With this one pithy comment, Virgil Abloh – the brains behind one of the most lauded street style brands, Off-White – inadvertently touches on an issue that haunts every panel discussion and every magazine article about fast fashion and price points: Are ethically produced clothes a privilege for the wealthy? Should people with limited disposable income really be expected to pay more for clothes just to avoid buying cheap stuff that’s bad for the planet? And after all of these questions, are we left with one unavoidable one: Is fast fashion a class issue?
Abloh’s analogy to the food industry has another layer of relevance, too. Comparisons are constantly drawn between fashion and food in terms of ethics, sustainability and production practices. But there is also a common, resounding air of snobbery and elitism. Buying ethically sourced coffee beans and getting your food delivered in a neat little box from Abel & Cole is great, sure. But if a struggling mother of four had to choose between that and buying the same things for a third of the price at Lidl, could you judge her for opting for the latter?
That, too, is a question that’s easy to ask and much harder to answer. To avoid oversimplifying the argument, we need to remember that fast fashion isn’t all bad, just as sustainable fashion isn’t all good. It’s not always the case that buying better means spending more, as Professor Dilys Williams, Head of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion, UAL points out. “We have to be careful of buying into the rhetoric which reinforces the fact that 'sustainable fashion' is expensive”, she says.
Price points aside, there’s an element of sustainable fashion that reeks of liberal worthiness. Yes, every little counts but boasting about how all your clothes are made from 100% organic cotton by single mums in western Africa while looking down your nose at people who shop in Primark isn’t really going to save the planet, is it.
But our clothes, and where we buy them, have always been a class issue. They’re a symbol of wealth and status. And increasingly, they’re mixed up with ideology. Boasting about your cheap fast fashion haul says, 'I have priorities other than spending more on investment, consciously crafted pieces'. Ethically produced clothes scream, 'I’m proudly principled, and I want people to know it'.
Hypotheses aside, though, the statistics that illustrate how we consume clothes now are really rather grim. They don’t point to a nation of empowered shoppers; quite the opposite. According to a survey by M&S and Oxfam, there are 3.6 billion clothes left unworn in the nation's wardrobes – that’s an average of 57 items per person – with an average of 16 items worn only once, and 11 still with the tags on. And one in 20 people has over 50 items in their wardrobe with the tags still on.
“This is not proof of a democratised fashion industry – this is evidence that fashion is now regarded as disposable – as a cheap commodity not worthy of our love or care,” says Dilys. And this is just how the people selling us clothes want it. “As humans, we are stimulated by novelty and curiosity but an overstimulation, running on adrenalin, is not healthy. We are undervaluing fashion.”
Historically, people could buy only the fashion they could afford. Textiles were expensive and there were no cheap shortcuts enabled by inexpensive foreign labour and low manufacturing costs. “It was really in the post-war era that we started to see certain types of fashion being engaged with at all levels of society,” explains fashion historian, Amber Butchart. “So in this society we also have things like the boutique revolution. And we have retail methods that are seen as a lot more democratic in many ways. So there are a number of factors that mean throughout the 20th century it becomes a system that’s only available to the very wealthy.”
Just as the post-war era saw a boom in food manufacturing, so faster production methods suddenly meant clothes could be made quicker and were more accessible to the masses. Now, over 50 years later, we have the internet: the design process of fashion is faster than ever, thanks to the way we share information. It’s made it easy for the high street to copy clothes from both the catwalk and independent designers, and given us an all-access pass to the lives of people we admire and celebrate. A century ago, you couldn’t afford to wear the same clothes as the wealthy, successful people you ogled in newspapers or from the other side of the road. Now, thousands of companies around the world are making millions from allowing us to buy into anyone’s lifestyle at a fraction of the cost.
Some high street brands cater for the ethically minded consumer with the odd sustainable collection here and recycling drive there (although the jury’s still out on whether they’re well-timed marketing ploys or genuine attempts to right the fashion industry's wrongs). Others have made it their bread and butter.
Nobody’s Child, the Fast-Fashion-Brand-That’s-Not-As-Bad-As-The-Other-Fast-Fashion-Brands, is sold in Topshop and ASOS and targets the mindful consumer with more affordable clothes and on-point messaging. But they’re not big on the word 'sustainability'. “I think the word that I prefer to use is that we have a 'conscience'” says their brand director, Becky Leeson. She’s firm on this point and pragmatic in her outlook on the possibilities of creating a fully sustainable business that also supplies the latest trends when the customer wants them.
Right now, Nobody’s Child can deliver fast fashion with a conscience because they own factories in the UK, Europe and Asia and their knitting plant, dye house, print facility and distribution centre are all based in the UK, too. That won't be the case for much longer. “As we grow we are not going to be able to make all of our own clothes,” admits Becky. “We are going to need to go out to other suppliers. That’s why I want to make sure that as we grow we’re still able to give the right amount of choice.”
The very nature of fast fashion means that cutting out waste, paying your workers enough money and making sure you’re not destroying the planet is close to impossible. It’s a business model built on speed, not on ethical practices. But if fast fashion can’t be good, then it begs the question: Do we need it at all? Is it the responsibility of companies to make clothes in the right way, or is it our responsibility to buy less?
“It’s not a bargain if you don’t wear it and it ends up in your wardrobe with the tags still on,” says Dilys. “Fast fashion reflects society’s insatiable appetite for cheap goods – we are told over and over again that we are one shop away from fulfilment. Good fashion design is about being relevant to the time and place of where you are in that moment – it should be a balance between personal expression and honouring the people, skills, time and natural elements involved in the process.”
Good fashion design and good choices seem to be the answer to fashion’s woes. But while we wait for the two to align – for corporations to be more responsible and for us to stop feeding our innate desire to have shiny new things – it seems we have to answer one more question. Are new clothes a right, or a privilege? One of my friends (university-educated, politically and culturally liberal) only ever shops in H&M. Her reasoning: I deserve to look good. But do we? Is access to new clothes a human right? Or has advertising and the media just made us think this way?
“Caring is not based on your income status, it matters to us all”, concludes Dilys. And as long as we believe that our wardrobes – and ourselves – are not good enough as we are, we will see new clothes as a right, not a privilege. And that isn’t a class issue, it’s a human one.