This article was originally published 27 April, 2017.
Back in January of last year, Channel 4's Dispatches went undercover in clothes factories based in Leicester. Workers were revealed to be earning less than half the UK minimum wage, showing that the impacts of fast fashion aren’t distant but standing on our doorstep. For plus-size fashion blogger Callie Thorpe, this was a wake-up call.
This is a feeling common to many of us and, as the rise in interest in ethical fashion shows, more and more of us are guiltily turning away from fast fashion. But for plus-size women, that guilt can turn into frustration – as Callie told me later, “It really isn’t as simple for us to be able to opt out of fast fashion.” Few places stock sizes above a 16 in the first place and, even if they do, they’re ill-fitting or seasons behind. If plus-size women were to go cold turkey on fast fashion, she points out, “that leaves us with pretty much nothing”. The lack of viable alternatives for women above a UK size 16 – or even 14 – can stop good intentions in their tracks.
That also means that vintage or secondhand clothing (a commonly advocated alternative to fast fashion) is hardly viable – from the size ranges in vintage shops, you’d think fatter women didn’t exist before the '90s. And that’s because, in the eyes of the fashion world at least, they didn’t. As Callie says: “We’ve been excluded from fashion as a whole for such a long time.”
Perelandra Beedles, a plus-size blogger who is a huge advocate for vegan, sustainable fashion, agrees. “Plus-size women are discriminated against in so many ways, to the point where they are forced to make unethical buying choices because there is nothing else available.”
But why isn’t it available? Whatever size you wear should have no influence over your ability to make more sustainable choices for your wardrobe. But with vintage and secondhand choices being scarce to non-existent, the only options are clothes made in an explicitly ethical way. And this is where it gets more complicated.
The main reason is, unsurprisingly, money, and cost of production is a huge limitation on ethical brands. While cost is used by many fast fashion retailers as an excuse for not broadening their size range and to mark up the retail price of plus-size pieces, in the case of sustainable brands, the budget really isn’t there. Clothing that is made well, in fair conditions, inherently costs a lot more to make and ethical fashion brands will channel budget into supporting their producers' livelihoods first and foremost. This means that even adding one size bigger is a much more expensive process. When I spoke to Sophie, the cofounder of Birdsong, she expressed frustration. “It's really hard to manufacture in a range of sizes as a small brand – each piece and size has to be graded, sampled, sampled and made again and especially if you're paying a living wage that adds up.” People Tree, a well-established name in ethical fashion, echoed this on their size explainer from 2015: “If our turnover was 10 times larger then we could afford to put 4-5% of our buy into the larger sizes but while our business is still so small it is not viable.”
It can also be a much slower process to add sizes. People Tree explain that “due to working with small producer partners rather than large factories, we also need to buy much earlier in advance compared to other retail brands, to give enough time for production. This means we cannot react to our sales figures as quickly as other companies can. Even if we added size 18 (or size 6, or any new size) now, it would not appear in our range for another year because of our lead times.”
Even when plus-size clothing is ethically made, the price is too high. When Beth Ditto’s second collection was released late last year it received mixed reactions, with many particularly disappointed in the price points. But as Beth pointed out to Hunger, this was the only way she could do it how she wanted: “It was either make it and let it be affordable or make it and let it be ethical. There was no middle ground at all. I really don’t think there’s another option available at the moment.”
This leads to the second reason why there isn’t plus-size sustainable clothing: when it is made, people don’t buy it. But what is lacking is an analysis of why these sizes aren’t selling. From a consumer point of view, the price can be alienating. As a plus-size woman, this can be further exacerbated by a reluctance to buy anything expensive. “Unfortunately it is often the case that plus-size women simply don't spend money on expensive clothes,” Callie points out, “because they have an idea that they will eventually lose weight and not need to wear them. I think for that reason, plus-size women find fast fashion easier to buy into.”
This is not a hard and fast rule: many people shop at many different price points, irrespective of size. But what will make an impact is visibility – or a lack thereof. When you can see yourself in clothing, you’re more likely to buy it – but if most sustainable brands continue to ape fast fashion marketing, they will continue to alienate consumers. Like fast fashion brands, a lot of ethical lines make either a very limited size range or stick to the industry standard of 8-16. Perhaps as ethical fashion is still growing, brands are choosing to play it safe, following industry standards in everything but the manufacturing. Sophie argues that it can and should be better. “A lot of sustainable brands don't do enough to challenge or question the way that fashion is marketed to us and the effect that body policing has on consumers.” Even within her own company, she recognises ways to improve: “We offer any sizes on our site, but actually receive very few orders above a 16. We think this is because we could do a better job casting models above that size, and are keen to represent more women.”
Ultimately it’s a two-pronged issue: plus-size clothing should not be a niche corner of the market, nor should ethical fashion. But the only way we can change this as consumers is to ask for more from both sides: more size options, more inclusive representation, more transparency. Because your size doesn’t – and shouldn’t – hold you back from shopping ethically.
Here are a few places that make bigger sizes sustainably; please do tag us if you know more. This list is a great resource, too: