Is The Sustainable Fashion Movement Elitist?

People are being left out of the conversation

The sustainability movement has gained major strides in recent years and trickled down into mainstream media. The word "sustainable" has become a household buzzword for marketing just about anything — from beauty to food to fashion. Conversations around it often revolve around how it is a more conscious, ethical and overall better choice. But one thing that's not always discussed is if going sustainable an accessible choice anyone can make, especially in fashion where sustainable clothing often comes with a hefty price tag. 

Beige Clothes On A Rack

Not everyone can afford to be sustainable. (Photo from: Alyssa Strohmann via Unsplash)

While the intention behind promoting sustainable fashion is a noble one to begin with, it can't be ignored that there are people who are being left out of the conversation, or worse, made to feel guilty about buying fast fashion when it's all that fits their budget or their personal style (because let's face it, sustainable fashion is dominated by a minimalist aesthetic). To be perfectly clear, the point of this article is not to undermine sustainable fashion but rather to address areas that need improvement. You can love something and still criticise its flaws. And only by acknowledging what's lacking can we move forward to a more sustainable future.

It's necessary to ask: is the sustainable fashion movement elitist? More importantly, is there a way to make it accessible for all? 

What makes sustainable fashion inaccessible (for now)

Before we can discuss solutions, we first have to talk about the current situation. What makes sustainable fashion inaccessible to many? Simply put, it's because sustainable clothing is more expensive to make. Unlike producing a run-of-the-mill tee for a fast-fashion outlet, sustainable brands often work with communities, most of the time going out of their way to ensure fair pay and sourced materials in an ethical manner.

Rags2Riches founder Reese Fernandez gave us a peek on what goes on behind the scenes. "If we really take into consideration the environmental costs and fair labour costs, fashion items will be much more expensive than what we are used to," she said. "It takes a lot of time and effort to create designs that are intentional, they generally source from communities who they pay living wages to, they are often small companies that produce small quantities (thus, overhead costs are spread out to only a few items), and some of them create products fully handmade from scratch (which means more labour costs)."

What you get, in Reese's words, is a piece "made with utmost care and respect for people and the planet". And in every way, this rings true. However, the unfortunate truth is that not everyone can afford it. On second thoughts then, does it even need to be affordable for all? Because what makes it inaccessible is also what makes it sustainable. Lower pricing may very well mean a compromise in other areas. So, what now?

Sustainable fashion is for the privileged

Sustainable Fashion Signs In A Room

Less new clothing, less waste. (Photo from: Cherie Birkner via Unsplash)

In promoting social movements such as sustainable clothing, most messages are sweeping declarations encouraging everyone to go sustainable completely and abandon everything else. But as we've pointed out, to a certain extent, it isn't fair to ask it from everyone. What could be an option, though, is to ask it from those who can. Because it's often those who have disposable income that need to tweak their lifestyle. It’s often the privileged who have a bigger carbon footprint from flights taken during leisure travels, from using a car, from their meals, and of course, from buying more clothes. With this in mind, it does kind of make sense to market sustainable fashion to the “can-affords”. After all, this is the demographic that patronise cheap goods when they can afford not to. 

By "can-affords", it could very well mean you. You may not be a millionaire, but if you earn more than enough to be able to support sustainable fashion, then why not do so?

What about the rest of us

While sustainable fashion isn't accessible to everyone, sustainability as a whole is something we can contribute to. There's more than one way to be sustainable and there are other meaningful acts than buying a new sustainable dress.

Sustainable Clothing On Rack

Sustainability isn't a competition. (Photo from: Charles Etoroma via Unsplash)

Even buying fast fashion isn't a problem in itself, it's when we do it in excess that makes it a driving force for exploitation and destruction. 

Patagonia's "Don't Buy This Jacket" campaign highlights the perils of overconsumption.

What it all comes down to is that sustainability isn’t a competition, and it won’t do good to shame people who buy fast fashion if you’re not privy to their personal and economic situation. We should move away from the black-and-white mentality that perpetuates the notion that someone is either 100% sustainable or 100% into the fast fashion frenzy. In truth, it’s always a mix and balance between the two. And if you can take the better option, do it, because not everyone is as privileged to make these choices.

(Cover photo from: Alyssa Strohmann via Unsplash)

Next, learn about these styling hacks to make clothes fit better.

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