Is Ethical Fashion a Privilege?

Supporting Sustainability Beyond a Purchase

By MATTER Prints

If there was a Bingo game themed for the sustainability industry, one of the corners would be the quote by Anna Lappé. As the line goes, “Every time you spend money, you're casting a vote for the kind of world you want.” If you are familiar with the conscious community, you would likely have heard it before, and maybe even said it yourselves–we know we have.

As valid as that statement is, we’ve come to realize that it isn’t entirely fair because it fails to give context to the one circumstantial factor it hinges on: that being able to spend money with the weight of voting for the kind of world we want is a privilege.

The class issue in ethical fashion often goes undiscussed. As it stands in the US, for every dollar earned by their white male counterparts: black women earn $0.63, Native American women earn $0.57, and Latina women earn $0.54. Meanwhile, white women and Asian women earn $0.79 and $0.87, respectively–meaning greater spending power for these two groups. The scales aren’t balanced, and we need to give context to the facts when we speak about ethical fashion.

In 2017, 84.9% of the world was living in poverty. In the States, 80.4 million workers were paid at hourly rates, and among those paid by the hour, 542,000 workers earned exactly the prevailing federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. For the majority of the world (those who live at or under the poverty line, go from paycheck to paycheck, or otherwise), there is little choice in purchasing ethical fashion.

“We who have the power to make choices disproportionately shape outcomes and limit options for people who don’t have the power to make choices. It follows that if we don’t share the power to make choices, we will never see a change to those things we say are bad or unacceptable to our society.” - You Yenn Teo

While it is true that where our money goes is a direct support of the kind of future we want, just because someone isn’t able to shop from ethical brands, doesn’t mean they don’t care about the future. Making that conclusion is an unfair assumption made from a place of privilege, and it’s a correlation we need to repudiate.

We act as if choosing ethical fashion is simply a matter of will, when really this decision is one we’re only able to have because of our privilege. Low-income women are caught in a loop; buying cheap clothes from fast fashion brands because they aren’t paid enough to afford an alternative. Having that privilege is not something to feel guilty about, but it’s also not something to denigrate one another for either.

The question of whether ethical fashion is a privilege requires a more complex depth of introspection rather than a direct yes or no answer. If we’re simply talking about buying from ethical fashion brands–then yes, it is a privilege. But ethical fashion and sustainability go way beyond the act of a purchase.

Sustainable fashion takes consideration of the entire process from sourcing, producing, distributing, to marketing–giving weight to actions that don’t affect or leave minimal impact on the planet.

Master ikat weaver in Hyderabad, India.

Master ikat weaver in Hyderabad, India.

Supporting ethical fashion and buying from ethical fashion brands are not mutually exclusive: money can’t buy intent and just because you aren’t purchasing from the latter doesn’t mean there aren’t other avenues to advocate for the former. When we put that into perspective, then it is also true to say that ethical fashion is accessible to everyone.

You can support ethical fashion without buying. 

If you want to be more ethically conscious when shopping, here are some ways to get started:

  1. Wear your items to the end of their life

  2. Care for your clothing: mend them when they’re distressed and wash them gently

  3. Donate, recycle, or upcycle

  4. Before you buy, consider how many times you’ll wear it. Do you need it?

  5. Buy second-hand at thrift shops or vintage stores

  6. Buy items that have a longer life beyond a single wear, get something you love and know that you will get a lot of wear out of it

As for those of us who can afford to support ethical brands, we should be putting that privilege to action. Ask who made your clothes, research about brands and the transparency behind their supply chain and processes, and put your money towards that. If you’re already doing this– take it one step further and seek brands owned by people of colour.

“When we buy from people of color, our money gets filtered through their communities. It raises property values and provides money and resources for schools. Making this one small behavior change snowballs over time, giving communities of color the economic boost they need to thrive.” - Benita Robledo

When you look at the numbers it might seem difficult to make a dent in the norm, but if there’s anything we’ve learned in the last four years, it’s that great things are done by a series of small things brought together. Businesses have the power to change the world and that cycle of change starts with the consumer. The power of the consumer is undisputed, and every single act of consumption has a ripple effect somewhere else in the world.

MATTER reinterprets textile heritage into prints that tell stories of where and why they are made. Working with a curative philosophy inspired by tradition, we source heritage prints and styles while reinterpreting them in a modern manner. Our purpose is to impact change beyond textiles — to make rural artisan production sustainable, shift designers’ approach to their process, and inspire customers to value provenance.