Buying from brands that have a focus on sustainability is commendable and of course, people should be encouraged to do so.
However, there is a fine line between encouragement and judgement. Many sustainable fashion brands are geared towards the privileged, and sadly, some groups of people find that there are limited options for them within the sustainable fashion space.
It’s therefore important to be mindful of becoming too moralistic when it comes to judging the purchasing decisions of individuals. On the contrary, being aware of the barriers that people face can help us to demand that companies do better and make sustainable fashion accessible to everyone.
Sustainable fashion brands tend to have a higher price point than fast fashion. This is usually because workers are paid more fairly, and materials are sourced responsibly.
These companies also tend to buy into the ethos that you should invest in fewer, more expensive, pieces.
This is a great concept, but simply isn’t possible for everyone. For those living on a low income, they may never have the money to invest in an expensive, long-term garment. The reality is that right now, cheap fast fashion companies are the only realistic option for some people.
Sadly, people with disabilities are often forgotten when it comes to sustainable fashion.
Many have specific requirements for their clothing – for example, they may need adaptive clothing that allows them to dress themselves more easily (e.g. with magnetic closures instead of buttons) or has openings for tube access. There are currently only meagre adaptive fashion offerings within sustainable fashion.
Furthermore, people with sensory issues, for example some people with autism, need to wear certain fabrics that are less aggravating to the skin. This may mean they need to purchase their clothing from less ethical companies.
Fatphobia is a problem across the whole fashion industry, including in sustainable fashion. For example, in women’s clothing, many companies will only cater up to a UK size 14 or 16, even though size 16 is the UK average – leaving many women having to buy fashion from dedicated plus-size stores.
The same is true in the sustainable space, meaning that women over a size 16 may have trouble finding sustainable clothing that fits them.
Similarly, for people who need petite or tall clothing, it can be difficult finding suitable clothes from sustainable brands.
Time & knowledge
The fashion industry and sustainable fashion are extremely complex topics. Learning about the issues in the industry and the best solution, as well as researching the ethics of different companies, requires time, effort and research skills. Not everyone has these at their disposal.
There has also been a rise in greenwashing in recent years – companies implying they are sustainable, without the policies to back it up. People without knowledge about the industry and plenty of time to research whether companies are telling the truth – and most people fall into this category – can easily fall into the trap of thinking they’re shopping sustainably when they aren’t.
Style, comfort & convenience
There are various other factors that prevent people from buying new sustainable fashion. As it’s a smaller market, it can be harder for people to find styles they like. Differing sizes between brands can mean having to order several sizes to find the best fit. People might prefer the feel of synthetic materials over natural materials. Specific work or sportwear may not be available as a sustainable option.
While these barriers might not be so insurmountable as being alienated from the industry as a marginalised group, they are still valid experiences that prevent people from shopping sustainably.
All of the above shows that buying sustainable vs fast fashion is not a simple question of individual morality. Framing it as such alienates people and, at worst, discriminates against marginalised groups.
A better and more effective way to create positive change is to hold brands – both fast fashion and sustainable fashion – accountable.
If you are armed with time and knowledge, use it to write to a fast fashion brand and question them about their supply chain.
If you’ve noticed your favourite sustainable fashion brand doesn’t cater for plus size or disabled people, ask them why.
And spreading the word about sustainable fashion solutions you love – as we spoke about in our last article Why championing sustainable brands is just as important as buying from them – means that others can benefit from your knowledge and research.
Overhauling the fashion industry requires a sea change, and this is only possible with positivity and inclusivity.