Lovers and observers of the fashion industry would certainly agree that one, ultimate trend has stood above them all in the last decade.
'The Slow Fashion movement can be pretty Classist – but it doesn’t have to be.'
Katie Mills | 27 Sept 2021
Lovers and observers of the fashion industry would certainly agree that one, ultimate trend has stood above them all in the last decade. It’s bigger than low rise jeans in the 90’s and the flare in the 70’s, and it is guaranteed to stand the test of time. It’s sustainability. Sustainable, slow fashion is less concerned with aesthetic and more concerned about the social and environmental footprint of a garment. However, in getting swept up in a social justice movement to save the environment – the slow fashion discourse often overlooks intersectionality. Namely, it gets pretty classist and invites a whole range of “ists” into the underbelly of the movement.
Classism refers to the ways in which people of certain socio-economic status (most predominantly the poor), face systemic oppression and marginalisation. Classism is hugely intersectional as people belonging to marginalised ethnic groups, sexualities or genders often find themselves in the lower socio-economic group as a result of their marginalization and so the problem compounds. Classism therefore cannot be divorced from other isms including racism, sexism, sizeism and ableism. This is why we must pay close attention to role of classism in the Slow Fashion movement.
The Slow Fashion movement has a clear target: take down and vilify large multinational Fast Fashion retailers. Zara, H&M, Boohoo, ASOS and many more produce huge volumes of product each year at a high cost to the earth. Harmful emissions from textile production and huge waste from deadstock fabric and unsold or faulty garments have been the target of ire from activists. Additionally, a light has been shed on the conditions workers endure to produce such high volumes of cheap clothing. This, (to the movements credit) has of course been in solidarity with the low class workers on earth. However, it’s not the “why” we should end fast fashion that’s the problem – it’s the movements messages.
The movement hurls abuse at Fast Fashion retailers and expresses disgust at any consumer that could dare shop there. Whilst I’m all for a boycott, its uncomfortable to see the privileged undertones of the dialogue out there. Fast fashion, in all of its dirtiness, services and clothes people of low-socio economic status. This is an unavoidable fact. Low socio-economic folk make consumer decisions out of need, and many can’t afford the privilege to “vote with their wallets.” Not to mention that many slow fashion outlets are not only more expensive but more size discriminative. I do not believe the intent of the Slow Fashion movement has been to exclude the poor and plus size, but some of the dialogue lacks this necessary nuance. The discerning Slow Fashion reader will be thinking “but there’s always thrift shopping!” Of course. But the Slow Fashion movement has done something troubling to the thrift world too.
In the same breath as vilifying fashion at the cheap end of the market, the Slow Fashion movement has driven up the cost of the remaining other affordable options in the market. Secondhand shopping is one of the most sustainable ways to shop by extending the life of a garment that might otherwise become another piece of landfill. In an effort to popularize secondhand shopping, many proponents of thrift shopping have sought to curate “collections” of secondhand items and on sell them. Affordable, second hand garments are purchased and on sold at incredibly inflated prices. A $2 t-shirt, becomes $50. This market for fashion has exploded but it feels that many proponents have lost a sense of nuance about the downstream effects. Privileged folk, who can afford to buy secondhand in bulk quantities, are buying up high quality secondhand goods and on-selling them to other privileged folk, putting these goods out of reach for low socio-economic folk. Now, the problem is less about supply and “running out” of secondhand goods for those who need them. There’s a ton of secondhand goods to go around. It’s more about the message in the monetizing, and popularization of trends and lifestyles by middle to high class folk, that low socio-economic folk have lived for decades and faced discrimination for. This is where the classism has crept in.
Don’t get me wrong, the popularization of secondhand certainly has vast benefits and I’m SO here for it. A wider section of society are now embracing the secondhand market in place of new. Wherever you sit in the class divide, buying second hand is the right thing to do. But we need to keep in front of mind that we don’t allow the secondhand market to adopt the same traits of the new garment market. Secondhand shopping based on “trends” and weekly “collections” will drive the same insatiable demand for quantity that we’ve seen in the Fast Fashion industry.
Because the truth is, the Slow Fashion movement isn’t just about where you buy from – it’s about how much. The focus on “where you buy” has created a simple target but it misses the point. The Slow Fashion movement must take up the mantle of tackling consumer habits in a much deeper way. It’s time to interrogate how much we’re buying and how many wears we get out of our garments. Buying less, repairing and wearing each garment more is the only way to slow Fast Fashion cycles, and nurture a secondhand market that is normalized but not excessive.
It’s been such a joy to watch this movement gain momentum. I’m proud of the activists who have applied pressure to large multinational corporations to do better. I’m proud of the small Slow Fashion entrepreneurs who have taken risks on behalf of the industry. I’m proud of the influencers who have contributed to greater social acceptance of thrift shopping. I’m grateful for anyone who is contributing to the kōrero. As every movement grows in size and momentum, it must continue to refine its approach to ensure messages align with intent. It is my wish and call to action, that together we approach the growth of this movement with critical thinking and inclusivity.
The decision to buy less and wear more is a Slow Fashion tool that is available to everyone. Nurturing this tool, is what can make the movement accessible to everyone regardless of class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality or size.