Is Ethical Fashion Elitist?
I’ve been a part of two ethical-fashion-related panel discussions here in the Philippines within the last month, and each time the same question has come up, though worded slightly differently: “well, buying ‘ethical fashion’ is all well and good for the well-to-do, but how do we communicate the importance of ethical fashion to the average person who is just trying to survive? It’s a fair question. Ethically made goods are more expensive- usually because people are paid fair wages, but sometimes because of greenwashing. It’s just not realistic to assume that everyone will be able to prioritize buying from ethical brands…
We often make blanket statements like “If we all changed our consumption habits, we could change the fashion industry!”. But are we really asking everyone to change their consumption habits? And is that fair? For me, the answer is “no”. At this point in my life, the vast majority of my friends, and the people I spend the most of my time with are not well-to-do and it seems ridiculous to encourage them to buy a $22.00 pair of organic and fair trade underwear when they are just trying to get by and cover rent and food for the month. I’d never judge the refugee family with 6 kids that Andrew and I were “neighbors” with for buying their kids’ clothes and school supplies at Walmart, and I’d never encourage one of my friends here in the Philippines who makes about $400 a month to spend $50 on a new fair trade dress rather than a cheaper alternative.
So, is shopping ethically the duty of the 1%? (When I say 1%, I’m talking about the GLOBAL 1%, not the American 1%. Did you know that if you make $32,400 a year or above you’re a 1%-er from a global perspective?) And is it hypocritical for me, as a blogger, to push a lifestyle that isn’t attainable for most of the global population?
In one way, yes. I’m sure you’ve noticed that most ethical bloggers are… like me. And not just because a lot of us are young white women. Most of us are not “wealthy” by our home countries standards, but we are able to afford and prioritize fair trade coffee, and clothes that are more expensive. There are few ethically made items that are life essentials, so most “ethical shopping” is a bit frivolous. We buy products like colorful woven baskets and embroidered purses and recycled-paper Christmas ornaments not because we need them, but because we like them and want to support the good cause behind the product.
Middle-class to wealthy Americans consume far more resources than the rest of the world’s population. Honestly, I think changing the fashion industry starts with the global 1%, because the global 1% is the problem. We’re the ones consuming the majority of the cheap goods that contribute to the exploitation of people and the planet. We’re the ones who can afford to pay more for an item to ensure that fair wages are paid, and don’t. I’m okay with my blog and my advocacy speaking mainly to people like me because we’re the ones who need to change our habits the most.
How does elitism figure into this? Those of us who are privileged enough to lead a “conscious consumer” lifestyle sort of tout it as the best way to live, the way that everyone should be living. I’m definitely guilty of this, at times. There certainly is a feeling of superiority that can come with making good choices, or what I perceive as the best choices, that’s quite prideful and ugly. It’s something that we need to watch out for, and recognize how our priveledge plays into being able to make the choices we do.
In another way, no. Because ethical fashion/ethical living isn’t just about buying new ethically made goods. There are many ways that steps can be taken toward better buying habits that are attainable to everyone. Buy less. Buy better. Buy secondhand. Make your own stuff. These methods can not only contribute to a more sustainable lifestyle for literally anyone, but they can also be beneficial in saving money and increasing quality of life. For example- I make my own deodorant, which is cheaper than buying even the cheapest conventional deodorant AND it prevents me from smearing chemicals on my skin which could lead to heath issues.
I guess that what I’m promoting is this: EVERYONE should buy less, and buy secondhand. Those who can afford a bit more: buy quality, invest in more expensive ethical brands that are doing good things to promote change in the fashion industry. Those who can afford excess- divert that money to companies that are doing good.
Ethical living is for everyone, and we can all do something.
What are your thoughts?