This post was originally published in April 2019.
Is Ethical Fashion Classist?
One of the most common critiques I see of large-scale brands who produce conscious collections or claim to enforce ethical production from ethical influencers and their readers is something to the tune of:
There’s NO WAY they can produce something ethically for only $50!
Nevermind that this makes very American and Euro-centric assumptions about labor and production costs – yes, ethical production will be more expensive than sweatshop clothing, but if you’re producing in a comparatively low cost-of-living country and selling in a comparatively higher one, a lot of the cost to consumer is more likely tied up in marketing, shipping, and profit than with production itself. That’s not to say that the critique isn’t valid, but I don’t know that reducing it down to retail price tells the full story.
The thing that I cannot wrap my head around is this assumption that the word “only” could come before $50.
Fifty Dollars IS an Investment
In the US, the median household income is around $61,000 (source). But when you parse this out a little further, you see that the bottom half of earners in this country make less than $30,000 a year. This doesn’t account for two-earner households, so there’s some data missing from the discussion, but it’s still helpful to know that a family of four is considered to be below the poverty line at around $25,000 annually (source).
With that in mind – even if we assume that ethical fashion fans have a bit more disposable income than the average American – we can expect that a statistically significant number of them are not making more than $61,000 a year.
Add rising housing costs, significant student loans, an attempt to save for retirement, and the cost of kids to that number, and it’s easy to see how a “mere” $50 could become expensive even to someone who, on the surface, appears to be thriving.
A recent “ask an editor” type post on popular fashion blog, Man Repeller, captures this disconnect between “fashion person” and regular readers well. When a college student asked about pieces to invest in, the writer recommends, among other things, a $1,100 gold pinky ring.
Understandably, the comments section erupted with responses ranging from disappointment to rage at how out of touch this kind of “investment” felt. (This is not really a knock on Man Repeller – I love them – but it really drives home the point.) It may be true that a beloved pinky ring on the hand of a person with appropriate income for such a purchase will feel like a timeless treasure, but for many others that’s rent for the month, or an emergency room bill coming due.
A Change of Perspective
I know I’ve argued before that part of pursuing more sustainable shopping habits – at least at the point of making a purchase – is getting used to the idea that clothing and other goods have historically – and perhaps, should – make up more of our budgets.
In a pre-Ready-to-Wear fashion world where you took a fashion plate or pattern to your local seamstress when it was time for new clothes, it cost quite a bit more to build a wardrobe. That’s one reason why the average person had fewer clothes overall – you simply couldn’t afford more.
But I don’t necessarily advocate going back to the way things were. While it was certainly more sustainable to own less – and to actually fit in what you owned because it was custom made for you – it also meant that people living and working below the poverty line had even fewer opportunities to purchase what they needed, and maybe more importantly, feel like they could join in the identity-making exercise of having a choice in what they wear.
Industrialization, for all its evils, has democratized consumption even as it has continued to perpetuate exploitation. So I’m not willing to take the privileged route that would allow me to opt out in favor of a nostalgic retelling of the past that gives me permission to skip around in my designer-made linen while tending to my vegetable garden. Maybe it would be better if we could all do that, but we can’t, and for some the barriers are so high it’s not even worth thinking about.
A Word of Caution
I would caution those of us with access either to income or sponsored opportunities – that virtually push us into a higher income bracket – to take a good hard look at the way we talk about our purchasing power.
The problem here is really two-fold:
- On the one hand, marketing that claims we can “buy our way to a better world” implies that people with less income are helping less than the people who can afford “the best,” whatever that may be in context.
- And then, when we make un-nuanced arguments, like the one posed in the beginning of this post, that particular products “don’t cost enough” to be ethical, we further marginalize willing consumers by telling them that the item they saved up for is just a greenwashed piece of crap.
The reality is that sometimes that $50 “ethical fashion” item is legit, and sometimes it’s not. But we should do what we can to make sure that barriers to access – and many of them are financial – are not simply dismissed with the wave of a hand.
Through a combination of thrifting and receiving (really quite a lot of) goods for free as a part of my blog business, I have been able to build a wardrobe that is high quality enough to last me through several seasons.
But the sad fact is that a true “investment” piece isn’t always about whether the makers were paid fairly. It’s far more about quality in textiles and fabrication. And so, maybe we can legitimately instruct lower income folks to “buy less, buy better, make it last” when it comes to understanding what longevity looks and feels like in a garment.
But we can’t really ask someone to make an investment in ethical labor if they themselves aren’t receiving a livable wage.
This movement can and should be for everyone, because that’s the claim we make as consumers when we join in “Who made my clothes?” and anti-trafficking campaigns each year. Everyone matters.
When we set up false dichotomies of privilege between “the consumer” and “the laborer,” we forget that many of us fall into both categories, and that our own social safety net is full of holes in need of patching. We will not save the world through our purchasing power, but neither will we save it through blanket arguments that claim we’re all in the type of liberating financial situation that makes “buying less” a choice and not an obligation.
And so, spend your fifty dollars on the thing you need that’s a little bit more ethical, whatever that means to you. Use it for date night, or shoes for your kids. Or save it for a more expensive purchase.
For some, that’s your prerogative. For others, it may not really be a choice at all.
Vive la [fashion] révolution.
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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.