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Is Ethical, Democratized Fashion Possible?

It can sometimes seem, to the cynical, that “ethical fashion” is merely a way for those who can afford to spend $600 on a dress to feel not just chic but noble (as in ethical, not as in aristocratic, although maybe that as well) for their purchase. And yet even those skeptical of brands’ promises can perfectly well follow news stories about garment industry tragedies and find themselves (OK, ourselves) wondering if there’s a better way.

On Refinery29, Tabi Jackson Gee asks, “Is fast fashion a class issue?” Her answer? Yes and no. First, the yes:

Price points aside, there’s an element of sustainable fashion that reeks of liberal worthiness. Yes, every little counts, but boasting about how all your clothes are made from 100% organic cotton by single mothers in western Africa while looking down your nose at people who shop at Zara isn’t really going to save the planet, is it?

Before getting to the “no”, I’ll just interject that intense smugness about relatively minor individual choices seems especially tone-deaf in the Trump era, with oh so much else more pressing going on. You can only feel so pleased with yourself about having chosen the (purportedly) sustainable brunch place when everyone else is out at a protest.

Anyway. As Gee notes, for all the indisputably democratizing aspects of stylish clothing’s new affordability, the process of getting every last trend to everyone who might plausibly be interested are shaky to say the least:

The very nature of fast fashion means that cutting out waste, paying your workers enough money, and making sure you’re not destroying the planet is close to impossible. It’s a business model built on speed, not on ethical practices. But if fast fashion can’t be good, then it begs the question: Do we need it at all? Is it the responsibility of companies to make clothes in the right way, or is it our responsibility to buy less?

She concludes, “[A]s long as we believe that our wardrobes, and ourselves, are not good enough as we are, we will see new clothes as a right, not a privilege. And that isn’t a class issue — it’s a human one.”

This strikes me as right, with a couple caveats. Having looked into this issue a bit myself over the years, I think it’s important not to overstate the role individual women’s lust for new clothes plays in the way clothing is now consumed. We live in a society where it is relatively affordable to wear clothing that fits properly and looks new, which winds up meaning that those who stick with washed-out (or no longer correctly sized) clothes may face social and professional setbacks. What presentable means is simply different from what it meant when clothing was more expensive.

The issue I think anyone addressing the topic needs to grapple with is the near-impossibility of voluntarily going from a society where nearly everyone can afford to be fashionably dressed, to one where trends are accessible only to the few have that option. How could stylishness be democratic and ethical? A move towards making new clothes out of old ones comes to mind, but as Jessica Schiffer points out on Glossy, “Recycling old garments into new ones is also more complex than it sounds[.]”

Perhaps the only way out — and bear with me here — is for the worn-out-clothes look to become what’s both presentable and aspirational. Given the moment shredded and even mud-splattered jeans are having, this seems entirely feasible.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy edits the Sisterhood, and can be reached at She is the author of “The Perils Of ‘Privilege’”, from St. Martin’s Press. Follow her on Twitter, @tweetertation




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