Friday 21 August 2020

We Need to Talk About Privilege and Sustainable Fashion

In recent weeks there has been an increased discussion online about the fast fashion industry and shopping ethically, due to events such as the #PayUp campaign and the increased coverage of the Boohoo sweatshops in Leicester. The fact that these discussions are happening is amazing. It needs to be talked about for so many reasons (the effects fast fashion has on climate change, fighting for women globally, workers' rights, etc.). However, we need to ensure that our discussions on ethical and sustainable consumption (in all forms) are not simplified and do not turn into shaming or elitism. Like any other social issue, fast fashion is an issue which we must use an intersectional lens and attitude towards. 


If you haven’t heard of the term intersectionality before, don’t worry, it’s pretty simple. As Audre Lorde once said, it’s essentially the idea that “there is no thing as a single issue struggle because we do not live single issue lives” – that different systems of oppression work together and manifest in different ways depending on a person’s situation in society. In this post I aim to highlight the different ways certain privileges operate within sustainability and ethical consumption, certain issues which have become more prominent since ‘green’ issues have risen higher in public consciousness, and some platforms which have made certain ways of being sustainable more accessible (even if they’re nevertheless still complex and imperfect in that accessibility). 


This isn’t by any means a new topic to the discussions around fast fashion (and I will be linking to people who talk about these issues better than I can, simply based on personal experience), but I felt like this was something I needed to talk about on my blog, especially as I’m now devoting more of my posts to slow fashion and sustainability. It is really important to always have the issue of privilege in the forefront of our minds while discussing any social justice issue, and fashion is not exempt from that. I also want to add that I am very aware of my own privilege. I am a white middle class thin woman, who now lives in areas which are pretty well connected. I am constantly learning and trying to use my privilege to uplift others, and while I always want to do my best and have good intentions, I do slip up and want to be told when I do so I can do better next time. Okay, enough about me, on with the post! 

(If you want to make your reading experience more exciting and are cool with alcohol, have a drink every time you read the words sustainably or ethically, or a variation of them. Enjoy.)

Probably the most significant barrier to shopping sustainably is a financial one. Sustainable and ethical products are infamous for their high price tag - and while that price tag is necessary and just for both the planet and the livelihoods of the people making those products, it does also mean that a lot of these products are excluded from a significant portion of the population. These issues are not separate: we cannot fight for wage increases for garment workers without doing the same for working classes in other countries who buy their clothes. 


With secondhand clothes becoming more popular with middle class demographics, prices have increased, and in some places are making secondhand shops inaccessible for the very people they were designed to cater for. Like so many other areas of society, charity shops are becoming gentrified. This is so frustrating, especially when you make a change believing you are having a good impact only see that there are negative repercussions of that seemingly positive change. 


Both fashion and capitalism are complex, and there is not one single solution for this problem. A single solution is not realistic and not all solutions are good. Many create other problems in the process. With clothing production having doubled in the last 15 years, and continuing to increase, more and more garments are put into circulation, and many only being worn 7-10 times before being discarded, we have to look at ways to ensure those garments do not end up in landfill. This means that higher income people can’t and shouldn’t abandon secondhand clothes altogether. Whether new or secondhand, we should be treating all purchases in the same way, asking ourselves if we really need this item, if it is something we will love and wear a lot (at least 30 times), and stop needless and overly-frequent shopping. It is so easy to buy something for the sake of it when you have the excuse of ‘it’s sustainable!’ ‘it’s secondhand!’, when in reality you really didn’t need that item and won’t use it as much as you might want to. It is this continuing attitude of needing newness which contributes to rising prices of secondhand clothes. It is not the only contributing factor but it’s a significant one, and a good place to start. Maintaining behaviours of overconsumption while simply switching from new fast fashion items to secondhand ones won't change anything, and will probably only serve to make sustainable fashion even more inaccessible. Unpicking the consumerism we have all internalised goes a long way in terms of ethics and sustainability, and is also a way to give a finger up at capitalism. 


I do not have a solution for ensuring secondhand clothes stay at low prices (I’m trying to come up with one but I am just one gal after all). We know capitalism is horrendous, and it is the drive for increased profit which is causing these price increases. We can never get anything perfectly right. We need to create an economy which is much more circular than it is currently, but that takes a lot of time, and has a lot of challenges to overcome. 


Those who are in the financial position to do so also have a duty to support the sustainable and ethical brands which have higher price points. This is to show that there is a demand for products made to these standards, support the brands doing the right thing, and to ensure that places to buy cheaper secondhand clothes (charity shops, online secondhand resale platforms) remain accessible and affordable for those who they were intended to cater for. Similarly, if you are someone who is buying secondhand clothes from charity shops etc. and selling them on for triple or even quadruple the original price, please stop, and think about how you’re impacting others and the industry. It may be good for personal gain but nevertheless has a much wider economic impact as more and more people do the same. 


Many tips for making fashion more sustainable (and I include myself in those recommending them), are often behaviours which are already extremely common within working class circles. Repairing clothes, rewearing clothes as often as possible, buying secondhand, not buying unnecessarily, wearing hand-me-downs and swapping clothes, are a few common examples. But it is not working class people who are being asked or need to change (or at least they shouldn’t be being asked to change, and if they are it is the people asking them who are in the wrong). It is people who are not doing these things because they can afford to forego them, who need to listen to that advice and who need to act on it. 


Size inclusivity is also massive problem within sustainable fashion. Many sustainable and ethical brands only cater to a thinner customer base, and many charity shops don’t have a wide range of sizes, with some not selling larger sizes even if they have the donations with the excuse of not have the customer demographic to buy them. On platforms such as Depop, sellers often focus on smaller sizes, and regularly sell larger items so that thinner people can achieve an ‘oversized’ look. By targeting these larger items at thinner audiences, they reduce an already limited secondhand plus size market and prevent many plus size people from buying secondhand clothes, and therefore from one of the most accessible means of shopping ethical and sustainably. I will admit, I have one or two shirts myself which would probably fit that description, and while they are some of my favourite items in my wardrobe and I will continue to love them for as long as possible, I won’t be purchasing items like that anymore. 


Plus size fashion influencers and activists I recommend following include Stephanie Yeboah, Aja Barber, GINA TONIC, Lydia Morrow and Annie Wade Smith. Some size inclusive brands (both new and secondhand) include Plus Babes Vintage, And Comfort, House of Flint and Girlfriend Collective

Plus Babes Vintage

In a similar vein, tall people often have difficulty finding clothes that fit them properly secondhand, with fast fashion often being the most reliable options for their sizes. Menswear is also another area which is more difficult to find secondhand or ethical/sustainable new. Fashion is often seen culturally as the domain of women (despite most high profile designers being men), and more than half of spending on clothing worldwide in 2018 was on women's clothes, suggesting that there are potentially more items targeted to women in circulation. With the patriarchal emphasis on physical appearance, women are encouraged to have larger wardrobes, encouraged to change outfits more regularly (and along with it identity, personas, etc.), which perhaps explains the increased amount of ‘women’s’ clothes in secondhand shops and on secondhand platforms online. And this may just be me, but there seems to be less stigma around men repeating outfits than women, as it’s something I think people seem to take less notice of on men rather than on women. 


Obviously, clothes in themselves are just items and we are shoving our ideas of gender onto them, but that still has an effect on production, design and attitudes towards clothes. Many men won’t want to buy clothes that are more feminine, and fair enough. Everyone should have access to the type of clothes they want in sustainable and ethical ways, and who said having fun with clothes was not something men could do anyways?! Some sustainable brands catering for men include Uncaptive, Duvet Days, Just Harry and Brothers We Stand

Brothers We Stand

There are several other barriers which may prevent someone from being able to buy more sustainable and ethical clothing. Geographic location, for example, can be a huge barrier to accessing charity shops, small businesses and other local sustainable and ethical businesses. For example, in many rural areas, charity shops may not be well supplied, or may take a long time to get to, requiring cars or long trips on public transport. Similarly, while many sustainable and ethical businesses do sell online, for anyone wanting to look at an item in store, options tend to be very limited. For example, well-known brand Lucy and Yak opened their flagship store in Brighton (now closed and waiting a new venue). It meant that although people in Brighton and the surrounding areas could get access to these items and whatever in-store discounts and events available, others further away were limited to postal options. This suits everyone differently, with different advantages and disadvantages varying from place to place with different local businesses. As fast fashion companies tend to be huge chains, their physical stores tend to be relatively easy to access even from the most rural areas, and as a result of their wealth and power, they will be higher up in the general public conscious than a small ethical business would, and consequently more likely to be the chosen by someone who needs an item quickly or is pressed for time. 


Speaking of: another barrier is time. Being able to shop sustainably and ethical (again, this applies to all items not just clothes) takes up a lot of time, and if you don’t have that time available to you, it becomes much more difficult. Take charity shopping as an example. Charity shops can often be very hit and miss, and you often have to spend a significant amount of time sifting through the rails to find what you’re looking for, or may simply spend hours looking and not find a single item that fits you or fits the criteria you were after. The issue of time also applies to research and other forms of activism. Crafting an original email, for example, can potentially take hours depending on how detailed and well sourced you want it to be. The same goes for learning to repair or even make your own clothes. So much skill goes into repairing and creating, and that can be difficult to set aside no matter what your circumstance. Being able to repair your clothes not only requires the skill to do so, but can also require already owning certain materials and equipment to do so effectively. It can require lots of time to learn these skills, as well as either a friend or relative who is already skilled to teach you, an Internet connection to access tutorials, or indeed, private tuition - let alone the time to actually sit down and repair those items when you need to. 


As a student with no dependents, my time is pretty flexible, and any spare time I have I am able to decide what fills it myself. I don’t have to worry about clothing children who are growing quickly and need new clothes regularly. When it comes to children, I can imagine buying clothes sustainably is pretty impossible for most people. You need new things regularly, meaning that clothes do have less permanence than they do for adults. Even if you could afford to repeatedly buy sustainably and ethically made childrens’ clothes, they’re certainly not as abundant as those made for adults, and choices become more limited, and I cannot imagine the stress of being a parent even without the pressure to buy clothes ethically and sustainably. 


It is partly due to these barriers, that I prefer using the term ‘slow fashion’ to describe what I advocate for, instead of using the terms ‘sustainable fashion’ or ‘ethical fashion’. For me, those latter terms are still heavily linked with consumerism and the need to buy new, whereas the term ‘slow fashion’, at least for me, suggests a shift away from consumerism and towards a more circular and anti-capitalist lifestyle. Yes, sustainability and ethics in the production process is incredibly important, but it is also due to a culture of over-consumption that these standards have suffered. By using the term ‘slow fashion’, we are moving away from the emphasis on new items and subsequently easing the pressure off people to buy sustainably and ethically made new items when they are unable to, and suggesting a way of looking at the issue holistically. 


The barriers of time and location are why I think online platforms such as Depop, eBay and Vinted (and yes, even Instagram shops) are so brilliant. They open up the secondhand market to those who may not have access to good quality charity shops or ethical small business, or the time to rummage around a charity shop to find what they want. Saving time, connecting different parts of the country and giving clothes a longer lifecycle? What more could you want? Obvious, these platforms are by no means perfect. Depop has a reputation for people slapping high prices onto secondhand items which really shouldn’t be selling for so much, some people sell items straight from fast fashion stores without ever having the intention of wearing them prior to selling, and, like any online shopping, items may arrive differently to as expected, not fit or be damaged. But with their many problems, they do make sustainable and ethical fashion a lot more accessible. 


These barriers to sustainable and ethical consumption are symptoms of wider problems within the fashion industry but most importantly of a combination of various systems of oppression, particularly capitalism, fatphobic patriarchy, and emphasis on patriarchal gender roles, among others. While fighting for the rights of garment workers, we also have to fight for accessibility and inclusivity for the people who buy their clothes – from campaigning for increased wages and higher taxation of billionaire CEOs to increased size ranges sold across the board and a full redistribution of domestic labour. There is no immediate solution to these barriers. Ethical consumption is complex and frankly disheartening. You try your best, try to buy secondhand, but then see how the rise in secondhand buying drives up prices in some instances. Companies you trust and put your money, support or belief in disappoint you (cough cough, Reformation) and it can turn into a spiral of anxiety, guilt and confusion. But that’s not productive to anyone. As the show The Good Place emphasizes how complex ethical consumption under our current state of capitalism is, and it also highlights how we should still try our best even if we will make some damage, and to avoid ethics and eco-anxiety induced stomach cramps wherever possible (can you tell I miss that show?). Very few people can make choices which are perfectly sustainable or ethical, and those who do have those options available to them have proven time and time again that they do not want to make those changes and do not care about the repercussions of their actions on other people (Jeff Bezos, I’m looking at you). It’s about doing what we can, where we can, and ultimately holding those who can make changes but are choosing not to, to account. 


Unethical and unsustainable practices are not the fault of working class people or plus size people who buy fast fashion or secondhand out of necessity, (and are likely using those items far more than a couple of wears). The atrocities committed in the fast fashion industry are the responsibility of billionaire CEOs. They are the ones with the power to grant living wages but refuse to. They are the ones with the power to prevent people from dying in regular factory incidents at their place of work. Fast fashion is an issue which has grown with the middle classes globally, and while it is the billionaire CEOs and the colonial capitalist system who are ultimately to blame, attitudes surrounding clothes do also need to change. Viewing items are one-off, temporary and disposable needs to stop. Clothes are not and should not be disposable. To paraphrase Dogs Trust: clothes are for life, not just for Christmas (or whatever gift-giving holidays you celebrate). 


However, just because sustainable and ethical fashion is inaccessible for some disadvantaged groups does not excuse people who have the ability to make sustainable and ethical choices from doing so. There are things that everyone can do, no matter your privilege. From emailing brands, signing petitions, contacting them on social media, to taking action with your wallet and wearing your clothes as many times as possible. Lauren Bravo, author of How to Break Up With Fast Fashion, recently wrote an article which I think talks well about the attitude and perspective change which needs to occur among the predominantly middle classes, who refuse to buy garments at higher prices as they are used to fast fashion prices, and anything above that is seen as extortionate even if it is within their price range. Yes, a £1 bikini will help anyone out budget wise, but frankly do you need that new bikini? Could you use one you got last year still? If you really need a new one, could you buy from ethical and sustainable brands such as You Swim or Stay Wild Swim? Yes, there is a huge jump in price points between those brands and the £1 bikini from Missguided, but if someone is able to afford that more ethical (and ultimately better quality) item, they should choose that one. And of course, there are middle grounds. For example, if you're unable to get something secondhand - for example underwear, swimwear, etc. - buying from companies such as M&S who are still overall unethical but aren't as fast and use better materials than brands such as Boohoo and Missguided, and have price points which don't feel like such as stab in the chest. Apps such as Good On You can be really helpful with this. 


Finally, I want to highlight that while I always try to be as inclusive as I can, I will probably (almost definitely) make more mistakes when trying to advocate for slow, ethical and sustainable fashion and consumption. I never want anyone to feel shamed by anything I say, and I am always willing to be called out on my errors and to learn from them to be better in the future


If you want to learn more about fast fashion, I have a resource document called Fast Fashion 101: Stay Informed and Take Action, which has lots of articles, petitions, and lists of brands to both support and avoid (if possible), and will hopefully be useful! 

If you liked this post you might like: Quitting Fast Fashion: Where to Start


  1. Really enjoyed reading this post and seeing issues in this space highlighted! Thanks Jemima.

    Besma |

  2. Incredible post, I really enjoyed reading this! You highlighted so many important facts and this is definitely a post everybody needs to read to spread more awareness xx

  3. good job, such an amazing read.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.