Is Sustainable Fashion Elitist? #682


Calling out the industry’s environmental footprint and the true cost of making clothes has touched off a complex and heated debate about the accessibility and affordability of lower-impact fashion.

A few weeks ago, fashion writer Derek Guy was happily tweeting about menswear for a relatively niche audience of fellow enthusiasts, sharing opinions he thought were pretty uncontroversial about buying less, but better and valuing quality investment pieces over cut-price fast fashion products.

Then the backlash started. A change to Twitter’s algorithm had made his posts visible to a much broader audience, and some weren’t happy. Criticism of affordable fast fashion was classist, according to a flurry of (sometimes nasty) comments. Recommendations to seek out secondhand treasures and make long-term purchases were lambasted as impractical and out-of-touch.

Guy had stumbled into the crosshairs of an increasingly charged debate about the messy links between consumption, class and climate impact, begging the question: Is the conversation about sustainable fashion elitist?

A Focus on Fast Fashion

In theory, the advice offered by Guy and other sustainable fashion advocates is both accessible and affordable to the average consumer: Buy less stuff, take good care of it, and don’t be wasteful or treat products as disposable.

But the conversation hits a nerve because it plays into deep cultural divisions and broader anxieties about the unequal ways climate change — and efforts to address it — are likely to affect society.

In fashion, criticism of the industry’s impact is typically focused on low-cost, fast-fashion labels. Low prices and high volumes are easy to connect to bad labour practices, waste and overconsumption. But affordable apparel brands have also made fashion accessible to more people than ever before.

Meanwhile, products branded as “sustainable” often carry a heftier price tag (sometimes because making a product responsibly costs more, but sometimes because brands use the feel-good marketing as a justification to charge a premium). And options put forward as more responsible — like hunting for secondhand pieces in the right size and condition or mending damaged clothes — all take time and effort.

That’s opened the way for criticism of fast fashion to be interpreted as shaming poorer consumers, and calls for mindful consumption to be viewed as an argument that only the wealthy should be allowed new things.

The topic is particularly charged because it’s personal, with some consumers left bristling in defence of their own shopping habits.

“A lot of people have their identity wrapped up in consumerism, and shopping, and buying and identifying with these brands,” said Cora Harrington, a fashion writer and lingerie expert, whose commentary on more mindful and sustainable shopping habits has drawn ire on social media. “It’s difficult for them to let that go.”

The Myth of “Sustainable” Luxury

The debate has been fuelled by perceptions — actively encouraged by luxury labels — that, in contrast to fast fashion, expensive clothes are made with standards as high as their prices.

Sustainability advocates, however, are keen to point out that exploitation and pollution can happen at every price point.

Time and again, there is this misconception that if I pay more for a product, then certainly it must be more environmentally friendly, and people [in the supply chain] must be paid fairly,” said Ayesha Barenblat, founder and chief executive of ethical fashion advocacy group Remake. But luxury brands are notoriously opaque, using the power of their brand “to get away with not sharing … working conditions or human rights violations.”

And while they may not stock hundreds of thousands of new styles every day like ultra-fast-fashion giant Shein, the biggest names in luxury are still global megabrands that produce huge volumes of resource-intensive clothes and leather goods, generating desire for constant newness with every seasonal collection and capsule.

In the 2022 edition of BoF’s Sustainability Index, the 10 biggest luxury groups outperformed those in the high-street and sportswear categories, but not by much. Prada Group, Capri and Richemont ranked among the assessment’s 10 lowest-scoring brands.

“The opposite of fast fashion is sustainable fashion,” said Harrington. “[But] the opposite of exploitative fashion is not luxury.”

Whose Fault Is It Anyway?

The point, sustainable fashion advocates argue, is less about what you buy than how you shop. No one has a right to be trendy at the expense of people and the planet, and defending cheap, disposable clothing made by poorly paid workers — many of them women, many of them in the Global South — is hardly a consistent exercise in class solidarity.

“I think people’s relationship with their clothes has to change,” said Guy. “If you bought a fast fashion wardrobe — I think it’s still terrible because it’s made from plastics and it’s not good for the environment, and in my view is already harmful to labour — but let’s say you bought it and it’s already in your wardrobe. The most sustainable thing is to wear that forever.”

Equally, it’s not the world’s poorest consumers who are bolstering the revenues of fast fashion giants, but relatively wealthier shoppers who are stuffing their closets with frequent Shein hauls.

On average, the richest 20 percent of fashion consumers have a carbon footprint 20 times higher than the poorest 20 percent, according to a November 2022 report by the Hot or Cool Institute and the Rapid Transition Alliance. The richest subset of consumers in wealthy countries like the UK, US and Japan need to buy an average of just five new garments per year by the end of this decade in order to align with global climate targets, it found.

“We have to always be conscious of the fact that what’s best for us is not always the best for the world,” said Lakyn Carlton, an LA-based stylist and sustainability advocate. “It’s kind of a balancing act.”

It’s an uncomfortable topic that sparks strong reactions because it forces people to confront the role they — and their shopping habits — play in big, systemic problems. And the solutions on offer aren’t as simple and easy as continuing with the status quo.

Better regulation of the fashion industry, which would shift more of the onus from consumers to brands, would take a lot of the complexity and finger-pointing out of the sustainable fashion conversation.

“Without any regulatory framework, you’re out … in no man’s land, and it’s very confusing for customers,” said Barenblat. “We should acknowledge the economic barriers, and also recognise that showing up in this movement is not just about shopping. It’s about really locking arms to build a fairer, more just system.”

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