Classism, privilege and sustainable fashion

Reality check: being able to shop ethically and “sustainably” is a privilege. Sustainable living, in the sense of the current sustainability narrative, requires that you have:

  • The time to educate yourself about the social and environmental issues of the fashion industry, to be a conscious consumer,
  • the time to seek out slow fashion brands that engage in more ethical production practices,
  • the privilege of having clothing in your size readily available wherever it is you shop from,
  • the money to invest in these slow fashion brands, and
  • the privilege of living in, or near, a metro where charity shops are all over and affordable thrifting is on your doorstep.

Engaging in a conversation about slow fashion requires us to also engage in a conversation about access and privilege and the classism that lies at the core of our current capitalist conception of sustainable living. As we have tried to convey to you, many times before, on our platform, there is no one-size-fits-all way of advocating for and engaging in slow fashion. There is also no specific way that this is meant to look. As an i-D article – titled ‘What the sustainable movement is missing about privilege’ –  says: “it’s time for brands and consumers to consider the ways in which issues such as privilege and colonialism have shaped sustainability into a mainstream movement, which leaves out the experience of marginalized communities.”

A conversation about slow fashion and sustainability, in general, requires us to hold space for complexity and nuance and to be constantly questioning our privileges and positions in the systems that we live in. As we learn more about the complexities of this movement, we wanted to take you along for the learning journey too. Being aware of class privilege and how this affects our activism and advocacy is an important step in this journey.

Classism is defined as prejudice or discrimination against people belonging to a particular socio-economic class. Within the mainstream sustainable fashion movement, classism is perpetuated by the belief that engaging in slow fashion must look a certain way (which usually means buying from brands that deem themselves to be eco-conscious), not acknowledging that the true roots of this movement come from indigenous philosophies and disregarding the fact that ethics need to be at the core of this fashion future.

Just a quick reminder: if you care about true sustainability, you have to care about the wellbeing of all people too, because sustainability cannot exist without ethics. Environmental justice and social justice cannot be separated. The most marginalised communities will inevitably be the ones to suffer the harshest consequences of the climate crisis, even though they had the smallest part to play in creating the issue. Ethical fashion (and ethics in general) is about dismantling systems of power that oppress certain people. At the core of ethical fashion is the commitment to working towards a fashion industry that treats workers with dignity, respects their human rights, and actively acknowledges the value that they add to the fashion supply chain. These workers are predominantly BIPOC people from marginalised communities. So, shaming, blaming, and excluding certain socio-economic classes from the mainstream conception of sustainable living is an inherently classist act that goes against the understanding that if you are advocating for environmental justice, you are advocating for social justice too. Everybody deserves to be a part of this movement.

On that note, just because people don’t buy from slow fashion brands, doesn’t mean they aren’t unsustainable. We must shake the belief that how sustainable you are can be measured by your purchasing habits when the most sustainable option is always to use what you already have. Limiting your conception of sustainable fashion to slow fashion brands is inherently classist. In the words of Aja Barber, “One issue with buying sustainably is that there’s a lot of research that goes into figuring out which brands are doing things right and which are not, and that takes considerable time — time that unfortunately not everyone can afford.”

In fact, there are many indigenous communities and marginalised communities that are engaging in slow fashion practices, without even realising it. This often comes from a place of necessity and an understanding that as little as possible should go to waste. In our cnscs_ people conversation with Lebogang Kenneth Motsagi, he described how he used to see children in his community going to school and using old Tastic rice bags as schoolbags. He explained, “I think every kid that grows up in the township is born with that thing, because you are birthed into a community where you will work with anything. We used to go to a place called “tiep” (like a landfill) and find stuff and make things, like cars, from wires. So, to us, “sustainability” is not new – it’s just a new term for something that is in our DNA.”

Banji Chona echoed this sentiment in our chat with her when she spoke about visiting the workers on the farm that she lives on in Zambia: “I noticed that a lot of what they do, and often it’s not by choice, because it is through economic hardship of a sort, are a lot more resourceful. For example, they will buy a sack of onions, and when that sack of onions is done, they won’t just throw the sack away, they will repurpose the sack and use that as dishwashing sponges or scorers.”

If we look at sustainability from this perspective, we can understand that shaming people who lack socio-economic privileges for their fashion consumption habits is a classist gesture. When you shame people for buying fast fashion, but they cannot afford to buy from slow fashion brands and don’t have easy access to thrift stores, you are shifting the blame for a systemic problem (created and perpetuated by fashion billionaires) onto marginalised people. Corporates want us to shame each other and want us to believe that this is our issue to solve because it takes the pressure off them. The focus should be on dismantling systems, not shaming individuals. As an Instagram post by Sustainable Brooklyn puts it, “those upon whom this responsibility squarely falls, often shift the blame to consumers who take the bait by shaming, often, the most marginalized of us. Yet, those who are shamed are often the first and most impacted by unsustainable thoughts, systems, behaviours.”

We have to acknowledge that the roots of these slow living practices come from centuries of indigenous philosophies that existed way before “ethical” and “conscious” consumers existed. This is not a new movement. If anything, this is a movement that has been co-opted by the people with higher incomes and more privileges, after ignoring and silencing the way of life of indigenous people for centuries. We are merely trying to return to the way of life that showed us how to honour people and the earth. This is why saying that sustainable fashion has to look a certain way promotes racism, elitism, and classism, by not acknowledging its true roots. It is a form of classist erasure.

We must also carefully reflect on the way we donate clothing because classism is alive and well in the second-hand clothing industry too. Donating unwanted clothes to charity, which are so far beyond repair that you’d be too embarrassed to gift to a friend, reeks of classism. We do not have a shortage of clothes in this world – in fact, quite the opposite. So, if you or your friend or your family member wouldn’t wear them, chances are, they aren’t in a condition for anyone else to wear either. The truth is, when you donate clothes that cannot be worn, they just become a burden to the Earth by taking up space in landfills or polluting oceans. Next time you do your closet cleanout and want to donate some of your clothes, think about the person who might receive them – put yourself in their shoes. Or, donate your over-worn clothes to an oragnisation that is actually asking for them. There are other ways that you can use your clothing “waste” – we’ve even put a few ideas in an article for you.

Do you know what is also classist and very racist? When fashion designers refuse to acknowledge the fashion history behind their designs and take credit for trends that they didn’t create. We must acknowledge that race, culture, and fashion cannot be separated. There have been so many fashion trends that have originated from or been popularised by the Black community. For example, in Episode 3 of The Root podcast series, Miko Underwood speaks about how the history of denim and indigo can be traced back to times of slavery when wearing denim was reserved for slaves and not seen as desirable clothing at all.  Or sneaker culture that was popularised in the 90s by Black Americans – something that even slow fashion sneaker brands do not acknowledge. As an Instagram post by Heart Broken Zine, about fashion trends that originated from the Black community, says, “we cannot continue to ignore the influence that the black community has had on western culture and fashion. Despite this influence, they are still often under-credited or under-represented in the fashion industry.”

Lastly, sustainable fashion should be for everyone – not just those who can afford and access it. We should all be more aware of how our lifestyle choices affect others and how our inherent biases and stereotypes emerge in our habits. After all, working towards a better future requires us to dismantle power structures that separate us, and band together to create a more just world – for everyone.

All we really hope is that this article reminds you to reflect on your own life, regularly and with a critical, but encouraging lens. We all make mistakes, but we all have the capacity to change, unlearn and relearn.

Here are a few avenues for further learning:

  • The Root: Decolonising the Sustainable Fashion Agenda – A special edition 5-part podcast series co-produced by Dominique Drakeford of Melanin & Sustainable Style and Kestrel Jenkins of Conscious Chatter. This podcast series centres the voices, knowledge and labor of Black and Brown Indigenous People Of Color and shares a collection of stories that provide historical and cultural context when it comes to race relations and larger systems of inequality, and how they impact the current traditional and sustainable fashion agendas.
  •  ‘Stop shaming poor people for fast fashion’ by Khensani Mohlatlole – This YouTube video will fully open up your eyes to how conversations about sustainable fashion often seem to focus on making poor and working-class people feel bad about having to buy fast fashion instead of being an inclusive and diverse movement, especially within a South African context.
  • Pre-Loved Podcast S4 Ep20 with Liz Ricketts of The OR Foundation – This podcast episode takes you on a deep dive into the politics of clothing waste, waste colonialism and the classism in the second-hand clothing industry.

With love,

Masego and Stella


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