What I Mean When I Say Ethical Fashion is a Privilege

Merriam-Webster defines “privilege” as being granted a “benefit, advantage, or favor.” I am an extremely privileged individual. My whiteness, my economic status, my education and my able, thin body all grant me a level of advantage in society.

Some people find ethical fashion bloggers annoying—and I don’t blame them. Ethical fashion is annoying for the same reason that vegetarianism is annoying. Both require a certain level of privilege, certain allowances or advantages, in order to easily participate.

When I write something about ethical fashion with the disclaimer that it is a privilege, I am saying that it is important to acknowledge that it is not accessible to everyone.

So, what makes ethical fashion privileged?

Ethical fashion is expensive. That’s if you’re buying new, sustainably sourced items, of course. By nature, it is expensive to create well-made items without cutting corners. It is expensive to source organic materials that don’t cause an unnecessary impact on the earth. And it is especially expensive to make sure all the workers, every step of the way, are getting paid what they’re worth. A basic t-shirt on a well-known sustainable company’s website could easily run for $100. Prices will eventually go down as as demand increases, but as impact investor Christine Lu acknowledged, in an article for Bloomberg, “It’s unaffordable for the average American to be a sustainable consumer right now.” 

Whether shopping new or second-hand, it is time-consuming. It can take a ridiculous amount of time to research a company or find the ethical alternative of whatever item one is searching for. Even with resources like Good On You popping up, not all brands are documented yet, or documented well. Not too long ago, it took me an hour to find any information on a brand as well known as ModCloth. The other, popular option is to rummage the racks at thrift stores and vintage stores. For most middle-class people, thrift shopping is a hobby. It is a leisurely activity in which one spends hours picking through multi-colored, tightly packed racks for the perfect item. It is a day-long, shop-hopping, marathon event. Not everyone has that time. In a sort of twisted way, an activity that was once stigmatized and done out of necessity has become a luxury. If someone with not-too-many dollars to spend on their wardrobe would rather pick out a new garment at Forever 21, where they don’t have to spend all day looking for something “cool,” that’s none of my business.

There are almost no plus size options for ethical fashion. That’s a generous assessment. Like, when hand sanitizer says it kills 99% of germs, just in case. I haven’t been able to find many, and at least not in the lower (ha!) price ranges of popular ethical brands. Everlane’s largest top size is a 16. Same with People Tree. Size 16 is considered the American average. Googling “top ethical brands” will provide no plus size options at all. Even shopping used clothes provides its challenges. Suz Ellis wrote an insightful blog post about fatphobia in vintage and thrift stores, which I recommend reading in its entirety instead of just reading my regurgitated version. She explains that vintage shops put no priority in curating plus sized pieces, thrift stores are often not organized by size at all, and that thinner girls often snatch up larger sizes for trendy oversized looks. All avenues of ethical fashion have made it virtually impossible for plus sized individuals to participate.

There are a lot of people, and I have been guilty of this too, who participate in privileged activism—zero waste living, minimalism, ethical/sustainable fashion, vegetarianism/veganism—by using guilt tactics to try promote their ideals. The general tone of these movements often communicates, “This is an obvious choice. This isn’t even that hard. Why aren’t you doing it yet?” Those of us who say that it is easy and obvious often fail to follow those statement with an important asterisk: “for me.”  

No one should have to feel guilty for what they aren’t able to do. You are not failing if you don’t have the time, money, or body type to join movements that are set up for those who do. Because society is structured for someone like me to navigate through life with less obstacles, I can worry more about my clothes. Sometimes taking care of ourselves needs that time and energy instead.

All of that being written, I still think ethical fashion is good.

There is nothing inherently wrong with utilizing privilege to participate in activism. In many ways, I feel that it is my responsibility to acknowledge my privilege and use it in every space that I can. If I can afford to shop sustainable brands, and have the time and resources to support them, I feel like it’s kind of my duty to do so. (Of course, using one’s privilege is not relegated only to the ethical fashion realm, but that’s what this blog is about.) What is wrong is passing judgement on others and trying to force my privileged forms of activism onto them.

Let’s make good use of what privileges we have, where we can (and stop assuming everyone else has the ability to do so in the same ways).

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