The practice of building an ethical wardrobe is not an easy one. For one, ethical brands are much more expensive than ‘normal’ brands, so much so that ethical fashion has been accused of being ‘elitist’ in numerous occasions. Ethical brands rightfully cost more because the price tag covers a fair wage for artisans, safe working conditions, and a healthy margin for the ethical business to be sustainable.
It is a noble cause, and as much as we all wish we could consume more ethically, it simply is not accessible to everyone. Admittedly, even I can’t manage to buy ethical items all the time. Frankly, it’s not realistic or fair to expect that everyone can have the purchasing power to support only ethical brands, because the reality of the world is that we come from varied economic backgrounds. And yet, no matter how much money we own, we all share the basic necessity of needing clothing, and I don't think it's too much to ask for us to feel good and decent in them.
During a recent conversation with my friend and fashion academic Tanisha C. Ford, she made an excellent point: a 14-year-old girl living in an inner city neighborhood still looks at Zara as an aspirational, luxury brand. It wouldn’t make much sense for us to fault that 14-year-old girl for aspiring for something that society has taught her to want: a beautiful dress that has the potential to outfit her confidence. That 14-year old girl from the inner city does not have the means to buy ethical, even if she wanted to. So as much as I advocate for the moral value behind conscious fashion, it is also not morally correct to shame someone for buying Zara if that’s what their purchasing power allows them to afford.
As essayist, journalist, and activist S.E. Smith so eloquently writes, “Moralistic scolding of people who buy ‘cheap junk made in [fill in your country]’ doesn’t actually address the problem that this is a market that’s created the consumer, not a consumer that’s created the market — wages in the US remain stagnant despite advocacy on the issue, cost of living is rising, and many people can’t make the choices they would prefer to make, because they’re facing down very limited options. This is deliberate, as companies have substantial margins of profit on inexpensively-produced goods made in nations with lax labor laws and poor environmental standards”.
While I believe that consumers can vote with their dollar, not everyone can afford to make this a priority. In my books, that is absolutely okay. I do however, want to suggest different ways in which we can create more responsible shopping habits, which doesn’t involve only buying ethical products:
1. Buy Less, and Choose Well: Fast Fashion has created a market where clothes can be bought by the dozen. As a result, we are tempted to ‘get our money’s worth’ by buying a lot of cheap items. Instead, I encourage you to choose QUALITY over quantity- instead of spending $100 on five cheap items, use that same $100 to buy one, beautifully made, long-lasting item that you will actually treasure for a longer period of time. This is certainly a more sustainable practice.
2. 30 Wear Rule: In general, I go by this- before buying an item, ask yourself if you can actually commit to wearing it at least 30 times. This helps us choose items that aren’t disposable, but ones that can actually last.
3. Buy vintage when possible: When possible, give clothes that have already been made another life. In essence, buying vintage is recycling. And if you live in Paris like me, you can find fantastic, “Made in France” items that are made in top quality standards!
If you absolutely have to buy from Zara, trust that I will never make you feel bad about it. Rather, I will encourage you to consider points #1 and #2 above. While we can’t always buy ethical, we can manage to practice socially responsible shopping habits, no matter the budget.