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Is Sustainable and Ethical Fashion Elitist? Here's Why We Don't Think So

I often come across conversation online about whether or not sustainable fashion is elitist. It isn't hard to see why at first glance - sustainable/ethical clothing and accessories often come with a high price tag (or higher than what most people are accustomed to paying). They're often advertised using perfectly curated models posing in dream destinations. One might start to think that only rich people could afford to dress this way and show off such a luxurious lifestyle. Therefore, sustainable fashion is often written off as something that only first-world wealthy people with a ton of unchecked privilege can afford to partake in. 

But digging deeper, we find that sustainable fashion is not at all elitist. We think that everyone can truly take big steps toward a sustainable and ethical wardrobe and lifestyle, no matter what your budget is. Here are our reasons why.

1. Sustainable fashion brands are not the same as "luxury" brands.

If you want to talk about "elitist" marketing, just think of luxury name brands like Prada and Gucci. There's nothing sustainable about most luxury brands - the high price tag is simply due to the image and prestige of the brand name, not due to sustainable practices or anything like that. Some sustainable brands are also luxury brands, but I think that the majority of sustainable brands are not aimed at being luxury brands. They're usually run by small groups of people or individuals who source materials that respect the planet and pay their makers or employees a living wage. They usually do their best to keep their prices as low as they can be without sacrificing material quality, craftsmanship, product durability, or fair wages for those behind the scenes. They don't artificially spike prices up just to add to the perceived glamour and lux of a brand name. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of sustainable/ethical brands out there that are reasonably priced (keeping in mind that they support fair labor and use quality materials, etc.) and are much more accessible to all.

2. You can now pay over an increment of time for higher-priced items in most online stores.

It's becoming incredibly common to be able to buy items and pay later (usually with 4 interest-free rates) online. With services such as Klarna (like we have used here at HowCork for some time), Afterpay, Shop Pay (a new service we use as well), and many others out there, it's more likely than not that a website with higher-priced items will offer some way to pay a quarter of the full price upfront, and pay the rest over the next few months. This helps to open the door to accessibility to higher-priced, well-made items and breaks down the argument of not being able to afford to shop ethically due to the upfront investment it requires.

3. You are supporting artisan makers - that is, real people who care.

Fast fashion brands love to show off how much they supposedly care about popular social issues, for example how they support women's rights by writing motivational feminist quotes on their clothing, or how they support sustainable fashion by creating a "greener" exclusive collection, or how they support LGBT movements by changing their profile photo on social media to rainbow colors.

But the truth is that it's a lot of talk and pretty words, but not a lot of real action. The reality is that these brands prey on women, children, and people living in poverty to outsource their manufacturing at dramatically reduced labor costs. Workers are paid wages that are not enough to live on and are worked to the bone, and people living in the community are left with contaminated natural resources. 

It's a combination of runway-ready models in photos and bright lights mixed with a "socially responsible" message in storefronts of fast fashion brands, while behind the veil, those working in the fashion industry across the world are being exploited and forced to work in inhumane conditions. How can they claim to support women and minorities when taking advantage of those in their supply chain?

Overworked, underpaid, with deplorable workplace health and safety standards - that is the norm for the people who produce the clothing for the fast fashion houses. Clothes are made in record time and at a record-low price, and hold up long enough to take one photo and be tossed away. Pollution abounds in local waterways, soil, and air where production takes place, and workers and community members alike are exposed to dangerous toxins, such as dyes that turn rivers bright colors. These brands don't care about you or the social issues close to your heart, just like they don't care about those who manufacture their products. Their goal is to trick you into thinking they care so you feel good about shopping at their stores, while they continue business as usual.

On the other hand, real sustainable makers are usually small brands that provide well-paying, healthy jobs to the community where they are located, and if they do outsource, they take the time to ensure that fair worker conditions are being met and to be personally involved with their production. They aim to be fully transparent about their material sourcing and mindful of each step in the process of their manufacturing. They make things that you'll wear and love more with each passing year. They are artisans, often keeping traditional techniques alive or innovating new ones, and putting their heart and soul into their craft. They're promoting positive change in the world by creating handmade items, using ecological materials, and avoiding pollution.

What do you think seems more elitist when you really think about it - supporting big faceless corporations that offer a low price to customers, low wage to workers, and big bucks for the CEO, all at the cost of the environment and human rights - or supporting individual makers and small brands who are doing their best to care about the planet and people? 

4. Less haste, less waste.

I think the creation of waste is also pretty elitist. Big fashion corporations create so much clothing that much of it goes unsold, and is often piled into landfills or shipped to poor countries, creating a problem of textile waste that doesn't biodegrade (usually these clothing items are made from polyester or other synthetic fibers). Luxury companies have also been caught destroying their own unsold products to keep prices high. Not to mention waste in the production process of toxic chemical residues. This passes on the real cost to the public who then needs to deal with the waste and clean up the mess.

It seems like a situation of the royal class dumping their rubbish on the common grounds for the peasants to have to clean up, with no liability or repercussions whatsoever for their actions. They will continue to be worshipped by the masses anyway. To me, this is a lot more elitist than small producers making clothing and accessories in a conscientious way, using materials that are good for the planet, valuing quality craftsmanship so they make things that are meant to last. Circular fashion means creating less waste in all phases of the process, from creation to biodegradation. This means slowing down and thinking critically about how we make things. 

5. Second-hand is sustainable fashion too.

You don't have to endlessly buy new things that are ethically made to enter into a sustainable mindset. In fact, a big part of the mindset is buying less and taking care of what you already have. But if you do feel the need to change up your wardrobe and are on a tight budget, second-hand shopping is a great place to start.

Shopping second-hand helps to extend the life of clothing/accessory items that are already made. rather than encouraging fast fashion companies to continue to make new things as quickly as they possibly can (which is what we inadvertently are telling them when we continue to buy from them). Second-hand shopping is a great way to save money, and you can often find quality pieces at a much lower cost than buying new. I often find that clothes made ten years ago were generally made to higher standards than what we find in stores today, so it's not a sacrifice shopping second-hand, it's often an improvement.

6. Getting back to our roots is the opposite of elitist.

Fast fashion is a modern industry that has spiraled out of control. But just like with organic food or natural medicine, the corporations running the show want to make us feel like those who shop sustainable are "privileged" or "a goody-two-shoes" for standing up for what is right. How many times have you heard "organic food is a fad for rich people" or "you must think you're so special because you only use your expensive sustainable (insert item here)". "You think you're better than everyone else because you won't touch chemical products."

I've heard it all. But the truth is that the fast industries and chemical-filled lifestyles that purport themselves as "normal" are far from it. This way of living that we know today of throwing things away after one use, of everything being made of plastic, of clothing made so cheaply that it is practically disposable, chemical-intensive agriculture ("conventional" farming), and synthetically derived pharmaceuticals is only a relatively recent development that began in the early 1900s and proliferated after World War II. This is because tons of chemical weapons (think DDT) were produced for the war, and when it ended, the producers had no more use for the chemicals they had created. So, where did they go instead of toward chemical warfare? Toward creating "convenience-based" lifestyle products. Only at this point (in the 1950s) did we start to see chemical pesticides and fertilizers used in agriculture become commonplace. Only then did it become more affordable to produce plastic than almost any other material (from petroleum resources), and it did it become more profitable to outsource labor to foreign countries than to employ people at home.

Fast fashion is an industry so convoluted that many brands have no idea what takes place in their own supply chain. When things taking place in a far-away country lack transparency, it is often to hide the ugly truth of what is really going on behind the scenes.

Wearing clothes produced by people who are grossly underpaid and working in horrible conditions (and that are made from toxic materials) is supporting this supply chain that does nothing but exploit everyone and everything involved in it. To me, that is what is elitist. Thinking that we are better than the people who make our clothing, that is elitist. Being so separated from what goes on behind the veil of production so that we can live in ignorant bliss of shopping frenzies on sale days at the mall - that is elitist. It's a form of modern day colonization.

Historically, all agriculture was "organic" and all fashion was "sustainable" by default. Going back to our roots of local production, using natural materials, and paying those who produce goods fairly for their work, is really nothing new or innovative. It's the way things always were before the advent of "fast" lifestyles and all the "fast" and "big" industries that come along with them.

7. Become a global citizen, not just a "consumer."

Starting to care about the human rights issues and environmental issues of fast fashion production is anything but "privileged" or "elitist." It's taking a stance to support change. The low price that you pay for an item isn't to help you afford to be more fashionable - it is meant to keep you consistently drawn into buying more and more cheap clothing, creating a dependency on those feelings of excitement when buying new things. It creates a psychological frenzy of always needing more to feel satisfied or like you fit in. This is mindless consumption. In the case of fast fashion, it creates and perpetuates pollution and human/animal abuse across the world.

When we start to see the big picture and ask where a brand's production takes place and with what worker conditions, using what substances and materials, and so much more, we can start to understand the impact of our purchases. Being a global citizen doesn't mean embracing a more "globalized" economy, it means fighting against monopolistic multinational billionaire corporations in favor of supporting authentic, fair, organic, local, and ethical production. It simply means caring about people all over the world and recognizing all humans (and animals) as deserving to live in dignity. If we pollute in a foreign country halfway across the world to make our goods, it is a problem not only for the citizens of that country but for us too. Even if we don't see the pollution first-hand in our own country, it is still a concern on a global scale. The point is simple - we need to stop "consuming" unethically and immorally made goods because they're "convenient" or "inexpensive" or "on trend", and choose to support something better. We just can't ignore the effects of industrial fashion with a clear conscience. 


To sum it up, we don't think it's elitist to care about the environment, animals, and people, and therefore to strive to live a sustainable lifestyle. We think it's a big part of the battle of our time and of our generation. It's time to tear back the curtain which hides the true mechanisms that make our current society function. It's time to understand the horror behind many of the industries that seem to make the world go round, like industrial agriculture, household chemical and beauty products, fossil-fuel reliant energy and transportation, and fashion. 

It should be normal to wear clothing made with care, from natural and healthy materials, without thousands of toxic chemicals applied, without slave labor involved.

We need to get to the root of our industrial problems, namely, petroleum-based materials and substances. Petroleum is quite literally the fuel that keeps it all going. Meanwhile, governments and corporations continue pretending everything is okay and normal while hiding the real destruction and injustice away from the public eye. 

This game of hiding the real consequences of our industrial pollution is slowly coming to an end, but only as we work to expose these realities and offer a solution. 

I don't know about you, but I'm willing to buy less and pay the extra cost for what I do buy so that a small brand doing everything they can to make the world a better place can afford to continue its work and to feed their families. 


Do you agree or disagree with the points made in this article? Let us know in the comments and let's keep the conversation going.


Lindsay, co-owner @ HowCork 

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1 comment

You obviously don’t know what elitism is. People call the sustainability movement elitist because many of them expect everyone to buy very expensive ethically made clothing, when that simply is not possible for many people. You also mention paying in increments- What about people who don’t have a credit/debit card or do not have access to the internet? What about people who are worried about losing a job and not being able to complete the payment? You’re making assumptions about people to further your own point. The sustainability movement should stop shaming others for being unable to shop sustainably. Obviously a $500 shein haul is unethical. But someone buying their kid a shirt from forever 21? That’s not inherently unethical. What we should be encouraging is for people to take good care of the clothing they have, no matter where it’s from, so they don’t constantly have to buy new clothes.


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