Sustainable, Ethical Fashion: The Question of Accessibility


Sustainable, Ethical Fashion: The Question of Accessibility

The phrase “fast fashion” is becoming common in regards to the fashion industry, but few people stop to think about what exactly “fast fashion” is. In simple terms, fast fashion is mass-manufactured, inexpensively-made and priced clothing that quickly makes its way to many household-name clothing retailers like Zara, H&M, Forever 21, Uniqlo, and Topshop.

H&M Crêped Dress, Yellow Floral, $24.99

Because this system is upheld by keeping consumers interested with a constantly rotating arsenal of clothing at a very affordable price, companies make significant cuts to production quality and investment, subject workers to detrimental treatment and pay, and engage in environmentally-harmful practices to maintain this cycle.

The documentary The True Cost (2015) examines the fast-fashion industry and how it relates to  a number of global dilemmas extending from international sweatshops and human rights violations, to over-consumption and pollution. And it is in this documentary that slow fashion is presented as a sign of hope and positive, prospective growth for the fashion industry.

Cambodian women work at a garment factory in Phnom Penh, on August 24, 2007.
(Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP/Getty Images)

The slow fashion movement is rising as a direct antithesis to fast fashion. From the materials to the manufacturing of its clothing, this movement is backed by ethical and conscious companies and designers, and is edged with artistic expertise and awareness of the impact of clothing production on the environment and social world.

This style of fashion stands on principles of “goodness,” as in quality, “cleanness,” as in sustainability, and “fairness” as in accessible pricing and proper treatment of employees in the workplace. The phrase “slow fashion brand” is largely used to identify smaller, independent clothing designers and manufacturers that abide by seasonal and small batch approaches to clothing production.

These companies do not appear to work in direct competition against fast fashion companies, but instead as nonconformist independents, giving people the chance to make thoughtful choices about not only what their clothing looks like, but where that clothing it is coming from, and its implications.

Reformation Cassie Dress, Navy, $218

If given recognition within the fashion industry, and the reception of the consumer public, slow fashion will hopefully take off as an alternative that exemplifies what it means to create clothing that is the culmination of high quality materials, careful artistry, and attentive awareness of the rights and dignity of workers and environmental footprints.

When looking at the two from a very simple lens, slow fashion is obviously the better choice for consumers. However, there is one thing to remember: pricing. Although slow fashion prides itself in “accessible pricing,” the term “accessible” is highly perceptive, and generally means pricing that respects the material quality and manufacturing process.

Zara, Swiss Dot Blouse, $39.90

Take the ethical clothing company Elizabeth Suzann as an example. A women’s shirt of plain color and shape is between $100 and $200, depending on sleeve length. Admittedly, while this may be fitting given the costs regarding the materials and manufacturing practices that go into each piece, it is indeed not “accessible” for the average buyer. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average American household spends approximately $1800 per year on clothing, and it is unreasonable to think that this number signifies eighteen shirts per household per year.

Still there are others like the newer fashion label Reformation Clothing, which is growing in popularity within the young millennial market, with options in both relatively higher and lower ends of the price spectrum. But these price tags are still not ultra-affordable for the majority. By keeping pricing as a deterrent for the average buyer, slow fashion brands may be slowing, no pun intended, the momentum of the movement itself.

Everlane, The Cashmere Waffle Square Turtleneck, $155

When shopping, there is buying within our idealistic ethics, and buying within our realistic financial means; the two are not mutually exclusive, but when a moral high-ground can have a high price tag, it can be somewhat unattainable for many people. This is not to say that slow fashion is not an excellent means of manufacturing and selling clothing, nor is it to say that slow fashion is elitist. This is about the largely unaddressed question of accessibility within the world of ethical and alternative fashion and beauty.

There is no simple answer to this question that will satisfy all concerns equally, but there are small ways in which all people of all incomes can take part in ethical clothing practices.

One of these practices is simply buying less new clothing altogether. Rather than encouraging the cycle of fast fashion production by increasing demand, buying and donating second-hand clothing is another beneficial alternative. Buying ethically whenever you can, being educated about slow and fast fashion, and sharing this information with others are also very doable forms of promoting ethical clothing practices.

Garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh in March 2010
(The Clean Clothes Campaign)

While fast fashion may be the simplest and most prevalent form of fashion manufacturing and sale, it is difficult to ignore its detrimental consequences on the fashion industry, international workers’ rights, and the environment. Luckily, there is a promising alternative that the fashion industry has put forth to diminish these consequences is its opposite in nearly every right including the name: slow fashion.

Read lists fair-trade and slow fashion brands with clothing of multiple price ranges here: and, and watch The True Cost (2015) on Netflix.

1 Comment

  1. Mary Johnson

    Tyler, what a well written, and thought provoking article. It provides a great foundation and start to a Movement for Conscientious Consumers near and far. I know there is more to come from you

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