You Can’t Sit with Us: The Elitist world of Sustainable fashion

Alexea Johnston, Queens University.

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In the past, the fashion. Fashion has recently become a hot topic in environmental and social rights advocacy movements, and the demand for sustainable products has dramatically increased. Over the past decade, the industry that once relied upon unethical and exploitative means of producing their products has begun to shift towards ethical and sustainable fashion.

In consequence to the growing climate change movement, the environmental impact from producing cheap clothing has been called into question.  According to an article published by Techcrunch, “every year, the textile industry alone spits out 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gases,” and 10% of greenhouse gas emissions is caused by the apparel industry.

The sustainable fashion movement urges consumers to shop consciously and to avoid fast fashion brands. The term, “fast fashion,” refers to low-cost clothing that move quickly through stores in order to meet the newest trends. This term is typically linked to brands such as Zara, H&M, Zaful, and Fashion Nova. Italian Founder of Eco-Age and producer of the documentary The True Cost, Livia Firth argues that “fast fashion is like fast food. After the sugar rush, it just leaves a bad taste in your mouth”. Similarly, Virgil Abloh, founder of high-end streetwear brand Off-White, commented “Don’t let Zara and Uniqlo educate you on the price of a garment because that’s not fashion. That’s McDonald’s.”.

When we analyze how these critics of fast fashion frequently compare fast fashion to fast food, we can see their comments often drip elitism and privilege. Similar to fast food, the fast fashion industry is often shamed due to the ethics surrounding sustainability and production, but fast food consumption is still largely accepted due to its efficiency and accessibility for the lower- and middle-classes. The criticism of fast and unhealthy food consumption is also regularly associated with racism, classism and fat-shaming (Vansintjan, 2013; Ellen, 2015). We can see that moralists who choose to shame the consumers of fast fashion are seemingly analogous to those who shame the consumers of fast food, further raising the question: is sustainable consumption a privilege?

Telling individuals with little disposable income to only shop for ethically sourced clothes is synonymous to Marie Antoinette saying, “let them eat cake!” Sustainable fashion comes with an expensive price tag that most of us are unable to afford. For instance, Zara has t-shirts priced as low as $5. In comparison, the price of a t-shirt at Frank and Oak, a Montreal-based sustainable clothing company, begins at $29.50, or Franc, another Canadian Sustainable clothing retailer, whose basic t-shirts are $55.00. The higher price is suggested to be because of the price of production and the more durable or recycled material used in many sustainable products.

Due to better construction, sustainable fashion advocates argue that they are worth the investment. However, at over six times the price, many individuals do not have the means to purchase merchandise from more expensive retailers. While the fast fashion industry may be a product of the insatiability of our consumer-driven culture, individuals living around the poverty line have little choice but to purchase fast fashion products.

Thrift shopping is another, more affordable, method for consumers to shop sustainably. A ThredUP 2019 research report said that over the past three years the fashion resale market is growing 21 times faster than the retail market, largely due to millennial and generation Z consumers who were found to be adopting secondhand shopping 2.5 times faster than any other generation. Moreover, the online presence of resale websites such as ThredUp and Depop have allow for more accessible platforms to both buy and sell used and vintage products.

Still,, there are still considerable accessibility issues when it comes to thrift shopping. Thrift shopping is not completely reliable and the access one has to secondhand goods largely depends on geographic location and size. For those unwilling to pay the hefty shipping fees that come with buying repurposed clothing online, local thrift stores may be the only option. Unfortunately, the stock of thrift stores is largely dependent on the location and demographic of donators. For instance, in rural areas thee demands for secondhand goods outweigh the supply. In these areas, stocks are heavily picked over and poor quality clothes are often left behind. The quality of stock is also affected by whether the secondhand store is located in higher or lower income neighborhoods. In the higher income neighborhoods, donations of name-brand items and the gentrification of thrift shopping have led to an evident rise in prices.

Additionally, finding good quality clothing in thrift stores becomes increasingly difficult for those with unconventional body types, such as plus sized and curvy women. Ironically,  the popularization of thrift shopping has only worsened the difficulty to find secondhand clothing in plus sizes. The demand for plus-size secondhand clothing has increased largely due to the fad of refurbishing large clothing items to fit thinner individuals; negatively affecting the access plus sized people have to quality vintage and recycled goods.

The fashion industry have always been a source of class issues and elitism. Expensive, high end brands are seen as a symbol of wealth. The new war between fast fashion and sustainable clothing is slowly turning fashion to be symbolic of moral ideology as well. Access to affordable clothing is important to everyone. Apart from survival purposes, fashion and clothing is often used as a visual expression of personal identity, cultural identity and gives individuals a sense of worth. The shift towards sustainability leaves behind those who are unable to afford their style in an affordable brand. It is through a privileged lens that we demand people to relinquish their individuality and self-worth, for a small environmental impact compared to the companies themselves.

In the current push to alleviate the elitism, fatphobia and racism that has been engrained in the fashion industry for years, we should be making an effort to create more inclusive spaces instead of generating new guidelines further ostracizing excluded and marginalized individuals. Dressing well is important to people of all social status, class and size. While the push for more ethical production of material goods is required, looking down on those who may not be able to afford the heavy price tag of sustainable clothes is not. Environmental advocacy does not pardon privileged individuals choosing to perpetuate classist and elitist ideals. Instead of shaming consumers, we should push companies to produce more accessible ethical products.

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References:

“2019 Fashion Resale Market and Trend Report.” ThredUP, www.thredup.com/resale.

Ellen, Barbara (2015) “It’s Simply Harder to Eat Well When You Are Poor” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/29/kis-junk-food-dont-blame-parents.

Elpa, Ann Marie. (2018). “Exploring the Gentrification of Thrift Stores.” The Varsity, 17 Aug. 2018, thevarsity.ca/2018/08/07/exploring-the-gentrification-of-thrift-stores/.

Fritz, Misty. (2019) “Buying Plus-Size Clothes at Thrift Stores Is a Pain in the A**.” Medium, EmFATic, medium.com/emfatic/buying-plus-size-clothes-at-thrift-stores-is-a-pain-in-the-a-7b2de2f6af83.

Gee, Tabi Jackson. (2019) “Is Fast Fashion A Class Issue?” Refinery29, www.refinery29.com/en-gb/2017/04/149877/fast-fashion-social-issue.

Kateman, Brian. (2019) “Ethical Fashion Is on the Rise.” TechCrunch, TechCrunch, techcrunch.com/2019/08/03/ethical-fashion-is-on-the-rise/.

Popielska, Natalia.(2019)  “Ethical Is the New Black: It’s Time for a Fashion Revolution.” World Fair Trade Organization, wfto.com/article/ethical-new-black-its-time-fashion-revolution.

Reints, Renae. (2019) “The Resale Market Is Taking Over Fast Fashion, Report Says.” Fortune, fortune.com/2019/03/19/resale-clothing-economy-growth/.

Vansintjan, Aaron. (2013). “The racism in healthy food.”  TheMcGillDaily. https://www.mcgilldaily.com/2013/10/the-racism-in-healthy-food/

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