“Sustainable” fashion is anything but

Vinay Khosla, Staff Writer

     Following the events of this past summer, activist and progressivist sentiment saw a sharp increase, especially among “Generation Z.” Everything from diversity in film and media to the perpetuation of strict gender norms came under the harsh scrutiny of idealistic teenagers and young adults. Somewhere in between, the unfortunate realities associated with fast fashion were brought to light as infographics and pictures slamming the practices of popular companies such as Shein, Fashion Nova and more, surfaced across social media.

     Fashion has long been recognized as one of the most influential forms of self-expression. Clothing allows people to feel confident in the way they look and customize their outfits to match their tastes and preferences in unique ways. Despite fashion being such a prevalent avenue of creativity, over time clothing and accessories have become increasingly expensive. Coupled with the fast pace at which trends fall in and out of popularity it is easy for the average fashion-lover’s costs-incurred to start piling up.  

     Fast-fashion companies in particular have been accused of underpaying workers, taking advantage of child labor laws in foreign countries, and maintaining extremely dangerous working conditions in their overseas factories (among other transgressions). The claims made against the billion-dollar industry cite the lack of sustainability present in the current system and the massive harm this has on the environment. However, it is these highly questionable methods present in the supply chains of certain companies that allow them to undercut more sustainable competitors. The question is not whether these companies produce in an ethical manner but whether it is conscientious to stake a claim to the moral high ground because one can afford to. 

     Should we then expect only those who can meet the exorbitant prices now demanded for fashionable items to be the ones that are allowed to express themselves in creative ways? The answer simply cannot be anything but an unequivocal no. The industry of fashion cannot, and should not, in a sense become gentrified, or only available to those with the money to afford entry. It is this niche that fast fashion fills: the industry enables those with less disposable income to maintain relevance with fast-changing trends. Relatedly, it empowers people to be creative and quirky with their sense of style, something they put on display for the world to see each and every day. 

     The disparity in accessibility between “fast” fashion and “sustainable” fashion is stark to an alarming degree. A popular blogging site with an article on “ethical and sustainable clothing brands” (The Good Trade) offers an accompanying pricing guide whose first tier denotes clothing “typically under $50” while the fourth demarks items “over $150.” The issue with equitable access to sustainable fashion is laid out by this relatively innocuous pricing tool. Fast-fashion brands usually boast items which rarely find their way over $50 while compared with sustainable fashion, that same item would be considered on the cheap side. It would be a disservice to call “sustainable” fashion sustainable for the low-income, or even average consumer. 

     Inarguably, there exists a moral dilemma on whether fast fashion, the industry in which it operates, and its effects are right or wrong, good or evil. But the argument above is not a justification for those with the means to shop sustainably to capitalize off an already problematic market, rather an acknowledgement that for some it is their only choice. It is quite simple for those who can afford to shop sustainably to demand the same of everyone yet the reality is not as black and white. It seems as though fast fashion is the only option for many, but will an increasingly progressive culture stifle such a historical manifestation of individualism? It would do us well to remember access to fashion should not be gate-keepen by the economically fortunate. But then again, only time will tell.