Misconceptions About Sustainability Advocates
Social activism is a moral imperative for me as a citizen and as a leader in a religious community. But, it is very easy for principles to overtake empathy if I’m not careful.
There’s good reason that activists and advocates are branded “social justice warriors.” Sometimes we appear to have our head in the clouds. This is because we’re so obsessed with our ideals that we can take for granted how difficult it actually is to change habits.
But, no one makes a change without considerable discernment and lots of work. Everyone on a mission to change their family system, town, or nation faces challenges.
Most of us in the sustainable fashion space have already worked through a lot of these difficulties. From that perspective, we can sometimes lose empathy for the struggle. But at the end of the day, we want people and planet to flourish.
Here are some misconceptions about people in the sustainable fashion movement…
1. We’re elitist
Yes, ethical fashion (often) costs more. And yes, lifestyle changes must take place in order to make more conscientious choices. And…yes, some conscious consumers are annoyingly smug. But being pretentious and ignoring privilege are not essential parts of being a conscious consumer.
Most of us who claim conscious consumerism do make sacrifices to achieve the lifestyle we strive for, foregoing throwaway purchases, saving up for more expensive ethical purchases, and thrift shopping to fill out our closets. This certainly isn’t true for everyone, though, and those who promote an aspirational lifestyle on social media often fail to mention that a lot of what they promote was given to them for free, or that the glamour on the outside doesn’t match the messiness and stress of real life.
Conscious consumers are not inherently elitist, but we do need to be clear about who our message applies to, because if we’re telling people living in poverty that they need to only buy non-GMO produce and stop shopping at fast fashion chains, then we are making a judgment call we’re not qualified to make. It’s just a fact that having the mental energy and financial flexibility to shop “ethically” is a privilege, so the solutions we advocate must be clear and compassionate.
My colleague Hannah discusses this issue eloquently in an old post, so I’ll quote her here:
Middle-class to wealthy Americans consume far more resources than the rest of the world’s population. Honestly, I think changing the fashion industry starts with the global 1%, because the global 1% is the problem. We’re the ones consuming the majority of the cheap goods that contribute to the exploitation of people and the planet. We’re the ones who can afford to pay more for an item to ensure that fair wages are paid, and don’t. I’m okay with my blog and my advocacy speaking mainly to people like me because we’re the ones who need to change our habits the most.
Now, this does not mean that only people with disposable income are allowed into the conversation. To the contrary, anyone who is ready to take on the challenge or seeks ways to shop with greater purpose is welcome. There are so many economical ways to shop ethically!
Conscious consumers know that consumer choices are tied up in privilege, and choose to advocate for better, not perfect.
2. We’re fundamentalists
Fundamentalists are people who are black and white thinkers, the ones who know that “right” is knowable and know that they are right. If you’re in social justice circles, it’s really easy to find your power in knowing you’re right. But this is also dangerous, not only because sometimes what we think is right takes away the rights and ignores the dignity of other human beings, but because if we always think we’re right, we’ll never grow in essential and beautiful ways.
Conscious consumers are, by and large, not fundamentalists, at least not in my experience. We ask hard questions and judge ourselves by extremely high standards, but we’re much more likely to place blame on ourselves for not being good enough than to transfer that guilt onto others.
Sometimes people see our intensity and think we’re going to judge them, too, but really we’re just obsessive idealists who are trying to fix the world by fixing ourselves, and that’s a lot of pressure.
Conscious consumers know that we don’t have all the answers.
3. This lifestyle is easy for us
Nope, plain and simple. Granted, things have gotten a lot easier over the 4 or so years I’ve been on this journey. But, at first, it was dang hard to stop shopping at H&M and Old Navy. I loved the thrill of good deals, the stress-reducing quality of mindlessly walking around the mall. I loved shopping dates with my friends where I didn’t have to look for the “Made in…” designation on all of the tags before making a purchase.
Those days were ripped away from me when I determined to only buy ethically sourced items. All the carefree fun was gone. For more than a year, I still justified a fast fashion purchase here and there. Even now, I’ll pick up the occasional J. Crew clearance item or over-packaged makeup. It’s hard to totally opt out. It can be very isolating.
But things really aren’t bad now. In fact, they’re really good. If I want the thrill of the hunt, I peruse thrift shops or snoop around online stores. If I want a trendy item, I see if there’s a way to upcycle what I already have, swap with a friend, or save up for an ethical purchase if I can justify it for the longterm. Being intentional has a learning curve, but it’s got its perks, namely that I no longer feel hollow after a day of binge shopping. I am healthy.
Conscious consumers struggle like everyone else, but we find fulfillment in shopping smarter, not harder.
Related: 5 Ways to Follow Trends Responsibly
4. We don’t care about fashion
I’ve actually felt this way about some of my fellow conscious consumers, so I totally get it. You think to yourself, “Well, of course they can shop minimally and cast aside trends – they don’t actually care about fashion!” This is probably true for some, but it’s definitely not true for me and a lot of other people I know.
As a teenager, I subscribed to Teen Vogue and spent hours on Vogue’s Style website perusing Fashion Week photos. I had a favorite model (Gemma Ward) and worked on my fashion sketches frequently. I loved the whole world of fashion then and I still love the art and expression fashion can bring.
It’s just that I couldn’t love it in the same way when I realized how exploitative the industry was and continues to be. What I’ve realized is that the “fashion” I thought I was wearing was actually poorly made knock-offs being fed to me by a culture that naggingly insists that we’ll all be socially ostracized if we don’t stay on trend. And that’s not really what fashion is about.
Fashion is about freedom. It’s about speaking through what we wear. The clothes I wear now share that freedom – hopefully – with the people who made it, and they speak to my desire for global and unconditional justice. My choices now are based in my taste and my ethics, and there are plenty of companies that satisfy my desire to be fashionable and conscientious.
Conscious consumers love fashion and respect the makers, because they care too much about the industry to let it be sullied by a disregard for ethics.
Related: Should Sustainable Fashion Be Fun?
5. We think personal habits are all it takes to change the world
I’m just as tired of seeing those “Vote with your wallet” type messages floating around as you are. It’s not that it’s not true that your purchase makes an impact, it’s just that it doesn’t tell the full story. Most conscious consumers I know try really hard to balance an inspiring and achievable message about personal agency when it comes to shopping with the reality that it takes political and social change to see lasting progress.
Science tells us that focusing on the big problems overwhelms us to the point of inaction, so how are we to advocate for progress in the fashion industry without causing a collective mental shutdown? We start with simple, personal messages like “Be the change you wish to see in the world” and ramp it up from there.
When you see a conscious consumer fixating on the self, it might just be because they’re overwhelmed, too, or maybe they’re new at this and can’t figure out the best way to make a difference. Either way, I find it best to give others the benefit of the doubt, because change really does start from within, and baby steps are still steps.
Conscious consumers try their best to provide messaging that inspires people to take action while acknowledging a complex reality.
I realize, of course, that I’m generalizing a large and still growing community of individuals who come from diverse backgrounds and bring a lot of different perspectives to the table. This list is an effort to remedy hostilities between those who are firmly embedded in the conscious consumer community and those who do not consider themselves a part of it, but it’s not only that.
It’s also meant to serve as a reminder that sometimes people trying to do good get so overwhelmed by their missions that they lose sight of the small interactions that can make or break movements.
We are all accountable to one another, so let’s treat each other well.