Sustainable Fashion and its Class Problem

Sustainable fashion is becoming more and more prominent in conversation. People are starting to consider the impacts that their garment purchasing habits have on the environment and on the people who make them. This is a great thing, and I would encourage everyone to switch to shopping sustainably for fashion. But there is something that I don’t see mentioned enough in the sustainable fashion conversation; the issue of class.

From speaking to quite a few people about their sustainable fashion struggles, price is often bought up as a key issue when it comes to shopping sustainably. The truth is, sustainable fashion is expensive, it’s significantly more than buying from fast fashion brands. Now I know what some of you might be thinking – sustainable fashion seems expensive because fast fashion is hideously under-priced. Don’t get me wrong, I agree with this. But it takes a real mind set shift to understand that sustainable fashion is fairly priced, rather than over-priced.

I come from a middle-class background and I grew up shopping at fast fashion brands like Primark, New Look and H&M where you can expect to purchase a t-shirt for less than £10. When you go online and check out a sustainable brand’s collection and see a plain white cotton t-shirt going for £40, it’s difficult to see that as a fair price.

What I’m getting at is that there needs to be a real shift in the way we see and value fashion in order for sustainable fashion to be accessible for all. If you’re from a working-class background and low on money, why would you save up your money to purchase a t-shirt when you could have had a similar one at a fraction for the price, just because it’s sustainable? When there are people struggling to pay bills with debts to pay off and a family to look after, can we really expect them to prioritise sustainability?

Sustainability, whether we like it or not, is much more accessible for those from middle class backgrounds who have higher amounts of disposable income and time.

Of course, there are charity shops and other various ways you can go about buying second-hand fashion cheaply. This is a great option, but it’s no secret that charity shops don’t always have everything we need. Not only is it not possible to find items like underwear, swimwear and socks, but charity shops have limited options when it comes to bigger sizes. This is a problem prevalent in sustainable fashion brands too, they normally only offer around four or five sizes, making sustainable fashion totally inaccessible to those who are bigger.

I just don’t feel like there’s enough acknowledgement of the fact that sustainable fashion is really hard for those from low-income backgrounds. The sustainable fashion movement generally can be criticised for focusing too much on the individual. But class structures are deeply intertwined in fashion.

The garment industry is held up by millions of working-class women who work tirelessly to construct the garments that profit billionaire male CEO’s. As individual consumers we are stuck somewhere in the middle of this. What I really want to develop is a nuanced approach to sustainable fashion, where we acknowledge that there are so many different factors at play. Class is one of these factors. It needs to be talked about much more in conversations about sustainable fashion.

There can be a tendency to place much of the focus on buying sustainably and trying to dissuade individual’s from purchasing from fast fashion brands, but the whole system needs to be completely re-shaped. We can’t have the revolution we’re looking for through buying when buying itself is the problem.

This focus on buying sustainable oftentimes leads those on low incomes to feel like they can’t be a part of the sustainable fashion movement, because they can’t afford to buy sustainable fashion. But I think we need to work on being more inclusive. First of all, I think we need to remember to push the message that the most sustainable thing you can do is simply buy less, this is something that is attainable to anyone, no matter their background. But we also need to be okay with the fact that some people have to buy from fast fashion brands, and they shouldn’t be demonised for that.

There needs to be an acknowledgement that sustainable fashion can be hard sometimes, especially if you have other factors going against you. And it’s okay if you’re not perfect. There needs to be a general shift in the movement to focus on how we can encourage governments and brands to make changes, rather than expecting individuals to take the massive weight of this problem.

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