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).

My Top 5 Ethical and Sustainable Brands

We are constantly consuming ads from fast fashion brands all over social media, but sometimes finding those careful and conscious brands seems like a lot of work. I have compiled a list of my favorite ethical brands, big and small, to make finding them a little easier.

Culture Flock

culture flock

Culture Flock creates playful and positive graphic tees and sweatshirts designed by artist right here in Missouri. They were an online only store for years, but, as of October 11th, they opened a brick and mortar store In Springfield, MO.

Price Range: $-$$

The prices are pretty typical, around $25 for tees and $45 for sweatshirts. Keep in mind that this is a small, artist run business creating unique and lasting designs, so these prices are not too shabby at all. Older designs will often be on sale for less, as well.

Ethics Statement:

“We design, create, and handprint all of our wearables in a historic warehouse space in downtown Springfield, MO. We print our designs on Bella + Canvas or Alternative Apparel clothing. Both of these manufacturers place a high priority on social responsibility & sustainable practices, which is why we’ve chosen to work with them.”

Uniqlo

uniqlo

I have no words for Uniqlo. Or maybe too many. Considering Uniqlo is a large brand that can be found in malls, they do as much as a brand of their size can to reduce waste. They create high-quality basics that come in an array of different colors. Uniqlo is a great brand to use as the building blocks of your wardrobe. And might I add, the pieces I own from Uniqlo are all very professional and COMFY AS HECK. Although the best part of shopping ethically is supporting smaller brands, shop here if you need something in a crunch and don’t have time to search.

Price Range: $ !!!

One of the most inexpensive sustainable brands on the known planet, probably. They have the closest rival in pricing to fast fashion brands.

Ethics Statement:

Here is a link to Uniqlo’s sustainability page. It is information overload in the best way possible. The more information a company can give us on their sustainability practices, the better.

Uniqlo seeks to reduce waste by creating long lasting products and making sure their products that are no longer being used are given to those in need if in good condition or recycled if no longer wearable. Their recycling program is much more nuanced and further developed than the gimmicky one put on by H&M. How clothes are recycled is tailored specifically to the area each store is placed.

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Take a look at number 4. “Clothing is delivered in consideration of local needs, climate, culture, and religion.” This program is incredible well thought out and there is plenty more information available.

I could summarize all day, but instead take a look at their site to see further information on their factories and values.

Big Bud Press

big bug 1

Not to be dramatic, but I love Big Bud Press more than I love myself. Big Bud offers a line  of colorful unisex clothing that is made in LA. They have t-shirts, jumpsuits, fanny-packs, trousers, backpacks and more.

Price Range: $$-$$$

A bit on the pricier side, with t-shirts coming in at about $40 and jumpsuits at $160. But hot dang, those jumpsuits get me every time. You get what you pay for with this brand: a unique item that is packed full of fun.

Ethics Statement:

“All of Big Bud’s products are very proudly USA made and we take pride in our high quality and attention to detail!” This statement doesn’t seem like much, right? So, how do I know that they’re ethical?

They don’t have all the information on their main website, but they are very transparent on social media. There is a highlight on their Instagram dedicated to production, where they keep videos of their items being sewn and t-shirts being printed. As a smaller brand, they do not have to worry as much about producing excess waste. Any defective or messed up items are sold at deeply discounted sales rather than being thrown out.

Everlane

Hip and minimalist are the two words I would use to describe Everlane. They have quality constructed basics, but basics that are very “in”. They offer a few different styles in several different muted tones.

Price Range: $$-$$$

I like to use t-shirts as a comparison point, so note that Everlane’s tees fall around $32 dollars. Denim runs around $68, but they are built to last. I would note that they seem to run a little small, as I has trouble fitting into a pair in my usual size.

Ethics Statement:

“We spend months finding the best factories around the world–the same ones that produce your favorite designer labels. We visit them often and build strong personal relationships with the owners. Each factory is given a compliance audit to evaluate factors like fair wages, reasonable hours, and environment. Our goal? A score of 90 or above for every factory.”

Everlane also offers a break down of how much their items cost to make, and then shows how much they charge in comparison. “Radically transparent” is there motto.

Click through profiles of every one of their factories here.

Patagonia

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Surprise! The choice attire of frat boys everywhere is actually one of the leading brands in sustainability.

Ethics Statement:

“Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”

Patagonia offers ambitiously comprehensive information on their production on their website. They offer insight on everything from the growing of their organic cotton to their fair trade certified factories. They even give grants to grass roots activists around the word to further environmentalism outside of their company as well. They also have a section of their website titled “Worn Wear” which offers used Patagonia gear at a discounted price.

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This is just scratching the surface on brands that offer a plethora of different styles without harming humanity or the only earth we’ve got. If you didn’t see a brand that piqued your interest, I hope you were, at least, able to see that there is no reason to settle for fast fashion brands.