MADELEINE HEATH - Designer and Textile Artist
A blog dedicated to initiating a more inclusive conversation around sustainability
February 15th, 2021
Sustainability has been marketed as an ethos only afforded by the privileged
Having spent much of my academic and professional endeavours exploring sustainability - how to make it achievable within industry as well as make it accessible - I continuously witness new brands, inspiring brands with sustainable principles coming to the forefront of industry. Each appearing with a pleasant surprise that the focus on sustainability is becoming more common alongside a rather disappointing surprise, the price. Making something revolutionary to a toxic industry inaccessible by the masses, thus ineffective in the long run.
Working in sales in such companies I have witnessed first-hand organic cotton t-shirts come in at £95, paired with recycled polyester trousers with a swing tag of £395. We are finding more and more companies launching conscious ranges or filtering recycled or organic materials throughout their collections. However, this attempt at introducing sustainable innovations often results in the final garment being twice as much as their usual price range. Now sustainably sourced materials do and should cost more then standard fabrics and we should come to expect the journey from a raw material, through to manufacture and finally to the shop floor to have a more respectful price. The ambition for retail to offer considerate clothing at a respectful price - in regards to materials and labour used - is one we should all wish to see but this is a responsibility for industry. Yes, one which we as consumers are able to influence and if we have the means to do so we should take responsibility for generating that influence. However, we are not all in positions to afford this responsibility as sadly the current price of sustainability is, more often than not, one only achievable by the privileged.
My first ever retail job was in one of the leading sustainable fashion brands, a brand I had long aspired to work for, and I would witness women spend the equivalent of my monthly rent in one fell swoop and walk out with nothing more then two items, three at a push. And alas they’d be back shortly after for more, shopping slow fashion designs with our societies standard fast fashion attitude; indicating the sad reality that sustainable fashion has been marketed as an ethos only truly afforded by the privileged. Unless of course you’re happy to purely shop second hand. This is the reality we are constantly presented with, that to lead a sustainable life is to either save your pay check to aspire to invest in sustainable brands or abandon retail altogether and surf charity shops; both approaches I advocate and practice myself. By saving for an item not only are you supporting a sustainable brand but genuinely investing in your clothing and with every penny saved you are questioning your intentions and whether it is something you truly desire or even need. With thrift shopping you are doing that beautiful endeavour of giving a garment a second life, diverting it from land fill as well as enriching your wardrobe with something unique. However not everyone is financially secure to frivolously save like this and we don’t all have a wealth of time to go on a charity shop crawl.
For a period I was a harsh toned sustainable activist telling people to turn away from fast fashion retail (while I admit struggling to do so myself), giving examples of inspiring sustainable brands, referencing all the best charity shops I knew of and shaming those who shopped at low priced retailers. One conversation highlighted how privileged I was to naturally afford this outlook. My mother told me of her childhood in the 60’s and 70’s, she wore second hand school uniform, her brothers passed down clothing and never knew what it was to receive a new garment on her birthday, her family simply couldn't afford it. And while she to recognises the need for change in the fashion industry and the horror of what cheap fashion really costs she also highlighted to me another side to this industry. The fact that little girls, unlike herself, got their own school uniform and their parents could afford something nice for their children's birthday. I was left feeling a little ashamed and quiet frankly naive. I realised the conversations we have around sustainability needed to change if it was ever going to reach its potential, because while I was able to have a conversation with my mum - whom has worked and found herself nicely situated - I wouldn't be able to have the same conversation with her parents.
In our journey towards a sustainable future and as an advocate for sustainable solutions, particularly within the fashion sector, we need to alter our language by which we shame one another for our choices and promote sustainability as a black and white issue. We need to retract the feeling of guilt connected with shopping. We are all human and we are all vulnerable to the demands of society. I, much like many others, adore fashion and feel empowered in the clothing I choose and wear but if the incentive to revolutionise the way and means we shop is guilt, why bother? It’s a fact that people don’t respond well to guilt, if anything we hide from it, avoid it.
We need to alter the conversations we have around sustainability to become more inclusive. In reality sustainability is a beautiful and complex notion, one with many approaches that could offer a solution to the damage we have and are continuing to do. Many sustainable solutions on occasion contradict one another but if we were to each find one accessible to us as individuals surely that's better then alienating those that struggle to adapt to the ones marketed. There isn’t one way to a sustainable wardrobe and don’t you think its about time these alternative options and mindsets became more commonly discussed as we continue or even begin our personal journeys towards a sustainable outlook.