When shopping, it can be easy to forget that amongst global industries, the fashion industry ranks as the second most environmentally polluting and also as one of the largest operators of child and slave labor. For this reason, I try to say that I “only shop ethically,” but sometimes, my resolve crumbles as soon as I enter Cos. I fall prey to the price tags, the grey pullover that looks astonishingly like my other grey pullovers. Sometimes, I don’t. I leave proud, empowered by my righteousness that spits plainly in the face of Big Industry.
The first response—the purchase—is a choice. A choice to neglect the information that I know. To consciously decide that I do not want to do the right thing. The second is a revelation of the luxury that I maintain and represent. I am able to shop somewhere else or to not buy anything at all (surely I have enough clothes already).
There are few excuses for me, as someone who speaks often of fast fashion documentaries and Fashion Revolution, to not do the thing I know is right. Knowledge designates the responsibility of awareness and acceptance of guilt in acting in contrast to that knowledge. But ethical fashion involves more than just shopping Fair Trade and criticizing the exclusivity of the fashion industry.
When I’m on my sartorial high horse, I say that my new clothing purchases convey the person I am in that moment; they are material attempts to reflect my evolution as a (hopefully) growing, improving semi-adult. Just as my writing carries a set of emotions, puns, and allusions, my purchases indicate an ongoing search for myself. My daily attire is a visual diary entry, a reflection of transient perspectives and influences.
The privilege of being able to forget a garment’s past and manufacture
As someone interested in fashion, who says these kinds of things, it’s difficult to neglect the inherent privilege that this interest and these sayings involve. Not just financially—though the extent of my interest in these essential garments surpasses need and veers more toward hobby. But the privilege of being able to forget a garment’s past and manufacture. To think of clothing in relation to myself. To be able to put it on and look at it in the abstract. To forget that to bring it into this store at this time, it may have traveled the world and changed hands many times. And that those hands, more likely than not, were not treated with the same respect that I give to the ideologies behind inanimate objects.
My trite aphorisms and astonishingly grey and black wardrobe together weave a story of a self-regarding privilege, the luxury of being able to react to the information that I receive. Even my sense of self tailors to a Western (well, American, at least) concern with my own identity. For many people, shopping doesn’t involve choice, which is, in part, why industries like fast fashion need to exist. People don’t get to think about how clothing evolved the way it did, how it reflects gender dynamics, because they are suffering in its very manufacture.
Ethical fashion certainly takes form in buying alpaca wool instead of cashmere. It figures in shopping at Zady or Chinti and Parker or in secondhand shops instead of at Zara. But ethical fashion also requires sensitivity to the fact that these are not always options. That, try as we may to shop by example, the most important work comes from policy. And policy, in turn, comes first from self-awareness. Not everyone can make your choices; policies must be implemented so choices are accessible to more and more people, from manufacture to purchase.
Have and have nots define ethical fashion from every angle—and this is food for thought. But thinking in abstract is only a start; greater, active awareness is essential.