To Shop Ethically is a Privilege Many Cannot Afford

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As a result of growing environmental awareness around the harmful effects of fast fashion, the idea of shopping sustainably and ethically has grown exponentially in recent years.

Fast fashion is cheap, accessible, readily available clothing on the high street, often copying emerging styles from previous fashion weeks and seasons, taking high fashion trends to a widely accessible platform.

Unfortunately, this has devastating environmental and human impacts. As indicated by the word ‘fast’, these garments are produced at high speed and low cost. Just one cotton t-shirt requires three thousand litres of water for production and environmental effects often coincide with detrimental working conditions for garment workers.

To shop ethically is a privilege which we all should engage in if we can afford to

Recently, this has been displayed through the scandals surrounding Boohoo and Kylie and Kendall Jenner. Boohoo’s supplier allegedly illegally underpaid workers at £3.50 an hour in Leicester and provided unacceptable working conditions. Kendall and Kylie Jenner failed to pay their staff in Bangladesh, as alleged by the non-profit organisation dedicated to ethical fashion production – Remake.

In contrast, the ethical and sustainable fashion movement is defined by the desire to avoid these environmental effects and the exploitation of garment workers.

However, to shop ethically is a privilege many people simply cannot afford. With the rise of the ethical fashion movement, an unfortunate culture of shaming those who engage in fast fashion has followed, perpetuated by those who are unaware of the privilege they hold in being able to be selective in consumer decisions.

Fast fashion brought about the ability for the masses to engage in fashion trends which had previously been reserved for the upper classes who could afford to engage in high fashion. This is evidenced historically in eighteenth-century England when printed cottons were relatively expensive so became exclusive to affluent middle and upper classes.

Through ethical boycotts of fast fashion, people from lower-income backgrounds are at risk of being left excluded from fashion as a whole

Nevertheless, after the development of the cotton industry in the early nineteenth century printed cottons became cheaper which led to working-class women being able to afford them, subsequently increasing their access to fashion trends and ability to engage in fashion as a whole.

Fashion has long been considered a form of status, with wealthier individuals most able to afford to keep up with trends and engage in fashion. Many used fashion as a method of class differentiation and as a way to project the image they desired, seen particularly in the idea of ‘professionalism’ as a dress code.

Through ethical boycotts of fast fashion, people from lower-income backgrounds are at risk of being left excluded from fashion as a whole – just as they were historically – and this could have a detrimental impact due to the projection of image often used in fashion.

Although more ethical fashion brands have emerged as the trend surges in popularity, particularly with Gen Z, these brands unfortunately come with a higher price tag due to their slower production processes and higher ethical standards, prices which many cannot afford to pay. This risks leaving those from lower-income backgrounds with few options when clothing themselves, let alone keeping up with trends and looking ‘professional’, further depriving them of social and cultural status.

What about the second-hand market, I hear you ask? Depop and other re-selling apps are often cited as ways to make sustainable/ethical fashion more affordable and accessible and charity shops have been re-defined as in-trend places to shop. Unfortunately, the popularisation of these sustainable shopping options has also caused issues for lower income individuals.

Just one cotton t-shirt requires three thousand litres of water for production

The rise of re-selling apps such as Depop has caused a rise in online re-sellers, many of whom shop in charity shops at affordable prices. By marking up prices in order to make a profit, these re-sellers inadvertently make the second-hand market inaccessible for people from lower-income backgrounds, pricing them out of shops and a market that was once accessible.

To counter this many charity shops have also raised prices to try and ‘cut out the middleman’, by implication gentrifying the second-hand market. Second-hand shopping is also not accessible for all due to sizing since charity shops stock random sizes as per donations, creating difficulties for plus size individuals on a budget.

To shop ethically is a privilege which we all should engage in if we can afford to. However, while doing this we should learn not to judge when someone cannot because sustainable/ethical fashion is not yet affordable or accessible for all.

Image: Prudence Earl via Unsplash

Correction: this article has been amended to make clear that Boohoo’s supplier was ‘allegedly’ involved in the activities mentioned. We apologise for the error.

6 thoughts on “To Shop Ethically is a Privilege Many Cannot Afford

  • Mary, you are running the risks of legal action with false statement like:

    “Boohoo illegally underpaid workers at £3.50 an hour in Leicester and provided unacceptable working conditions.”

    Boohoo didn’t underpay anyone, it’s Boohoo’s suppliers allegedly paid workers as little as £3.50 an hour.

    Your journalism standards are poor, you have missed it’s Boohoo suppliers and the accusations have not been proven yet.

    I suggest you modify the article accordingly.

    Reply
  • Factually wrong:

    “Boohoo illegally underpaid workers at £3.50 an hour in Leicester and provided unacceptable working conditions.”

    As the other person commented above, it’s Boohoo’s suppliers who are allegedly at fault.

    Reply
  • Ditto the other comments. A factually incorrect article where you expose yourself to legal action.
    Poor and lazy journalism.

    Reply
  • Can’t believe you publish some old news from July. COPY + PASTE newspaper.

    Reply
  • Wow really not sure why everyone else is being so rude… seems completely unnecessary. I think especially eBay auctions can still be a great way to pick up bargains, but the difficulties of larger clothing are so true! Such an interesting and thought-provoking article.

    Reply
  • Thought provoking article although I would wish other points were addressed, for example a key part of ethically sourced fashion comes with the move to change the culture surrounding trends. You simply can’t keep up with almost weekly changing trends (the way we do with fast fashion) with ethically sourced clothes even if you could afford it. Changing our relationship with fashion means viewing clothes as a long-term investment rather than something we do as easily as going grocery shopping. That means buying ethically made clothes that will last ten years of wearing regularly – which means sticking to a particular style garment for ten years. That doesn’t sound feasible to lots of people in our generation because some people can’t imagine wearing clothes that are no longer trendy, even if they were only bought a few months ago. So this quote from the article ” let alone keeping up with trends … further depriving them of social and cultural status.” wouldn’t be as relevant, because committing to ethically sourced fashion means changing the culture of trends completely.

    I also feel like a discussion about weighing the “social and cultural status” benefit versus the real human and environmental cost of buying fast fashion would be extremely relevant and interesting. As someone who can’t easily afford to buy ethically made clothes all the time, I think about this every time I walk into a fast fashion store, so I (and lots of others) try to find what I want in a charity shop first. This culture shift also means educating ourselves on how to mend/alter clothing that we already have or have bought from a charity shop in order to make them last longer, or even to keep up with trends without the wasteful element of buying a new garment altogether. There are many Youtubers gaining a lot of fame for doing just this and teaching others how to do it too.

    Also while I completely agree about the importance of being able to look professional cheaply, formal clothes from fast fashion stores are often ill-fitted and badly tailored because those kinds of garments take a lot of skill and need to be made to fit for each individual, which doesn’t correlate well to mass produced clothes that are made for an average size.

    Altogether good job on the article! I look forward to reading more!

    Reply

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