The year was 2011 and I was a journalism student in university. My studies led to a part-time role at the now-defunct iVillage.com, a self-proclaimed “female-oriented” site covering everything from celebrity gossip to parenting advice to (mainstream) style.
Ten years and two kids later, I cannot remember much from my time there. One of the few memories that has stuck with me is of a fellow intern pitching a slideshow on cute ethical brands for “women who care”. The idea was rejected — not because of its retrospectively crappy, presumptuous title but because “ethical and sustainable fashion stories just don’t get clicks.” Coincidentally, this was the exact same excuse I’d hear whenever one of my pitches about plus-size fashion was also turned down (not only at iVillage but by all of the women’s sites I worked for immediately following that position).
The year is now 2021 and the world wide web is a whole new world. Terms like “body positivity” and even “fat acceptance” can be found everywhere from indie feminist publications to legacy names like Vogue. The same is true for “ethical and sustainable clothing”. No longer is the fashion industry’s legitimately lethal impact on the planet a niche conversation reserved for vegan-hosted house parties or the queue in the organic section of Sainsbury’s; it's a subject tackled in documentaries, across social media platforms and within the education system.
The same cannot necessarily be said for the intersection of these aforementioned topics, though. The global ethical fashion market has been growing at a rate of approximately 8.7% per year since 2015. Similarly, the plus-size fashion market is expected to continue to grow at a rate of 5.9% per annum until at least 2027. Unfortunately, there is nothing to suggest that the ethical plus-size market will follow the trajectory of its individual entities.
For plus-size folk hoping to make more ethical and sustainable choices when it comes to our spending habits, questions remain regarding how exactly we are meant to do so. Where do we shop for ethical wares when we have comparatively limited options in the first place? Where do we shop when the ethical garments that do exist are wholly out of our budget? Where do we shop when our local charity stores won’t display the donations they receive above a size 24 because “those just don’t sell”?
The rise in sustainable and ethically minded plus-size influencers over the last few years suggests that there must be answers to these quandaries. Photographer, writer and slow fatshion influencer Marielle Elizabeth has been working within the ethical and sustainable plus-size clothing space for five years. She cites brands like Wray NYC (“On-trend, highly fashionable pieces that straddle the line between timeless and pushing the edge of what mainstream fashion looks like”), Nettle Studios (“They have such fun and whimsical patterns”), and ARQ (“I believe deeply in their high-waisted underwear”) as some of her favourite options. Items are available in sizes up to a 6XL, 4XL, 6XL and 6XL respectively.
In terms of ethical and professional plus-size apparel, Elizabeth tells Refinery29 that Universal Standard (up to AU 44) is a “leader in creating clothing for workplaces, especially formal workplaces.”
Gemma Gibson, a fat studies scholar, shops ethical and sustainable size-inclusive brands as and when she can. Although she isn’t personally into their signature frills, she’s been able to find “some really great skirts in block colours that I wear pretty much every week” at Loud Bodies (up to 10XL). “I also love House of Flint (up to 5XL). Jessica [the owner and designer] is so great. I am between sizes in her brand and she's always happy to make my clothes in custom sizing at no additional charge.”
Gibson is also a fan of Tradlands (up to 5XL), noting that she has worn her Tradlands dress “to lecture, at a wedding and for lounging about the house. The Nico is quite plain so you can do a bunch of stuff in them. If you have the disposable income to spend money on ethical fashion, you really do get your money out of those dresses.”
Writer and blogger Michelle Hopewell highlights Gaudy x Miggs (for cottagecore up to 8XL) and Donald Stanley (for vibrant and profesh made-to-measure styles) as some of her preferred retail destinations. Regarding the sustainable clothing realm, however, she notes that “because the prices of the places I love are higher (so they can afford to properly pay their garment workers), I've come to terms with saving towards an item rather than just buying something because it’s readily available.”
Indeed, one cannot have a conversation about ethical fashion without addressing the higher price points of these ensembles — higher price points that exist because, at least in theory, no one is being paid unfairly or otherwise exploited through the creation and selling process. Because fat folks are statistically likely to earn less money than our thin counterparts, however, fast fashion often remains our only feasible option.
Plus-size creative Ratnadevi Manokaran explains: “I’m interested [in ethical clothing] but don’t have the pocket for it.”
“In the end, even sustainability comes with some kind of capitalist idea,” she says. “It’s like the whole organic thing. Like, are you just buying into trends or are you actually using your clothes and then reusing, repurposing, possibly selling them on, etc?”
“I know that I used to judge people who would only shop at places like SheIn and Boohoo, just because their poor labor practices are so widely known, but I definitely had to check my own classism there,” shares Sweet Jane. “My spouse and I both work full-time and we own our home so we are in a relatively comfortable financial situation. This gives me the privilege to be able to be more choosy and to buy more expensive pieces. That being said, I also buy way less frequently than I used to. I would formerly do a huge ASOS haul every month or so. Now I'll only buy about 10 pieces a year and I really plan for them and cherish them.”
For ethically minded plus-sizers who simply cannot accommodate ethical and sustainable price points, secondhand shopping (including charity stores, online resellers, clothing swaps and plus-size influencer closet sales) is perhaps a more viable option. Manokaran is especially partial to Instagram closet sales. “I love the fact that the money goes to actual fat people instead of straight-size people making three outfits from a plus-size one,” she muses, referring to the unfortunate upcycling trend whereby straight-size consumers buy secondhand plus-size goods in order to cut them up or wear them “oversized”.
Similarly, Gibson prefers secondhand shopping to buying from bigger brands. “This isn't really easy as a fat person because lots of the clothes that are made for us are not really made to last so people tend to wear things until they fall apart and then the secondhand market is limited because of that,” she explains. I don't find Depop particularly usable but I do know people that find stuff there and then eBay is great if you've got lots of time. The volume of stuff on there is quite intense but you can find some stuff if you sift.”
Plus-size maker and stylist Lydia Morrow has an additional tip for secondhand shopping IRL: “I try to bring a measuring tape with me,” she says. “It’s sometimes unexpectedly easy to find a cool button-down that fits and happens to be a men’s XL when you’re a 3XL. Sizing is so variable.”
Realistically, shopping secondhand, particularly in-store, isn’t possible for everyone. “When you tell someone to shop secondhand as an ethical fashion option, you’re making a lot of assumptions about the time they have and the mobility they have,” Elizabeth explains. She believes curated plus-size reseller shops are more practical for people working with time and mobility constraints, and among her recommendations is Shop Berriez.
All this being said, decreasing one’s impact on the planet needn’t necessarily be limited to buying more stuff in the first place. “Due to capitalism and consumerism, we so often filter these conversations through the lens of purchases we’re making, or planning to make, or we have made. I think when we do that we fail to make space for everyone in the movement; we fail to understand how different intersections make participation more difficult,” says Elizabeth.
“If fast fashion is your only option, great. You can still continue to buy less clothing. Continue to care for that clothing. Dry your clothes outside or on the line instead of with a dryer. Find ways to make your clothing last longer. Patch things that rip or tear. Do the basics of extending the life of a garment regardless of whether it’s fast fashion or slow fashion, because it’s still important and it’s still helpful,” she adds.
“If from that place you are able to afford or have interest in buying ethical and sustainable fashion, follow plus-size influencers who are doing work in this community and in this space. I don’t think the way you get involved in ethical fashion is by buying your way into the movement. There are so many ways to participate that never require you to change where you’re shopping — but if you want to change where you are shopping, I would encourage you to take time to find brands that really resonate with your sense of personal style. Buying ethical clothing and then not wearing it is not an ethical or sustainable option for anyone, including yourself.”