Building an ethical & sustainable swimwear brand has taught me first and foremost – being planet-friendly comes with a higher price tag. This has got me thinking, is sustainable fashion a privilege, or have we got our priorities wrong?
The devil is in the desire
Feeding our fashion desire is a short-term benefit that provides us with quick hits of dopamine, leaving us ultimately unsatisfied and hungry for more. Clothing production alone has doubled in the last 15 years and we now buy 8 billion pieces of clothing each year. Our need to consume little and often, paired with the decline in clothing quality and harmful synthetic fabrics is having catastrophic effects on our planet.
Anna Gedda, Head of Sustainability for H&M Group, says that ‘the challenge is to provide fashion to the masses within the planetary bounds. “If we cannot provide sustainable fashion for all, we have failed” I disagree with this statement. H&M like many fast fashion brands supply clothing to the masses at an alarmingly fast pace with little regard to the ethical and environmental impact. Sure, we need clothing, but do we need the millions of items that are available to purchase?
Trying to drive down the price of sustainable fashion means that ultimately corners will be cut somewhere, usually in the form of poorly paid garment workers. Trying to make sustainable fashion accessible to all has ultimately led to an increase in fashion giants ‘greenwashing’. If an item of clothing has a low-price tag but has sold us ‘eco-friendly’ it is usually the result of low-cost labour. Currently, if a factory pays its workers a fair wage it pushes up the price of goods, so many fashion brands will just move to a cheaper factory.
Will sustainable fashion ever be available to all?
I used to think the only way we could solve the effects of the fashion industry on the planet was to make sustainable options affordable to all. Until recently, I have gone through the process of starting an ethical & sustainable brand of my own. Trying to keep costs low whilst making sure everyone involved is paid an actual living wage & use sustainable fabrics that are also completely free from toxic dyes has been a huge challenge.
There are so many aspects of producing a garment you need to consider. For example, my brand is manufacturing swimwear from recycled materials, but you must also consider making the hygiene liners (which are usually made from unrecyclable single-use plastic) eco-friendly. Finding an eco-friendly alternative has cost me almost triple the price. I work with a factory in Seminyak beach, Bali who uses nontoxic dyes has a zero-waste policy and pay their workers 3 times above the national average. I chose to manufacture overseas to try and make my garments slightly more affordable, but because of the ethical practices (which should be a non-negotiable) I still pay double what fast fashion brands are charging, just for the base cost of each product.
That is without trying to make any kind of profit as a small business when so much of my time and energy has gone into every aspect. My swimwear pieces will be as ‘affordable’ as I can make them, but still, likely seen to a lot of consumers as ‘expensive’. Now I know the true cost of making products ethical and eco-friendly, I do not see how we could ever drive down the cost unless we cut corners somewhere.
Maybe it's our priorities that need to change, not the cost.
The media is highly responsible for deeming what is popular and trendy. We spend more time than ever scrolling through social media where we are bombarded with fashion influencers and clothing ads.
It was not that long ago that the milkman was bringing us back bottles to be re-used and we were mending holes in socks because the alternative was too expensive. The problem is not the price of sustainable fashion, the problem is we have lost sight of what truly makes us happy. We lived for 100s of years without cheap, fast fashion & lots of material goods.
What if instead of looking for ways to make everything ‘cheaper’ we saw the real value in saving up for an item that we know will last us for a long time. What if we looked past the higher price tag of small business and recognized that someone’s heart and soul has gone into providing a product that is of real value to its customer.
We should look for ways to remove the stigma often attached to charity shops and second-hand clothing. There is an entire ocean of clothing already in existence at extremely affordable prices, the media should be shining a spotlight on this. What if we taught kids in school how to DIY and mend clothing? Or made this kind of education truly accessible to everyone. Would this have a better impact rather than always pointing the finger at cost?