Words by: Saskia Bhageerutty
What is privilege?
To start, what is privilege? I suppose it can be defined as unearned advantages given to people who fit into a specific social group. Our world has put in place certain institutional power systems and the norm of power is heavily intertwined with the straight white male stereotype. That said, despite my status as a woman whose parents were immigrants, I would not shy away from the label of privilege. I am a 22-year-old university-educated graduate. I have lived in London, in a safe home for my whole life. I have never worried about paying bills, whether there would be enough food on the table, whether I could afford to attend the school field trip. I knew that not everyone could and that I was lucky. I treated my financial privilege with respect. However, unable to worry about those things, money troubles, which always come first before other worries, I begin to find myself preoccupied with the environment, with the rising levels of meat consumption, with the endless piles of plastic unable to breakdown for hundreds if not thousands of years, and for the landfills full of cheap clothing.
Sustainability is costly?
So, if this was my worry, was that the reason that I, and many others in my position, exemplified the face of sustainability? 20-30-something white and privileged things posting on Instagram about buying real tasting meat alternatives and from boutique sustainable fashion brands? If that was the case, I’d have little defence against saying that sustainability is only for the financially secure. With a quick Google, you can see that the average sustainable fashion brand is not putting out clothes at your fast-fashion prices. It’s understandable that given the choice, anyone would go with the cheaper alternative. Perhaps sustainability is just for the privileged; those with some extra disposable income in their pocket who are willing to dish out for more ethical and sustainable clothing, those with the choice, I thought to myself. Perhaps, most people just can’t afford to get involved with sustainability. Or can they?
There are other areas in which the ability to engage with sustainability is questioned: fashion, food, lifestyle. I’m simply going to talk about whether sustainable fashion is limited to those with a financial privilege here, but keep an eye out for a similar challenge of privilege in sustainable eating or lifestyle on www.theuandd.com in the future!
How much are we willing to spend on fashion at all?
So, it seems that we do not have the means to be more sustainable when it comes to fashion, that sustainable fashion is, on the whole, more expensive. It is true that sustainable fashion brands are charging more given the higher wages paid to suppliers, additional time spent in manufacture and sustainable fabrics selected. The question is, how much are we actually willing to spend on any fashion at all?
In 2019, I spent approximately £350 on fast fashion. If you dare to challenge yourself, please share your number as a commitment to change in the comments! In fact, my expenditure was below average! According to the latest Family Spending Report from the ONS, the average person in the UK spends around £530 per year on fashion. That’s a lot of money to spend on clothes that are made to not last very long and become obsolete. When you consider buying some higher quality and sustainably produced garments that will last many years compared to your ‘two-use-polyester-top-that-doesn't-go-with-anything-except-one-specific-outfit’, the cost per wear starts to become a bit more comparable.
Time to redirect your £500!
I do agree that the prices per garment aren’t identical to fast fashion prices and can be outrageously expensive, making them inaccessible to those who cannot afford to drop £100s on clothes in one go. This in itself represents a different challenge of inequality within the sustainability movement (although pay-by-instalment systems like Klarna are starting to help with tackling cash flow inequalities). That being said, I agree that the price per garment is an issue when it comes to many higher end brands.
Nevertheless, that does not mean sustainability is out of reach! Given the average person is willing to spend around £500 anyway, why not direct that £500 to pre-loved clothes like those found on Depop or charity shops? Alternatively, there are plenty of more affordable brands out there like these 8 sustainable brands I love with items ranging from £20-£100. Those types of per garment prices may make you gawk if you are like me and used to your tenner tees, but the prices also come with starting to accept that the low fast fashion prices we are used to only exist due to production in countries with more flexible regulations towards environmentalism, fair wages and working conditions.
Smaller UK-based boutiques are another good option to direct that £500 as they are often start-up businesses which hand make or revamp vintage clothes and sell for mid-range prices. These types of businesses often are a great and realistic way to engage with sustainability, since due to business size and lack of economies of scale, they adopt a lot of slow fashion practices too, like producing on order rather than pre-empting demand.
So, it is time to do some relearning; buy fewer items which come with a clearer conscience and start to enable the mindset of slower fashion!
With these facts and ideas in mind, perhaps sustainable fashion is actually just as affordable as fast fashion is when you compare per wear. I don’t think we can use cost as a major excuse anymore. But I understand that what I have said applies more to the “I want this outfit because it’s pretty” type of demand compared to “I literally need to buy this” type of demand. So, if you want some more proof that you can engage with sustainability without splashing your cash, here are some even cheaper alternatives.
Cheaper Ways to get involved.
Look to upcycle, to restyle. The culture of home-sewing is no longer the norm; why make a whole outfit when you can buy one for £10? However, mending your favourite clothes can be a simple and affordable way to keep them in the cycle longer. It is sad to think that with the efficiencies produced by industrialisation, we are no longer rewarded with the satisfaction of seeing material take shape and structure as our grandparents did.
I know this sounds controversial, me saying that everyone can get involved with sustainability irrespective of their economic status. I agree that I am generalising - perhaps it is to do with my privilege that I am! But in my opinion, if being more sustainable is a priority for you, you can get involved by doing as much as you have the means to.
For example, as a contributing consumer, we can use our consumer privilege to ask our favourite fashion companies “who made our clothes?” as inspired by Fashion Revolution; to be more transparent and to set a fair wage for their garment makers. We can simply engage in discussion about the linearity of fashion and its impact on greenhouse gasses. Sustainability is for us all. To be involved in the sustainability movement isn’t simply about buying a £180 dress made from recycled cotton or about thrifting a pair of shorts. We can all use our voices to partake in some industry-changing activism. In fashion, we can try to not just enable other privileged people to make inaccessible sustainable brands but to tackle the infrastructure of the fashion industry at its core. It is for governments and corporations to enable a just transition to a circular economy which will make sustainability more universal. Using your voice to speak for this can be just as important. We can do a little and change a lot. We can do this for free.
We’ve briefly touched upon the inequality of the entire fashion industry. I am not ignoring it; I am simply trying to educate myself further. If you are interested in this too, I’d recommend checking out Aja Barber, an amazing writer and micro-blogger who discusses the intersection of fashion, system change, race and inequality within the system.
Do you agree that engaging with sustainability in the fashion industry isn’t just for the privileged, but for anyway willing? Leave your thoughts in the comments below or DM @thecb.co or @saskia_photos on Instagram!