The Dark Side of Ethical Fashion & Minimalism

Social Justice

I won’t be going into social justice territory very often here; there are already many people who do a fabulous job at it. And as a white, middle class, American woman, I am very cautious of making statements that sound like I understand or am a voice for what others might be feeling and experiencing. I will let others tell me how they are feeling and what they are going through, and I think my most important role is to believe them, recognize and acknowledge their voice, and help if there’s a way I can without adding opinions or imposing further complications on their situations.

My current stance is to let people fight their own battles, and if they need help, they get to dictate the terms and I can either choose to accept it and join them or not. Often times, people come in from the outside and try to help, but without really understanding the complicated nuances of, for example, belonging to a minority, they just end up doing more harm than good. It’s the proverbial rich person taking pity on the poor–‘Oh, it must be so hard to be poor!–and trying to help them paternalistically (acting like you know what’s best for someone else) with the basic assumption that being poor is most certainly entirely worse than being rich in every way possible (it’s not).

As well, I think there are some negative or even toxic aspects of the various cultures of social justice that end up hurting everyone involved, but without any real suggestions for improving things, I don’t feel my opinions would add any value.

All that being said, I do want to shed some light on what I believe is the dark side of the ethical fashion movement, and generally a part of all the various ethical/organic/eco-consciousness movements out there. For the most part, minimalism, sustainability, and eco-consciousness are great and come from well-reasoned ethics, and love for the planet and for our fellow humans.

But sometimes, even people’s unconscious motivations to do good can have negative, largely unintended consequences. On top of that, the solutions we’ve applied to these problems only serve to make the situation worse, in many cases.

The Curated Wardrobe

Many years ago, I stumbled across this short article that changed the way I look at fashion forever. In the article, the author explains how it used to be that only the affluent could afford to have large wardrobes, which made owning more than a small amount of clothing a luxury. Never being seen twice in the same piece of clothing was a goal only the rich could ever aspire to achieve.

As it became easier to manufacture and import cheaper and cheaper goods, the clothing industry went from slower, months-long cycles down to mere weeks before ‘the next big thing’ came on the market. Cheaper goods made clothing more accessible to the less affluent, and fast fashion took hold with a vengeance. If you’ve watched The True Cost, you know all of this already.

And as it always has been, whenever the lower and middle classes are able to afford something–processed foods in the 50s, luxury cars and homes bought on credit in the 90s, cosmetic surgeries and organic foods in the 2000s–the affluent need to adjust so that they can continue to maintain their status as ‘other’ to the majority.

So, all of the sudden, just about everyone could afford to have overflowing closets. And that’s just what they did. I think you can see where this is going.

Now, having a very small, meticulously-selected, high-quality, ethical and sustainable, impeccably-fitted and tailored closet is a poignant way the affluent can set themselves apart. And that’s just what they do.

It’s Complicated

I know many people who have very little resources, but still put almost everything they have into these kinds of ethical pursuits. ‘Voting with your wallet,’ or ‘putting your money where your mouth is.’ I have the utmost respect for those who staunchly defend their stance–even when I disagree with it–on limited resources. And I also know people who have much, and have these same hearts of gold, that see their affluence as a gift to influence the world for the better.

But I also have seen many instances where this has gone wrong. As is often the case with such matters, it is not the affluent who suffer: The ethical fashion industry has a way of shaming anyone who purchases from a non-ethical retailer, usually out of a desire to do good. The problem is, especially when the shame is less covert, it ends up shutting people out, when the idea should be to invite everyone in.

Anyone who loves clothing but doesn’t have the ability to buy new from ethical brands is either stuck with the extremely time-consuming practice of buying secondhand (I buy mostly secondhand myself, but that’s because I enjoy it above and beyond moral concerns, and because I am fortunate enough to have the time to invest in the pursuit), buying nothing or saving for long periods of time (which can also be very good sometimes, but it often feels like a punishment), or buying from non-ethical companies.

And ethical fashion consumption comes with a large dose of moral superiority as well: If you can afford to buy local, handmade, small-batch, sustainable, cruelty-free, organic food and clothes and whatever else, you can reap the emotional reward of participating in the healing of the earth, or animal welfare, or the betterment of the human race–even if doing so is only a very small proportion of your overall wealth.  

And it definitely goes in the other direction as well: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read Instagram comments and product reviews of people complaining that the high price points of retailers and artisans are too high and punish them disproportionately for not being wealthy. I’ve seen people go so far as to insult Etsy clothing makers for somehow intentionally ‘shutting them out’ of the ethical fashion movement, as if they were entitled to take part, even if it means the sellers should make zero profits or operate at a loss.

The truth is that yes, of course high price points disproportionately affect the less affluent. But directing anger at the artist or retailer is highly inappropriate, and ultimately pointless, because often times they’re still only making enough themselves to keep the business afloat for another day! No one is entitled to be a part of something at the cost of another human being.

Ethical Retailers

I want to talk a bit more about retailers that sell to the ethical/sustainable crowd. It’s not their fault fast fashion has lowered people’s reference point for what clothes should cost to ludicrously low, unsustainable levels. I see them largely as brave pioneers on a new frontier, and they take a lot of flack for what they charge, when what they’re charging is usually exactly in line with the actual costs of producing quality clothing made by skilled, well-compensated makers.

There are always going to be a few opportunists, in this case the ‘greenwashers’ that take advantage of this and engage in dubious practices such as vague ‘virtue signaling’ language with no real certifications, or undisclosed ‘shadow factories’ to reduce their costs while still charging high price points. But for the most part, this is not a problem that originates with ethical retailers.

So, if it hurts the less affluent but most don’t even understand what’s happening or what they’re really doing, who is really to blame?

You can be sure marketing departments have been taking advantage of this since the trend started shifting towards slower, sustainable, green, natural, and organic everything. They do this by presenting their products as the new luxury, and often jacking up their price points and placing their products at premiere boutiques and high-end grocery stores. They’re certainly part of the problem, but I still don’t think they’re so much the originator of the problem as another opportunist that latches on and exacerbates an already-existing issue.

Self-Deception

Here’s the big disclaimer, and also the reason why we never seem to break free of this cycle: Most people don’t ever even realize they’re even doing any of this at all. The wealthy are certainly not the only social group to ever engage in ‘othering.’ It’s how we’ve evolved to behave and sort ourselves into groups largely without ever being conscious of what we’re doing–on top of that, a huge part of why it works so well is because we’re not aware we’re doing it!

My point is not at all to vilify anyone or any social group–my aim is just to shed some light on it in hopes that we can become kinder and more conscious human beings through understanding ourselves better.

I think the real fault lies with no one in particular, but with the general lack of consciousness we humans have about our own cognitive and social behaviors. This is the same cycle we keep repeating, century after century: The rich define themselves in some way that sets them apart from ‘the common man,’ everyone wants to be like them and eventually some technology makes that possible, and they have to adjust so that they are once again ‘uncommon.’

So, what can we do about it?

As it is with so many things, I believe the first and best thing we can do is to stop believing that shame or disdain–overt or covert–has ever ‘converted’ anyone to a cause. The more negativity gets thrown in someone’s direction, the more the brain’s excellent cognitive defense mechanisms kick in to help the beliefs persist. Psychologists call this ‘belief perseverance’: When faced with direct evidence to the contrary of a belief, people’s beliefs will tend to actually strengthen, rather than weaken. Add that to the concept of confirmation bias–the tendency to only seek out, recognize, or frame information that confirms our already-held beliefs–and it becomes a bit clearer why we haven’t yet managed to break the cycle.

Ok, so that seems great in theory, but it breaks down in practice: How do you not shame someone who buys fast fashion or makes choices to purchase from companies that are ethically dubious or even morally bankrupt? How do you remain silent when you know that what they’re doing is hurting themselves, others, or the planet? And how do you speak in a way that doesn’t make people feel bad about their own choices while clearly stating that you think their choices are, in fact, wrong?

It’s difficult not to take hard moral stances on things that are important. But the point to remember is that if you’re speaking in a ‘soapbox’ kind of way, presenting your path as the only ‘right’ path, you’re going to achieve two things: Strengthening the beliefs of those that agree with you, and strengthening the beliefs of those that disagree with you.

It polarizes us all into what psychologists call ‘ingroups’ and ‘outgroups,’ only serving to deepen the chasm that lies between us.

It’s a deep compulsion we have evolved to create in-groups for our safety and well being. But when this adaptive tendency is applied to situations that are not directly related to physical safety and the stability of a small group, it can go horribly wrong. It’s easy to see how this manifests in the deeply-divided political landscape of the United States right now. But it also manifests in many other corners of our lives, hiding in the apparently ‘trivial’ as well. And arguably, supposedly trivial pursuits like shopping are where we spend huge amounts of time and money over the course of our lifetimes, and we ignore them to our own detriment.

There are no easy answers to these questions, but an open and honest discussion about them with a basic understanding of our human social and cognitive tendencies would be a fantastic place to start. It may sound bleak, but I am actually an optimist about our ability to correct sometimes centuries of wrongs. I think we are a wonderful, brilliant species, capable of such goodness and self-awareness–it may not always be easy, but if we can slowly train ourselves to avoid these systematic, largely unconscious errors, I believe we will be much more well-prepared to move forward as self-responsible caretakers of each other and the planet itself.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts, whether you agree with me or not! Open, respectful, and honest conversations are the first step to a better world.


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