Theatre Editor Ananya Vankatesan looks at the troubles surrounding ethical fashion.
I don’t know about you but I love dressing up. I love looking at the mirror, admiring my outfit, and telling myself that I look drop-dead gorgeous. In order for me to do that, I need to buy dresses that I like, outfits that match my vibe, all while making sure my limited bank account isn’t being emptied out on that one stunning sequin suit. So I turn to Shein or H&M, or the gazillion other places that let me pick from the most diverse range of collections from all across the world, at super cheap prices. But, wait! Oh no! Turns out these are superbly unethical companies! My conscience asks me to turn away from these companies and hunt for clothes at vintage, second-hand, charity shops and platforms. But as is the modus operandi of the free market system, the increase in demand for these services has led to skyrocketing prices.
Thus, the conundrum of conscience. Do I, a university student in a perpetual state of financial disarray, do the morally right thing of boycotting these immoral gremlin corporations, or do I protect my bank account at the expense of humanity?
We all know why fast fashion is bad. And if you don’t, here’s the TLDR: fast fashion, aiming to make fashion affordable, produces knock-off designer wear for cheap prices on an almost daily basis. So, what this looks like is the two seasons of high fashion companies being translated into almost 50 to 60 seasons in fast fashion enterprises. The only way to sustain this business model is to cut costs: paying less than minimum wages to workers, employing child labour, and not giving two shits about the environment. With more and more people becoming conscious of their consumption practices, thrifting has become an extremely popular practice. And it does have its benefits. With the price of ethical clothing in thrift stores being cheaper than in boutiques, at first glance, it seems to be the solution to keeping money in bank accounts. Additionally, thrifting also seems to be a marginally more sustainable consumption practice.
But here’s why the seemingly obvious reasons to thrift are smokescreens to the problem of the free market. The popularity of ethical fashion has locked out people for whom thrifting had been the only source of affordable clothing – a necessity. The trend to be more ethical has resulted in a spike in the demand for second-hand clothing, and given that the supply of thrift clothing is always lesser than its demand, has made the practice of thrifting almost as expensive as shopping at high street stores. What was initially an affront to the well-off and the middle classes, wearing used clothes because that meant you didn’t have that sweet sweet cheddar, has now become the high horse from where they sneer at those who can’t afford charity shops and have to turn to the likes of Primark.
“Well, that may be all good and well”, you might think: “But we must boycott companies that are unethical. The planet is dying! People aren’t getting paid!”
But here’s the double-take moment. Thrifting, while in the pre-popular days before it became the Queen Bee of the fashion market might have been sustainable, is now creating the same unethical market but adding another face of unethicality – false advertising. Having an extremely profitable market as thrifting, people have started buying clothes from all the unethical companies like Pretty Little Thing and Zara, and selling them a year later on Depop as “vintage”. So, not only are you buying clothes from unethical companies, you are buying them at a cost higher than they would have originally been, and they’re not even vintage! The people who weren’t being paid still aren’t, the environment is still harmed, and you’ve lost a whole bunch of money. There is no benefit. Thrifting is feeding back into the same problem people thought it was solving.
Now you might say: “So you’re saying that’s it, the world is doomed there is nothing we can do about it and we are all going to die.”
I wouldn’t drop down that nihilistic rabbit hole just yet.Being ethical is hard. It’s not the black and white, dichotomous problem we thought. There are 50 shades of grey in between, probably even more. But that doesn’t mean it’s an impossible problem either, ethical wardrobes come to those who try. You can shop ethically if you put your mind to it and research the thrift stores you frequent. Find out who is bad, who is worse, maybe throw in a cost-benefit analysis, and pick the lesser of the evils. If you can’t afford to exclusively dress in second hand, organically sourced garb, that’s okay. Every day being ethical gets harder, gets more complicated, and it’s increasingly difficult to make an ethical choice on a budget. Maybe the perfectly ethical wardrobe dream will stay just that, a dream. But as long as we all put in an effort to make the right choice, we all do our part to be ethical. So, if you are one of the people currently sitting on a throne with your nose turned at those who can’t afford to do what you do, get off of it maybe and see if you even deserve to be on that fictitious chair you’ve built yourself.