Sun 28 February 2021

Snobbery towards working-class people won’t fix the fast fashion industry, argues Molly Greeves

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Climate change has been a pressing issue for decades, but never did it feel more pressing than last year.

As Extinction Rebellion and climate champion Greta Thunberg were consistently making headlines, a number of people were attempting to reduce their environmental impact, with clothing being a big area of concern.

Fast fashion refers to low-cost clothing that does not endure, either because of cheap materials or changing trends. Statistics have been floating around warning consumers that 20% of garments are not reused or recycled and that the clothing industry is the second largest polluter of water. Clothing companies are now seen as as much of a threat to the environment as air travel and the global meat industry.

Cheap Clothes, Sloppy Ethics

Yet, while the movement to change the fashion industry was born out of environmental concern, these retail giants have other ethical issues, as the Boohoo scandal has shown.

The retailer has allegedly been using factories to supply clothes that pay workers as little as £3.50 an hour, without sick pay or safety protections.

Owned by a billionaire family, Boohoo is more than capable of picking factories that pay workers a fair wage but, of course, it wouldn’t be able to sell the £5 dresses that attract people to the company.

Fast fashion works on a model that is inherently exploitative and Boohoo is far from the only culprit. Urban Outfitters has donated thousands of dollars to a US senator with a history of expressing homophobic views, and Victoria’s Secret has used child labour to produce its cotton.

Clearly, the movement towards more ethical clothing consumption is an important one. However, often, the language used by those against fast fashion risks alienating the very people the movement aims to liberate: the working-class.

Class Snobbery

Fast fashion is often compared to fast food because it is cheap and convenient but likely innutritious and unethical.

While this comparison makes sense, it highlights how concern for lower-paid workers can quickly turn to snobbery towards the same group. It assumes that people who opt for low-cost products are stingy and it fails to consider that, for those on lower incomes, buying habits cannot always reflect personal ethics.

The alternative to fast fashion is sometimes called slow fashion – clothing from companies that are more environmentally sustainable and socially ethical. Independent and vintage stores often sell better quality clothes that last longer and are far less likely to use sweatshops or child labour. Unfortunately, good morals have a price. As slow fashion becomes trendier, that price gets higher and higher. The clothes may last longer, but ‘buy cheap, buy twice’ is a useless statement for people who can’t afford a £50 pair of jeans in the first place.

Charlotte, 22, claims that the debate around fast fashion needs to be handled with more nuance.

“It’s easy to switch to more expensive, more ethical clothing brands when the difference between a £5 top and a £20 top doesn’t really mean anything to you,” Charlotte told Byline Times. “I’m working-class and have always had to work multiple jobs to pay rent and be able to afford clothes and everything else, and I try my best to be ethical in my purchases too. I only buy cruelty free make up and try to be conscious of where I buy my clothes, but at the end of the day, I can’t afford most of the expensive fashion brands that people suggest as an alternative to fast fashion”.

While low costs often attract people to retailers such as Boohoo, they also rely on the fast-moving nature of fashion trends. If Kim Kardashian wears a pair of jelly shoes, thousands of pairs will be made cheaply and quickly and sold before everyone moves onto the next thing. Clearly, this throwaway culture is not the fault of the working-class.

“Most working-class people who buy from fast fashion brands make use out of the clothes for much longer than rich people who buy a new outfit every week,” Charlotte says. “I have clothes I’ve owned for over five years and I’ll keep wearing them until they fall apart because I’ve grown up knowing how to make the most of my money.

“Classism is an easy trap that well-meaning people fall into. They need to be aware that for some people, all they can afford is fast fashion and the dubious ethical consequences are an unfortunate side effect of the cycle of poverty and low income”.

Shame Brands Not Consumers

By encouraging people to boycott certain retailers, many do not realise the shame they are placing on working-class people who cannot afford to change their habits.

Second-hand clothing, which many people rely on, is becoming less affordable as more middle-class buyers flock to charity shops.

Multi-million-pound corporations should be shamed into changing their ethics, but until there is some awareness of the reasons the country relies on fast fashion, the elitism of the movement will drive people away.

Being an activist should not allow anyone to look down on people for their cheap clothes, particularly when you they are part of a movement that claims to be defending people from low-income backgrounds.

When the sustainable fashion movement chooses snobbery over encouragement, activism becomes yet another thing that not everyone can afford.

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