Is sustainable fashion elitist? | BoF

A few weeks ago, fashion writer Derek Guy was gleefully tweeting about menswear to a relatively niche audience of fellow enthusiasts, sharing what he thought were largely uncontroversial opinions about buying less but better and valuing quality investment pieces over fashion products. fast with reduced prices.

Then the reaction started. A change in Twitter’s algorithm made his posts visible to a much wider audience, and some didn’t like it. The critique of affordable fast fashion was classist, according to a barrage of (sometimes nasty) comments. Recommendations for looking for second-hand treasures and making long-term purchases were criticized as impractical and out of reach.

Guy has stumbled into the crosshairs of an increasingly charged debate about the confusing links between consumption, class and climate impact, begging the question: is the conversation about sustainable fashion elitist?

Focus on fast fashion

In theory, the advice offered by Guy and other advocates of sustainable fashion is approachable and accessible to the average consumer: buy less stuff, take good care of it, and don’t waste or treat products like disposables.

But the conversation hits a nerve because it touches on deep cultural divisions and broader anxieties about the uneven ways in which climate change – and efforts to address it – are likely to affect society.

In fashion, criticism of the industry’s impact has often focused on low-end, fast-fashion labels. Low prices and high volumes are easy to associate with poor labor practices, waste, and overconsumption. But affordable clothing brands have also made fashion accessible to more people than ever before.

Meanwhile, products labeled “sustainable” often command a higher price tag (sometimes because manufacturing a product responsibly costs more, but sometimes because brands use wellness marketing as justification for charging a premium). And the options presented as more responsible – such as looking for second-hand items in the right size and condition or repairing damaged clothes – take time and effort.

This paved the way for criticism of fast fashion to be interpreted as a shaming of poorer consumers, and demands that conscious consumption be seen as an argument that only the rich should be allowed new things.

The topic is particularly fraught because it’s so personal, with some consumers going berserk in defense of their own shopping habits.

“A lot of people have their identity wrapped up in consumerism, shopping, buying and identifying with these brands,” said Cora Harrington, fashion writer and lingerie expert, whose commentary on more conscious and sustainable shopping habits has drawn ire. of social networks. media. “It’s hard for them to let that go.”

The Myth of “Sustainable” Luxury

The debate has been fueled by perceptions – actively encouraged by luxury brands – that, unlike fast fashion, expensive clothes are made to standards as high as their prices.

Sustainability advocates, however, are keen to point out that exploitation and pollution can happen at all price levels.

“Over and over again, there is the misconception that if I pay more for a product then surely it must be greener and people (in the supply chain) must be paid fairly,” said Ayesha Barenblat, founder and chief executive of the group. Remake ethical fashion advocacy. But luxury brands are notoriously opaque, using their brand power “to get away with not sharing… working conditions or human rights violations.”

And while they may not stock hundreds of thousands of new styles every day like ultra-fast fashion giant Shein, the biggest names in luxury are still global mega-brands churning out massive volumes of resource-hungry clothing and leather goods, generating desire for constant news with each seasonal and capsule collection.

In the 2022 edition of the BoF Sustainability Index, the top 10 luxury groups outperform those in the luxury and sportswear categories, but not by much. Prada Group, Capri and Richemont were among the 10 lowest-scoring brands in the review.

“The opposite of fast fashion is sustainable fashion,” said Harrington. “(But) the opposite of exploitative fashion is not luxury.”

Whose fault is it anyway?

The point, argue sustainable fashion advocates, is less about what you buy than how you buy it. Nobody has the right to be fashionable at the expense of people and the planet, and championing cheap, disposable clothing made by low-paid workers – many of them women, many of them in the Global South – is hardly a consistent exercise in class solidarity.

“I think people’s relationship with their clothes has to change,” said Guy. “If you bought a fast fashion wardrobe — I still think it sucks because it’s made of plastic and isn’t good for the environment, and in my view it’s already harmful to work — but let’s say you bought it and it’s already in your wardrobe. clothing. The most sustainable thing is to use it forever.”

Likewise, it is not the world’s poorest consumers who are boosting the fast-fashion giants’ revenues, but the relatively wealthier consumers who are filling their closets with frequent Shein purchases.

On average, the richest 20% of fashion consumers have a carbon footprint 20 times greater than the poorest 20%, according to a November 2022 report by the Hot or Cool Institute and the Rapid Transition Alliance. The wealthiest subset of consumers in rich countries like the UK, US and Japan need to buy an average of just five new clothes a year through the end of this decade to align with global climate targets, it found.

“We have to always be mindful of the fact that what’s best for us isn’t always what’s best for the world,” said Lakyn Carlton, a Los Angeles-based fashion designer and sustainability advocate. “It’s kind of a balancing act.”

It’s an uncomfortable topic that provokes strong reactions because it forces people to confront the role they – and their buying habits – play in major systemic problems. And the solutions offered are not as simple and easy as continuing with the status quo.

Better regulation of the fashion industry, which would shift more of the burden from consumers to brands, would remove much of the complexity and blame from the sustainable fashion conversation.

“Without any regulatory framework, you’re out…in no man’s land, and that’s very confusing for customers,” said Barenblat. “We must recognize the economic barriers and also recognize that attending this movement is not just about shopping. It’s about really crossing your arms to build a fairer, fairer system.”

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