Fast fashion is the only accessible option for poor people. It’s a statement we’ve all heard before, most recently it has been weaponised by Laura Whitmore in defence of her partnership with Primark. Though I haven’t explicitly seen it yet, I imagine the same argument will be used to defend Maisie Williams being appointed as H&M’s ‘sustainability ambassador‘.
On the one hand, I understand what people are trying to say. We definitely should not shame individuals for buying fast fashion because it’s the main accessible option for them, whether this is because of price, size inclusivity or other factors.
The main issue is it shifts the blame on to individuals when it’s huge corporations and governments that have failed. If we want to rid ourselves of fossil fuels and have transparent supply chains that are monitored, where all workers are paid and treated well, where conditions are safe and where manufacturing doesn’t cause major pollution to surrounding environments, then change has to come from these areas. Government regulation, massive brands moving to degrowth or going under to be replaced by sustainable brands producing on a much smaller, ethical scale is where change will ultimately need to come from. We need the entire industry overhauled, and we can’t blame someone on a low income or with specific needs for picking up pieces in Primark or H&M if it’s all that is accessible to them. It won’t change anything, it won’t bring new people on board with sustainable activism, and it will add to the rife demonisation of poor/working-class people that already exists in society.
However, we need to talk about a few things.
Poor people don’t perpetuate the system
Firstly, it’s just not true to suggest that poor people are upholding fast fashion systems as we know them. It’s economically impossible.
The “poor” argument is intellectually dishonest. Fast fashion is a problem perpetuated by the middle class and wealthy. The poor do not collectively have the funds to keep this cycle extremely profitable.
— Aja Barber (@AjaSaysHello) June 15, 2020
This is something Aja Barber has addressed multiple times, and she’s right. Brands producing at the scale of Primark and H&M can’t just be propped up by poor consumers, it’s literally not possible with the size of the profits they are raking in. It’s not poor people doing £500 hauls at the likes of ASOS and SHEIN. It’s not poor people walking into Primark and coming out with bags and bags of cheap items they don’t need, made in unethical and unsustainable conditions. And no ‘conscious collections’ or using some recycled materials/organic cotton is enough when your entire model requires massive amounts of overconsumption and overproduction.
Three million organic cotton hoodies is still three million hoodies, after all, and no matter what clothes are made from, producing, promoting and selling more than anyone could possibly ever need – or even wear – will never sit within a sustainable framework, no matter how many Instagram posts suggest otherwise.
I mean, look at Primark’s own marketing in regards to this, they know exactly what they’re doing and who is consuming. Does this look like advertising aimed at poor and working-class people?
This is too accurate 😂😂 Who can relate?!
TikTok credit: sophi3shi3ldsx pic.twitter.com/KzYV7LM2VV
— Primark (@Primark) August 20, 2020
Not only is it economically unfeasible, but I also think it’s intellectually dishonest to suggest that fast fashion only exists to help the poor, and therefore should continue to exist in its current state.
Poor people often know exactly how much money they have to spend because they’re on an extremely tight budget. There’s also a lot of unfair misinformation when it comes to what people think poor people know about sustainability. When I looked into issues around food poverty it was abundantly clear (and backed up by peer-reviewed research) that poor people had concerns about sustainability and health in their food choices, they were simply blocked from making some of these choices because they couldn’t afford to. Why would this be any different in fashion? It was no surprise to me to see queues outside of charity shops this week, as I walked through a low-income area of my hometown. Poor people have always thrifted, often making inherently more sustainable fashion choices despite having such limited budgets. While they may also sometimes shop fast fashion, it’s insulting to imply they are the sole reason we have the fast fashion systems that currently exist.
Second, it assumes that poor people feel the same way about used goods that wealthier people do. This is something I see a lot: people who get all sentimental about how important it is for a child to open their toys on Christmas and find something that’s in its original packaging. Or people who think it must somehow make the poor feel subhuman to eat food with a torn label or a dinged box.
This is largely projection: middle-class people imagining what it would be like for them if they dropped a rung or two on the social ladder. If you’ve spent your life buying name brands, shopping retail, always having reasonably fashionable clothing and being able to afford the newest things, the idea of having to make do with less can be daunting.
Plus, this kind of argument inherently categorises which poor people we are supposed to deem as important. Fast fashion should exist so that poor people can shop? What about the poor people who are making these fast fashion items, exploited and trapped in unsafe work and horrible conditions? Are we not supposed to care about the welfare of these people? How can the answer be to support some while actively ignoring other poor people? That sounds a lot like suggesting that the lives of poor, predominantly BIPOC individuals in the Global South are less important than those in the Global North. That doesn’t sit right with me, and it doesn’t lead to justice and liberation for all people.
We need to think about the overall system
Ultimately, it’s an incredibly short-sighted and inefficient argument.
Now this part is specifically in regards to the wealthy, white celebrities who become the face of these huge greenwashing campaigns. If you’ve just come off the back of one of the largest tv shows of all time, or if you currently present one of the biggest reality tv shows around, I doubt you need the money from these fast fashion brands to survive (although neither has stated how much they’re being paid). So there are a few options that include pure greed, genuine naivety around the issues with these brands, or a genuine, but misplaced, passion for a more sustainable future. If it’s the latter, I have to say, these campaigns are not where you should be putting your energy.
If you have a huge platform and millions of followers, then you shouldn’t be advocating for fast fashion because it’s accessible to poor people. You should be advocating to dismantle the structural conditions that create poverty.
If your genuine concern is for a better future, then why not lend your voice to campaigning for universal basic income, a proper living wage for all, proper taxation of extreme wealth, letting workers unionise and regulating the gig economy, or eradicating bonded labour globally?
Using your influence to support damaging corporations and encourage more consumption instead of dealing with the root causes of the issues at hand is a short-sighted approach. If people aren’t currently able to afford clothing, the solution can’t be to say they can buy cheap fast fashion in a model that exploits and underpays more people. The solution has to be in campaigning for regulation and reform that improves the quality of life for all people. It has to be in working towards achieving a world where no one is poor, and where everyone has their basic needs met.
Systemic, long term change may be more complicated (and it won’t give you a nice pay cheque for your Instagram posts) but it can create equality and liberation for all, instead of perpetuating ideas that see more people oppressed.