As the sustainable fashion movement has grown over the last few years, there has been increasing discourse over one very important question. Is sustainable fashion accessible? Is it a privilege?
The answer to this question is difficult and there are a multitude of factors to consider. Despite the positive intentions of this movement, there have been quite a few barriers that have arisen, particularly in financial and physical accessibility.
How Is It Not Accessible?
The most apparent barrier is through financial means and it is most clearly seen through the rise of sustainable and eco-friendly fashion brands, characterized by their high prices. If we compare prices between a fast fashion brand and a sustainable brand, the difference is staggering. A basic white tee can cost less than $10 at H&M, but the same clothing can cost upwards of $40 at sustainable brands such as Frank and Oak or Reformation.
To be clear, there is a good reason why these prices are higher. Workers are paid fairly, while the materials used are more durable, recyclable and higher quality. These changes in production thus lead to higher production costs and the retailer must have a higher price. Nevertheless, the financial barrier remains for people who simply cannot afford to spend hundreds of dollars on a dress or a pair of jeans (which is a large majority of citizens of consumers)
The next argument that typically follows is: “What about thrift stores? They’re cheap and accessible!” Well, not quite. Thrift stores may have nice finds for good prices in urban areas, but in many rural areas, there isn’t good selection, if there even are thrift stores! In my own small city, there are only about 3 thrift stores and they all come equipped with fashion straight from a middle-aged adult’s closet due to the demographic.
The nature of thrift stores is so dependent on external factors, which means it’s not always an option for everyone. The popularization of thrift shopping has also led to increased prices and less affordability. An alternative can be buying secondhand online using platforms such as Depop or Poshmark, which may have more stylish finds, but are also notorious for hiked prices.
Beyond money and style, thrift stores and sustainable brands both clearly lack diversity in size. Finding sustainable brands that run plus-size are difficult and pricey. Thrift stores both online and in-person also cannot guarantee a variety of sizes that will fit all bodies.
Why Is There A Problem?
While these barriers do exist, the point is not to criticize any sustainable alternatives. They are instrumental in changing the industry and lowering it’s environmental and ethical harms. However, what an individual needs to do to support the movement and shop sustainably has begun to be misunderstood and marketed in a very dangerous way.
The problem arises when influencers or advocates frame people who buy fast fashion as uncaring, without bothering to understand why. I agree that when possible, it’s better to buy a sustainably, but the reality is many cannot afford to. As sustainable fashion has grown as a movement, so has the classist policing by those who can afford to shop sustainable brands, or who’s external factors (size, location, money) allow thrift shopping to be a viable alternative.
The more people live/buy sustainably, the better, so why are people enforcing restrictive measures? Enforcing accessibility barriers is only harming the goal of the movement!
Even more importantly, the misinterpretation of sustainable fashion causes people to forget what living/shopping sustainably actually is. Sustainability is making a conscious decision to reduce your consumption, to reuse, repurpose, and repair as much as possible. A massive thrift store haul where half the clothes end up back where they came is NOT sustainable. A haul from any sustainable brand misses the point. If someone chose to buy selectively, repair it and reuse it, that’s the true nature of sustainability (even if the garment is fast fashion).
How Can This Be Solved?
The more you can consume from ethical or eco-friendly alternatives, the better. But advocates need to remember that sustainability is a lifestyle that is defined by our choices as a consumer. The shaming taking place in online communities often miss the true meaning of sustainability and make it an elite privilege. I encourage everyone to do their own research to change their habits and formulate their own opinion. This conversation is far from over, but open-minded and productive discussions are necessary in online spaces. The more sustainable fashion is misrepresented, the harder it will be to create long-term, broad change.