A pink gingham midi shift dress by ethical and sustainable London-based brand Birdsong costs £169; a similar style from H&M will do much less damage to your pocket, at £19.99. One dress is made from Tencel fabric made from wood pulp, sustainably harvested from renewable wood sources, and was made in London for living wages. The other is made from (non-recycled) polyester and was manufactured in China. (I think you can guess which is which!) So, while these two garments might look very similar, their environmental and social credentials are wildly different.
Sustainable fashion is often tangled up with privilege – no wonder when the prices of some ethical brands dwarf high street mainstays.
There are good reasons why sustainable fashion usually costs more: Cheap clothes are typically made from polyester – a fabric usually derived from petroleum that has a high carbon footprint, is not biodegradable and sheds microplastics into the ocean. The fabrics favoured by sustainable brands wreak less damage on the environment – but cost far more to produce and process. Besides, cheap clothes are usually cheap because the people who made them were paid poverty wages. This has been well-documented in developing countries such as Bangladesh, Eastern Europe and here in the UK.
But where does that leave a person with limited budget for clothes? A £169 dress really isn’t an option for most people. Brands like Primark and supermarket fashion labels have been a godsend for shoppers on a budget.
My biggest concern about starting this blog was that sustainable fashion was elitist – for privileged people with cash to splash on expensive frocks. Telling people that the only way to do fashion sustainably is to buy expensive clothes – I didn’t want to be part of that.
That’s not to criticise brands like Birdsong. Sustainable brands that make clothes from lower impact materials and that pay their workers living wages are needed. And they are brilliant. However, sustainability is something we buy or consume. In fact, the most effective ways to be sustainable don’t cost anything at all. They include wearing your clothes for longer and swapping clothes with friends. Others are low cost, such as buying secondhand. Although there’s been commentary about secondhand gentrifying and getting more expensive, the average priced charged for womenswear in charity shops was £3.95 at the end of 2019. There are so many preloved clothes available, you can pick up serious bargains at Re-Fashion, and on Depop and Vinted. I own a handful of items from brands like People Tree that I bought heavily discounted in sales, but I don’t own any other expensive sustainable fashion.
There’s another way to look at privilege in the context of fashion, and that’s white privilege. It can be argued that the availability of cheap clothes in developed countries is a form of neo-colonialism as it comes at the expense of – mostly brown and black, and female – workers in developing countries. At the same time, environmental problems resulting from fashion production often manifest in developing countries.
This means that while only privileged people can afford the justifiably high price tags of sustainable clothing brands, all of us – regardless of income bracket – can take action against ways in which fashion entrenches income inequality globally. One action that costs nothing is asking favourite brands to pay fair wages and improve their environmental performance. Writing to them, calling them out on social media or signing petitions like this one are all ways free.
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