By Mary Atkinson
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.
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.
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.
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.