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).

How to Know If a Brand is Sustainable, Greenwashing, or Just Hoping You Won’t Ask

Look, some clothing brands are like your toxic ex. They only pretend to clean up their act when they’re afraid you’ll leave them. That’s what we call greenwashing. The term has been floating around for years but is especially relevant as the idea of sustainability continues to gain popularity in the fashion world. In an article for the Guardian, Bruce Watson defines greenwashing as the name for when businesses “present themselves as caring environmental stewards, even as they [are] engaging in environmentally unsustainable practices.” Figuring out who is telling the truth, who is a good liar, and who isn’t even trying can feel messy, so I am detailing a few different ways to check up on a business’s sustainability practices.

Start on the website. Sometimes it is simpler than you think. If a brand is really transparent, they’re going to have the information easily accessible from their homepage. Being a responsible brand takes a lot of work, so bragging is of upmost priority. Compare, for example, the website’s of  Patagonia and Forever 21. “Inside Patagonia” lives at the top of the screen on Patagonia’s main menu bar, linking you directly to their sustainability practices. In contrast, you won’t find any information on Forever 21’s homepage until you scroll all the way to no-man’s-land at the bottom of the screen, where a “Social Responsibility” tab is found. Sometimes these tabs will have titles like “about” or “ethics statement” instead. If you’ve done all the clicking you can on your favorite brand’s site to no avail, then there is pretty much no chance they are sustainable. They aren’t even trying to pacify you. Although sometimes eagerness is a sign of greenwashing, generally brands that are green are going to be upfront about it.

Know difference between evidence and fluff. Ask yourself if the brand is just stating broad claims or if they are answering the question of how. I’m going to stick with our previous examples. Some companies’ whole idea of sustainability is writing somewhere on their website “We love the earth and care about our workers!” But, like, what does that even mean? How? In what specific ways are they proving that they care? If their CEO just sits in an office somewhere and thinks really, really hard about putting positive vibes into the universe, that’s not good enough. Look for meaningful and tangible evidence at a structural level. Sticking with our past examples, Patagonia’s information spans from how their cotton is produced to where their wool is sourced from to what a living wage means to them. That is evidence.

Fluff can take many shapes and forms. Often the brand’s fluff is some type of once a year event, like employees planting trees or a recycling drop-off, which may sound nice but in reality is irrelevant to what we are interested in– how the company functions on a structural level. The article “Selling and Sustainability Primer for Marketers” published by Futerra is actually meant for businesses to read rather than consumers, but it has an easy to read list of commonly used greenwashing techniques to look out for on page 11. Forever 21 is guilty of many of these, such as “Emphasizing one tiny green attribute when everything else is un-green.” It’s like throwing down a smoke bomb so they can run away. The first bullet on their sustainability page states that their shopping bags are recyclable. Cool beans, F21. I’ve never met a plastic bag that couldn’t be recycled. What’s going on in your factories?

Give that bad boy a google. If you’ve read the sustainability page and are still feeling a little uneasy it’s fine to start broadly with Google. If it is a very large company, you may be able to find lots of articles or reports on it. If it has had any scandals, those will pop up pretty quickly. Use keyword like “ethics,” “sustainability,” or “factories.”

Know the difference in expectation for different business models. We have to have different expectations for different types and sizes of businesses. For instance, for a large brand it is important to look for information on factory emissions and fair wages. In comparison, when researching small businesses or local businesses, you may not need quite as much information to know that they are sustainable. When a business is small, they don’t have the means to be wasteful. If items are handmade and the staff is small, then there is no need to reject them for not having factory information because they don’t even have a factory. Unless they are outsourcing, just by the way that they are structured, smaller businesses are not going to be an issue. By the same logic, a fast fashion company cannot be truly sustainable by definition because they profit off of the concept of cheap, fast, and disposable. If you see a cute sweater in the window and know you can check back next week to find it on the clearance rack, the store is functioning under the fast fashion model.

It may feel daunting to do the research at first, but it gets way easier as you get used to it. As consumers, we decide what practices we are willing to condone with our dollars. Don’t let anyone tell you it doesn’t matter.