Ethical Fashion Shouldn't Only Be Accessible to People Who Can Afford to Spend $300 on a Pair of Sandals

If we want the apparel industry to change, information must be made available, and more importantly it must be inclusive. Yes this is about clothes, but it is also about community engagement.
Publish date:
September 21, 2015
clothes, ethical fashion, Garment Workers

A friend recently sent me a link to what was deemed the up-and-coming ethical shoe designer. The article, entitled “Meet the Woman Making Ethical Fashion Cool,” interviewed a very talented, very well-intentioned designer about her path and passion for ethical clothing.

I am always pumped when there is a new ethical designer who is getting attention. Excitedly, I scrolled through the article and to the actual products. To my dismay the lowest price point was for a pair of black, flat slides valued at $265 -- far out of my price range.

“Those are so expensive, and I don’t really like them. They are too fashiony for me,” my jeans-and-t-shirt-preferring friend said, “I want to dress ethically but I just can’t aff­­ord it, and no one really makes clothes that are for me.”

Recently, there has been a spotlight on fast fashion. Stores like Forever 21 and Zara are being asked some hard questions about ethics. Horrific images of the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh moved the public to stop and look at the “Made In” tag neatly sewn on their clothes; it held a mirror up to the American consumer and our role in the human cost of cheap, trendy clothing. However, as with most tragedies, those images fade and our closets continue being filled with these disposable pieces.

I have spent the better part of this year dedicating myself to the ethical fashion movement. I have done a complete overhaul of how I shop, hosted lectures about the garment industry, and steered my friends and blog followers in the direction of better choices. Overwhelmingly, people are eager to listen and learn. But not fitting into the expected mold of an ethical fashionista prevents most people from shifting to a new way of buying.

This isn’t the first time people have felt excluded by a clean movement. Looking back, the organic food explosion was thought to be reserved for exclusively for hippies, yuppies, and the upper middle class who could drop serious cash at Whole Foods.

This perception has yet to be effectively dispelled. There have been lackluster campaigns from the organic movement that half-heartily moved their message outside of the Namaste bumper sticker organic devotees.

But organic food does not belong to the granola slinging lululemon-wearing foodie; it belongs to everyone. Mega grocers like Target and Wal-Mart (love ‘em or hate ‘em) are bringing organic produce to their customers. It is irrelevant if it is viewed as trendy, or as an appeal to the elusive millennial -- either way, organic products are on the shelves for everyone to buy.

When we shift our focus from food to clothes, the same dynamic is taking shape. For example, when I say this shirt is made out of organic cotton, people respond in one of two ways: 1) a serious eye-roll paired with a snarky, “Abbey only eats organic produce, now she only wears organic clothing. What’s next?”; or 2) the person unabashedly and instantaneously falls in line, because it’s organic so it must be great.

Rarely does either party know how to dress ethically, or understand why they should. But, that’s not their fault. It’s mine. I am falling short and failing.

This became glaringly obvious to me after I went to a screening of the documentary, “The True Cost.” (The organic food movement had “Food Inc.,” and the ethical clothing movement has “The True Cost.”) The film was amazingly informative, and truly humanized the impact of the garment industry.

It also followed some innovators of the ethical movement who produced incredibly beautiful items that were incredibly expensive. Instead of feeling like I am one of the good ones, and I was going to change the world, I left furious.

An overwhelming feeling that the film was totally self-satisfying for the small homogeneous group of people who attended the screening washed over me. What really pushed me over the edge was a montage of teenage girls giggling over their stuffed yellow Forever21 bags showing their fast fashion “haul.” (A haul is when someone goes into a fast fashion retailer and buys clothing in bulk).

In my experience, teenagers are not the most self-aware individuals, and chances are they are totally unaware of the effect of their purchasing habits. The film didn’t share my same feelings. Instead, the blame was pointed right at those who we need on board most, the American consumer.

Villainizing consumers as the problem is the problem.

Within this well-intentioned group of ethically dressed people lies a culture of shaming and blaming those who are not immediately on the team. Consciously purchasing clothing does not entail only dropping money on ethically made designers, or wearing hemp colored earth tones, but the finer points are not a part of this conversation yet, and that sucks.

If we want the apparel industry to change, information must be made available, and more importantly it must be inclusive. Yes this is about clothes, but it is also about community engagement.

The garment industry is the second most destructive industry in the world. The solutions to this devastating problem have yet to be presented comprehensively to the general public, and not only available to the lucky few.

No one wants to feel like they are the evildoers of the world. Wearing conscious clothing is possible. If small tweaks are made to everyday habits, staggering and beautiful changes will come. Everyone is invited, $300 sandals not required.

Image: Solidarity Center/CC