’s a group, club, or association you can investigate for conversations between like-minded people.

If you find that more Earth friendly fashion is too costly, it’s okay to just watch, listen and learn. Phew, thanks for going through that with me. To sum it all up, everyone has ways to support sustainability in fashion regardless of their status; that is, whether they can afford to be greener based on their current lot in life. To make sure we include everyone, we should encourage different forms of engagement besides more consumption. Someone may still buy fast fashion, but they may decide to wear that item 100 times to be more responsible. But if true costs were to go into effect soon, none of us should fear being excluded; instead, use these tips to keep you motivated to keep fighting for change.

–Destiny Washington

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