THE PRIVILEGE OF SHOPPING SUSTAINABLY
By Lauren Cameron
4 · 22 · 2019
In a fascinating article I read the other morning in The Cut, a woman describes her heroic walk home from the gym without underwear. Having sworn off fast fashion brands, she ended up commando because she refused to purchase underwear at Zara, TopShop, or other affordable retail chains she passed on the way home. After detailing her experience, the same woman notes her feeling of being an “eco-warrior” for buying a hemp t-shirt from Kindred Black, which sells for a $44. Yes, $44 for a t-shirt.
It became clear that the “hero” in The Cut article was doing great for the planet but others surely don’t have the luxury of paying $44 for a t-shirt in an effort to be more sustainable. I quickly conducted a search on the most popular sustainable clothing brands, scrolling through websites such as Everlane, Reformation, and Kowtow. And while these companies are quick to explain the ethical working practices and minimal environmental harm they exert, few have addressed the extreme lack of accessibility of their clothing.
I am in full agreement that fast fashion is a horrific practice: it can take up to 7,000 gallons of water to produce a single pair of jeans, the working conditions are tremendously unsafe, and wages are far too low. In fact, in an article I wrote in February, I illustrated the pressures of being a socially conscious shopper and choosing brands that abide by ethical values. However, I have come to believe it is wholly unfair and unrealistic to expect everyone to stop buying from fast fashion brands until sustainable clothing becomes more affordable. Because at the current prices, sustainable clothing, along with many other sustainable practices, can only be afforded by a fraction of America.
Let’s break down a few of the major brand names by comparing the most basic staple in one’s closet, a colored t-shirt. Forever 21, which is frequently cited as a fast fashion brand, sells plain t-shirts for $3.90. Meanwhile, Everlane, a popular sustainable clothing brand, sells the same styled t-shirts for $18. On H&M, you can buy a black and white checkered dress for $9.99, and on the more sustainable Reformation, you can buy what appears to be the same dress for $198. While these clothing items resemble each other aesthetically, both the quality and materials of the clothes differ greatly. The quality of say, a shirt from Forever 21, leaves little to be desired. From personal experience, I can attest that most of my shirts from Forever 21 last no more than a handful of wears before some part of them rips or falls apart. In the long run, re-buying the same cheap shirt time and time again probably adds up to more than the cost of a single high-quality shirt. However, that doesn’t change the fact that most Americans cannot afford to spend hundreds of dollars on a few clothing items at once, despite the long run implications of buying cheap, disposable clothing.
In a country where 1 in 50 children will grow up homeless, sustainable clothing companies must find ways to lower their prices and make their items more accessible to the majority of the population. While I understand that fair wages and environmentally-safe materials generally lead to more expensive items, I believe that we should target our energy towards making sustainable practices more affordable rather than preaching about how sustainable our excessively expensive clothes are. Furthermore, avoiding fast fashion is just one of many sustainable practices that are largely unaffordable for the average American consumer. Whether it be veganism, no-waste practices, or enviro-friendly cars, environmentally friendly practices are overall more expensive than their convenient and harmful alternatives. Those with the privilege to choose the more expensive and sustainable option should strive to do so, but I believe that calling for a nationwide shift to environmentally friendly clothing can be ignorant to the excessive wealth inequality in our nation.
This realization does not discredit the harm of the fast fashion movement or the efforts of sustainable brands to move towards more ethical clothing consumption. It just proves to us that fast fashion will not cease to exist until sustainable clothing brands find ways to be accessible to the masses. It isn’t enough to hope to live in a time where eco-friendliness isn’t associated with primarily white, wealthy habits. We must actively work towards a future where the privilege to make sustainable consumption choices isn’t limited to the wealthy.