Fashion has always had an inclusivity problem. The industry has been known to promote highly exclusive beauty ideals that favour those who are slim and white, leaving those who don’t fit into these narrow ideals neglected. But it’s not just looks that ascertain your place within the industry. Oftentimes it seems fashion belongs to the elite, as the value of items created by luxury brands have become so extortionate that only the ultra wealthy can afford them. These are the very same companies that do not pay their garment workers a living wage. While it has, no doubt, got better at embracing diversity, the exclusivity of fashion persists.
Sustainable fashion is seen as distinct from the rest of the trade, on the basis that clothes are designed ethically and responsibly. Whilst profit is still at the foundation of this sector, consumers are given the impression that profit is not what’s important here – it is the environment that is prioritised. The fashion industry makes up 10% of the world’s carbon emissions, but each sustainable label comes with a mission to lower its impact on the planet and reduce waste. Rather than create problems, they want to actively fix them. Eco-friendly brands are positioned as innovative instigators, challenging the rest of the industry to change. Despite this separation between sustainable fashion and the industry as whole, a few of the same issues arise - namely the exclusion of poorer communities and plus-sized people.
It’s clear that more people than ever are concerned about the environment and want to limit their impact on the planet. Last year, public concern for the environment was at an all-time high after global climate strikes brought the issue to the world’s attention. This anxiety appears to have been translated into purchasing mentalities too. Global fashion search platform, Lyst, found that in 2019 online searches for sustainability and keywords related to sustainability in fashion had risen by 75% from 2018. Even with this demand for responsibly made clothing, poorer communities remain priced out of the market.
Last year, public concern for the environment was at an all-time high after global climate strikes brought the issue to the world’s attention.
In August last year, the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) found that 43% of the UK population earned less than £12,500 a year. Eco-friendly fashion is simply too expensive for many households and constructs, perhaps unconsciously, a class division. Unable to afford the higher price tags that come with sustainable clothes, many are forced to turn to cheaper and more toxic alternatives. Fast fashion labels, aware of the role they play within the industry, appeal to customers through their extremely low prices. These brands may be less sustainable, but for the underprivileged lower costs will always win out over responsibility.
Unfortunately, this can have disastrous repercussions. This reliance on fast fashion has resulted in a throwaway society, with only 20% of clothes worn regularly and 92 million tonnes of textile waste every year – the majority of which ends up in landfill. Fast fashion lines encourage this attitude, offering clothes so inexpensive that they become almost worthless. Last summer, Missguided started selling bikinis for as little as £1. At the news of this, Fashion Revolution, a movement dedicated to calling out the fashion industry, issued a press release. In it they said “when garments are priced as cheaply as single-use items, it implies that our clothing is disposable. And if we buy that message, we are buying into a very ugly side of fashion.”
To be able to dismantle this toxic relationship with fast fashion, sustainable labels must find a way to appeal to those who are relying on cheap clothing. As costs play a significant role in a buyer’s decision-making process, one solution could be the implementation of payment plans. Now featured on most popular clothing websites, they offer an alternative way to pay for garments previously thought too expensive. Instead of large price points pushing them towards fast fashion, customers could buy from ethical labels in instalments.
To be able to dismantle this toxic relationship with fast fashion, sustainable labels must find a way to appeal to those who are relying on cheap clothing.
Whilst payment plans help to spread the cost over time, prices remain high. That’s why the idea of ‘slow fashion’ is so beneficial, particularly in the age of social media, when trends come and go so quickly. Instead of taking a trend-based approach to shopping, customers buy fewer, higher-quality items. They avoid falling into the trap of buying cheap, easily disposable clothing, by investing in a capsule wardrobe that is versatile and will last. The pieces may be more expensive but they’re much more valuable, lasting years rather than months. If more consumers took this approach to shopping, we would see far less waste and more conscious buying habits.
This idea of ‘slow fashion’ has become a key strategy within the sustainable sector to encourage buyers to invest in expensive but ethical clothing with longevity. Additionally, there are now multiple new initiatives within the industry that are applying this approach. One such initiative is the clothes sharing app, Nuw, that allows consumers to borrow clothes and in return lend pieces they don’t mind sharing. Users are asked to organise a convenient drop-off spot, or they can have clothes delivered by bicycle. The app is also very reasonably priced, with membership fees available for as little as £8 a month, providing users with access to hundreds of clothes. The hope is that people will be discouraged from buying things they don’t need and will turn to other options like Nuw instead.
This idea of ‘slow fashion’ has become a key strategy within the sustainable sector to encourage buyers to invest in expensive but ethical clothing with longevity.
That is also the aim behind clothes rental services, which are on the rise, with some predicting they will replace fast fashion. Companies like Hirestreet and Our Closet offer the chance to rent designer and luxury garments at a discounted price. By sharing between a variety of people, the environmental impact of the clothes is drastically lowered. Customers who rent are less likely to buy a cheap outfit they’ll only wear once for an event. Moreover, it’s very affordable and breaks down barriers that prevent poorer communities from shopping ethically. My Wardrobe HQ has rates as low as £4 a day to rent out designer and everyday clothing.
However, these solutions cannot solve problems in other areas of the industry that require a different approach. For example, plus-sized people are also finding themselves excluded from eco-friendly lines, as author and award-winning blogger, Stephanie Yeboah, has pointed out. In an article for Metro, she wrote about her difficulties shopping responsibly as a plus-sized woman and the lack of companies that stocked over size 16. The absence of a diverse size range speaks to a neglect that is felt all too often by plus-sized women. She wrote, “that some fashion brands exclude bigger women when cutting their clothes is not news to me. The reason I felt surprised in this instance, though, was that the exclusion came from a brand with a ‘mission’.”
Often a small range of sizes are stocked out of necessity. This is due to sustainable brands being small and unknown; hoping to keep costs down, they only offer limited collections. As they become more popular and confident in their sales, clothing companies can expand. Reformation, for instance, has recently added a plus-sized collection to its website, stocking sizes up to 3 XL. It’s plausible that as the sustainable sector continues to grow, more plus-sized collections will become available.
Although size inclusivity is an issue that still pervades the industry, brands are increasingly catering to people of all sizes. There are now several companies within the sector that have become aware of the lack of sustainable plus-sized clothing and are eager to bridge the gap. The Girlfriend Collective sells gym wear made from recycled water bottles and stocks up to 6XL, while Big Bud Press makes ethically made outfits in sizes up to 7XL.
But change is on the horizon, as brands invent creative new ways to combat the complications preventing new customers from buying ethically.
Sustainable fashion is still getting to grips with how to fix the problems that have plagued the industry for many years. But change is on the horizon, as brands invent creative new ways to combat the complications preventing new customers from buying ethically. To truly make a difference in the world, eco-friendly lines must become more accessible. With the steps taken over the last few years, it’s becoming clear that the industry is keen to do so. As the sustainable sector grows and more take the plunge into buying ethically, we will only see benefits for the environment and the industry as a whole.
Written by Guest Writer Georgina Hughes