Before I buy any piece of clothing or accessory, I like to know a little bit about where and how it’s made. I ask questions. I avoid companies that aren’t up to my standards. I buy fewer things of higher quality. And apparently you don’t like me. According to a study that came out earlier this month, not only do most people choose to remain willfully ignorant of the conditions in which their clothing is made, they also look down on the type of consumers who do care. In the study, 174 undergrads at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business were given three pieces of information about a pair of jeans in order to evaluate them: the style, the wash, and the price. Then they were told that due to time constraints, they could only use one more attribute to evaluate the jeans, and they could choose what that attribute would be: either an ethical issue, such as whether the company used child labor, or a control attribute unrelated to ethics, such as delivery time. Most of the participants chose to hear about the control attribute, remaining willfully ignorant of how the jeans were made. What’s more — and this is what got my hackles up — those unconcerned consumers rated ethical shoppers boring, odd, less fashionable, and less sexy. Gee, thanks. “Willfully ignorant consumers put ethical shoppers down because of the threat they feel for not having done the right thing themselves,” the lead study author Rebecca Reczek said. “They feel bad, and striking back at the ethical consumers makes themselves feel better.”
If I’m honest with you, I already knew that. My editor here at Refinery29 has resisted my persistent pitches on ethical fashion topics. Not because she’s personally opposed to it, but because articles on ethical and sustainable fashion almost always get fewer clicks than fun fashion articles that ignore those issues. And when people do read these articles, the comments are pointed: Sustainable fashion is ugly, they say. Ethical fashion is too expensive; people who promote it are elitist snobs who don’t understand the plight of the common shopper. Even luxury labels that are trying to go green are hiding the fact, for fear of the backlash. Now this study confirms for me what I’ve suspected, which is that the naysayers (consciously or not) are trying to assuage their own guilt, by coming up with all the reasons why they just can’t shop ethically or putting ethical fashion supporters down. The thing is, all those reasons are quickly becoming obsolete. We are leaving behind the era of ugly ethical fashion. As evidence, see Zady, Everlane, Maiyet, Reformation, Of a Kind, Yoox’s Master and Muse section, Ethica, and many more. So many beautiful things! At (almost) all price points! But yes, let’s address the price question. You won’t be able to find an ethically made shirt for less than $20, a pair of jeans for less than $50, or a pair of shoes for less than $75. Less than that, and toxic effluent is getting poured straight into a river, working conditions are unsafe, and the person making that item (yes, clothing is still made by people) isn’t getting paid enough to feed herself.
Look, if you really have thought this through, pored over your stretched budget, and decided that it’s either fast fashion or your cell phone bill, by all means, buy the $20 blouse for work. I would never begrudge you that. This article isn’t for you. No, I’m talking to the half of Americans earning more than $50,000, who have a choice about how to spend their discretionary income. By and large, Americans aren’t making thoughtful choices about how to spend their fashion budget. They’re just saying, “It’s so freakin’ cheap, I’ll just buy all of it!” If we are all stretched too thin to pay a few more dollars for ethically made items, why is there is a robust market for pricey, mysteriously made fashion: $400 cocktail dresses, $200 cigarette pants, $500 novelty clutches plastered with smiley faces — without a word on how it's made? How would we be able to discard 80 pounds of textiles per person per year if we were struggling to keep ourselves clothed? The Indian women who daily sort through the tons of discarded items shipped from the U.S. are flummoxed by the “rich Americans” who throw away so much perfectly wearable clothing. Knowing all this, I find the cries of “But, my budget! I can’t afford it!” either disingenuous, or not representative of how most Americans shop. Some people believe that sustainable fashion is more expensive because labels use it as a marketing ploy to charge more. But believe me, fashion designers are all too aware of this misconception. I’ve had this conversation with dozens of designers and labels that accept much smaller profit margins than conventional labels to keep their goods affordable for you. Nudie Jeans, for example, saw its profit margins shrink when it switched over to all organic cotton, because it didn’t raise prices. Luckily for cotton farmers who would like to stop breathing in pesticides, Nudie brass did it because they saw it as the right thing to do, and they hoped consumers would reward them for it.
Personally, I’m willing to pay more money for something if it means the person who sewed my dress wasn’t beaten for agitating for higher pay or safe working conditions. I’m willing to pay more to be assured that the chromium used to tan the leather for my purse wasn’t poured directly into the drinking water of a Bangladeshi village. Hell, I’m willing to pay more for a beautiful thing made of soft, natural materials that will last for more than a few seasons. If that makes me a snob, so be it. I think everyone who can afford to pay more should ask these questions of fashion companies, instead of being looked down upon for doing so. But if you are honestly concerned about the price of ethical fashion, there are two simple solutions. First, buy pre-worn fashion. It’s sustainable, keeps your money from going to businesses that exploit workers, offers you the full range of styles, and is easier than ever with the rise of sites like The Real Real. Second, buy fewer things of higher quality, directing your budget away from 10 throwaway things to one or two really nice things that you wear over and over. It yields an organized and beautiful closet that would make Marie Kondo proud. You’re right on one thing, though. It's work to buy nothing but ethical fashion. Believe me, I know. I spend way too much time and energy researching, educating myself, and resisting the temptation of advertising. So I understand the impulse to stick your fingers in your ears and go, “La la la!” Because once you start down the ethical fashion path, shopping won’t be as carefree and decadent as it once was.
But don’t turn your ire on me. Get mad at the system that makes it so hard for you to do the right thing. Point your finger at the companies who refuse to pay factory owners in Bangladesh the 15 cents more it would take to have safe working conditions. Get mad at online stores, which skirt the issue by labeling everything as, “imported” instead of listing the country of origin. Deride the powers at large fashion corporations who could seek out ethical sources of textiles and safe, well-paying factories, but won’t. All these complaints, accusations, and criticisms of ethical fashion and the people who love it are just a cover for the real thing going on here: You don’t want to have to think about how your shopping choices affect other people, the environment, and animals. As long as you can write off ethical fashion as frumpy, unsexy, snobbish, fake, or a marketing ploy, you can float along, free of cognitive dissonance, wrapped in a $5 shawl made of polyester and ignorant bliss. Alden writes about ethical and sustainable fashion, plus other sustainable lifestyle topics, on her blog, EcoCult.