Sustainable Fashion and Privilege | Ruffled Jumpsuit and Striped Sandals
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A few weeks ago, while scrolling through Instagram, a sustainable fashion account I follow posted a picture of the ruins of the Rana Plaza where a garment factory collapsed in 2013, killing over 100 people. These workers made a lot of the clothes in fast fashion brands that people consume daily. While the collapse was heartbreaking, it did inspire me to go on a journey towards a more sustainable closet. However, I was stopped in my introspection to do better when I read some of the comments from other sustainable fashion bloggers. Many accounts were saying things like, “how could anyone buy fast fashion??” and the like. This led me to think about the fact that I was a HUGE fast fashion consumer and about 70% of my closet consists of clothes from places like H&M, Forever 21, Zara, Loft, and J.Crew. How could I purchase clothes from these fast fashion brands, conscious consumer that I am? How can many people ignore the plight of the factory worker stitching our clothes in unsafe conditions for pennies a day? How could we all ignore the cost of fast fashion to the environment? How could anyone?
I’ll tell you how:
Hating fast fashion is a privilege
Shammara Lawrence wrote a great piece in The Financial Diet about while we all know the impact fast fashion has on the environment and the low wages and awful working conditions for the garment workers are also an issue, a lot of sustainable fashion bloggers puts the onus of changing the culture on the consumers alone.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read articles about different ways people can be more eco-friendly, wherein the author touts the benefits of investment pieces without acknowledging how pricey that can be. Their advice usually goes something like this: “Don’t purchase those faux leather boots for $40, invest on a pair made of real leather instead. It feels way more luxe and you’ll get more bang for your buck.” While well-intentioned, it’s an incredibly privileged mindset that isolates consumers that only have $40 (or less) to spend on shoes.
I read that piece Lawrence wrote and thought about my own wardrobe. I touched on why my current wardrobe full of fast fashion is the way it is right now before - Once upon a time, I was a broke college student and then a broke recent grad paying off student loans. I specifically remember a time when I was called for a job interview and I literally didn’t have money to buy from a high-end, slow fashion store for the interview, nor did I have time to sift through my local thrift store, hoping that I would find a suit that fit well without tailoring because I knew I wouldn’t have the time or money to pay for the tailor. What did I do? I went to H&M and bought cheap slacks, blazers, and blouses for my new job. If you had asked me then, “how could you buy from H&M?” I would have told you to get off your high horse. I couldn’t afford anything but fast fashion at the time and for anyone to come and judge me on how I should and shouldn’t spend my money has obviously never been in the lower income bracket before.
And don’t get me started on the lack of inclusive sizing in the sustainable fashion movement - if you’re plus-sized, I’m sure the options for you are limited already. To turn the question back on its head, how can we shame someone for buying from fast fashion companies when slow fashion companies don’t offer clothes that fit?
Moral Absolutism in a Capitalist System
On airplanes, when they explain emergency procedures, they tell you that when oxygen masks come down, you have to put yours on first before you help others. That’s because your own needs must be met to be able to care for others. It’s the same when it comes to fast fashion. If you’re someone who can afford to buy sustainable clothes and investment pieces regularly and look down at people who are making fast fashion purchases, you may not be looking at the whole picture of someone’s life. I’ve been fully employed and still struggling to make my student loan payments on time so I can say that being “low-income” looks different on everyone. I’m all for sustainable clothing and living options but there are people in the sustainable fashion movement who speak from a place of moral absolutism which does not exist in a capitalist system. I WILL NOT follow any movement that moralizes people’s clothing choices. You can’t ask people who work 40+ hours a week and live near the poverty line to help solve a problem they didn’t really create. Instead of going after individuals, we should unite together and demand better from the companies who make clothes. Even H&M got the hint and created their eco-conscious line. Is it perfect? No, but it’s a start and we should move in that direction.
what can I do instead?
If you’re on a limited budget but still want to do your part to shop sustainably, here are a few things you can do instead of heading to your nearest Forever 21:
Shop your own closet. I have a LARGE collection of fast fashion pieces that I haven’t thrown out, just because that would, frankly, be even worse for the environment. Wear your clothes, take good care of them, and make them last longer than they’re “supposed” to. I have a t-shirt from Forever 21 that I bought 3 years ago. How many times have we all been told that fast fashion pieces fall apart after a few wears? Well, they don’t necessarily have to if you take good care of them.
Secondhand shopping: Thrift stores are your friends! You’re giving new life to an old piece of clothing. Thrifting is more accessible to us now than it ever was - everyone knows about Goodwill and Salvation Army but if you don’t live near a thrift store, ThredUP is an online thrift shop and Etsy is also a great resource - in fact, I’ve ought a few vintage pieces from Etsy shops last year. Additionally, Poshmark is a great place to find wardrobe treasures as are consignment shops, both local and online (think RealReal).
Consider renting. How many influencers have you seen promoting Rent the Runway Unlimited? It’s a great way to try new outfits without breaking the bank and increasing our carbon footprint. Plus, they’re size-inclusive so there’s that.