Destroying the False Idol of Ethical Fashion

Changes in Ethical Fashion & Influencing

Remember capsule wardrobes?

You may recall that I was initially very skeptical of the capsule wardrobe movement, mostly because the people I saw touting it were using it as a way of feigning a reduction in their consumption – after all, a capsule wardrobe is “minimalist” – while, in actuality, going out and buying an entirely new wardrobe every quarter.

Regardless, it was popular, and still is in certain circles. In sustainability communities, the capsule wardrobe is intended to offer an organizational strategy for the concept of slow fashion. Slow fashion, a sister to sustainability and ethics, is a commitment to slowing down the breakneck pace of fast fashion and prioritizing smaller scale, more thoughtful production practices.

On a personal level, it means that individual consumers break out of the trend cycle, at least enough to reduce demand for new goods.

What is ethical?

However, along with capsule wardrobe, individual consumer ethics has fallen out of fashion in recent years, even as it has morphed into a larger movement.

On the one hand, the profound lack of intersectionality, expertise, and real progress in the ethical fashion movement has rightfully caused skepticism about whether personal choice makes that much of a difference. On the other hand, ethical and sustainable fashion has become mainstream enough that people are at least exploring what it could mean to make more conscientious choices. The problem with this is that it further confuses the terms of the movement itself.

Can fashion be “ethical” if the founders of a brand are racist?

Can fashion be “sustainable” if everyone starts participating in sustainable fashion hauls?

What’s more, as the terms broaden and change, individual consumers are left with no clear metric around what constitutes a good choice. The guideposts are always being moved, and a counter movement within the movement insists on adhering to a rigid set of expectations that make buying ethical fashion completely unattainable for the vast majority of people. It’s not that it’s wrong to have high standards for ethical behavior, it’s that a mixture of human greed, opaque practices, and Capitalism make it nearly impossible for any brand to meet these new, “fundamentalist” standards of ethics. So all you have left is some random, perfectly ethical item that no one needs and very few can afford.

You’re left with yet another question: can something nonessential and unaffordable be ethical or sustainable?

changes in ethical fashion
Photo by Artem Beliaikin on

Shame and Inaccessibility: The House of Cards Crumbles

What started as a movement to build accountability into an unquestionably unethical and cruel fashion industry has turned into a kind of whirlwind of misguided individual ethics. There is no question that systems change must occur, but our “vote with your dollar” activism simply isn’t enough. This is obvious in the face of Covid.

Ethical fashion has always been, at a basic level, classist in that it inherently excludes a portion of the population due to a lack of access, spare time, and income to support higher priced ethical purchases. But that is even more apparent in the aftermath of economic collapse.

On a personal level, I haven’t booked a sponsored post since the pandemic began. I’m not even sure I want to. But that means my income, which was already meager, has further declined. Paired with lack of access to low cost secondhand options due to a discomfort with in-person shopping during the pandemic, I am now left in the position of having to eat my words.

I can no longer afford ethical fashion.

I have spent the last several months wracked with shame and imposter syndrome. I have had to unfollow most of the ethical influencer accounts I used to follow, because I’m no longer a part of the club. I am not receiving free product in quantities that could help me build a sustainable work wardrobe or buy entirely new summer clothes in the face of weight gain.

I am ashamed that I have gained weight, and I am ashamed for not being more body positive about myself. I am ashamed that lack of money + weight gain + a freaking global pandemic have necessitated the purchase of “unethical” goods.

What’s more, I am angry that I helped create this culture of shame and othering that I have now turned on myself. As it turns out, it does not feel like enough for me to “do what you can” and “make the best choice for you.” No, I am one of the special ones who really succeeded on my own merit. The problem is that I wasn’t looking at the whole picture.

There is no such thing as ethical fashion.

The term, it turns out, is too broad. The problem is not one problem, but many. The problem is white supremacy and imperialism, stagnating wages and wealth transfer to the 1%. The problem is fat-phobia and queer-phobia, generational poverty and unchecked desire.

The only way to make “ethical” fashion accessible for all – and I think it must be, for my faith tradition reminds me that the Kingdom of God has no borders and no hierarchies – is to destroy the false idol of ETHICAL FASHION.

What I mean is that this cutesy, soft version of the story that acts as though influencing is the key to world change, and that every single purchase is a marker of our commitment to morality has overtaken the harder truth that this sh*t is complicated, and that we cannot do it alone. It also overshadows the fact that there are lots of other vital projects to be done if our aim is to contribute to human flourishing. Fashion, for most people, simply cannot be the most important one.

changes in ethical fashion
Photo by Ylanite Koppens on

For many of us, ethical fashion simply meant caring about people.

We need to blow up what that means, to include all inequities. But we can’t forget that it also means we must shrink it down, to the hard(est) work of caring for the people right in front of us, even when there’s no apparent benefit. We can never forget that the reason we like to deal in abstractions and transactions is because, fundamentally, we don’t believe in the worthiness of ourselves. It’s easier to deal in the clarity of ideals – the caricature of being a “good person” – than the actual messiness of human personhood.

But I am not the caricature of a hero. I never was, I never will be. We don’t need heroes, because heroes aren’t people.

And if ethical fashion is about people, then I want to be one, too. I want to remember that any attempt to guard myself from the realities of, God forbid, being “unethical” has been a mark of privilege (or, as it may be, straightforward lies) rather than virtue. It has disserved me by distracting me from the myriad other ways to behave ethically in the world.

I rose through the ranks of “ethical fashion” on good luck and novelty. I no longer understand what the value would be of being on top. I know that I’m tired of feeling ashamed for circumstances beyond my control. I’m even tired of having to act like the project of individual consumer ethics could hold a candle to the importance of antiracism work or body positive work or the chaplaincy work I did this summer.

Rebuilding Ethical Fashion

Ethical fashion continues to matter only because people matter. But the radical equity we seek can’t happen so long as Westerners believe the myth that we should style ourselves as benefactors for the poor in the “Global South.” It’s a false dichotomy of privilege, and it continues to make those with relative stability believe that they are inherently better than those without it.

It is imperialist. It is fragility. It is every buzzword in the book.

If the work of ethical fashion is to become the work of caring about people, then it ceases to be ethical fashion at all. And that’s a good thing. What I’m trying to work out is what that means for me. The fashion industry still exists and is still full of exploitation, and there is undeniable work to be done. But I don’t think it’s really about fashion at all. I think I finally believe that there’s something inherently perverse about mixing our movement building with our “purchasing power.”

So I’m just going to be over here trying to radically reconsider what ethical fashion could mean moving forward, sitting in the silence for a second in order to hear what the spirit is saying. Then, I’ll begin rebuilding.

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Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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  1. I stumbled upon this through Pinterest and was extremely interested. Your thoughts are so well spoken so I commend you on looking inward and outward. As a mom of 4, dog mom of 2 I have felt guilt and shame that I can’t afford to buy ethically. I have so many little people to clothe and feed and try to keep myself from falling through the cracks that buying a $200 pair of pants and a $80 t-shirt with my budget is not feasible. I’m terrified that I would get a hole in it from the dog, spit up on by the baby, or spill coffee on myself. Thank you for putting this out there and taking some of the guilt out of it.

    1. I’m so glad you found it and that it resonated with you. My thought is that guilt doesn’t really serve us in making long term positive change. It’s important to be thoughtful, but that thoughtfulness happens within a complex range of other decisions and isn’t one size fits all.

  2. Ethical fashion is not a binary issue. There are shades of ethical fashion that we seem to fall into. And we don’t stay on the same shade all the time. It is not possible. Expecting individuals to make the right choice all the time is asking for sainthood. Expecting brands to check every box is also asking for sainthood. Waiting for the absolute purist brand with perfect founder, perfect price point accessible to all, capitalism replaced, consumption of it regulated, ….. will have us spiraling in and out of the conversation. But this is a necessary conversation to be had. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, perspectives and opinions.

    1. Agreed. The “idol”I speak of here could be thought of as perfectionism or purity, which simply doesn’t exist.

  3. Leah, THIS: “I’m even tired of having to act like the project of individual consumer ethics could hold a candle to the importance of antiracism work or body positive work or the chaplaincy work I did this summer.” Imposter? Shame??? for having discovered the core of the issue is messy and muddy? You are digging deep into concepts that bump head first into complex reality, something few do. Your explorations have only begun, and they’re taking you onto an entirely new arc that’s beyond fashion. Run with it.

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