July 15, 2021
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Sustainable Shopping: A Pastime for the Prosperous?

Central to sustainable shopping is the concept of the “investment piece.” Under this framework of thinking, clothing is defined as an investment rather than as consumption, and purchasing apparel that will last for years rather than months makes more sense from both the sustainability and personal finance perspective. In a similar vein, sustainably sourced brands encourage consumers to calculate cost per wear rather than relying on an up-front price tag when making a purchase.

Buying less and prioritizing quality over quantity are indeed critical to changing a culture that has led to “one garbage truck of textiles [being] wasted every second.” However, investing in quality clothing requires a certain amount of disposable income. As fashion journalist Lindsay Christinee recently reflected, “For all of its unethical production, fast fashion brands make fashion accessible and affordable to the masses… The high prices of sustainable fashion makes it unlikely that a woman on a budget would be able to purchase a dress or a tank that comes with a three-figure price tag.”

In 2018, 29% of American adults hailed from lower-income households, with median annual earnings of $25,624. This figure indicates that encouraging a large-scale adoption of sustainable shopping would be facilitated by a candid evaluation of sustainability through the lens of privilege. The question then becomes: how accessible is the practice of sustainable shopping anyway? And where might it be unattainable for consumers of different socioeconomic backgrounds?

In his fantasy novel Men At Arms, British author Terry Pratchett describes the dilemma of an impoverished character named Samuel Vimes:

“The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they manage to spend less money.Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars…But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.”

With Sam Vimes’ theory of economic injustice, Pratchett skillfully illustrates one of the many plights of being poor in the United States: being low-income can counterintuitively be costlier than being wealthy. Account minimums, for example, make opening a bank account impossible for low-income individuals, who then must turn to cashing their checks at a credit union as an alternative. However, doing so generally requires a fee of 2–5% of the check’s value, which adds up to around $40K over a lifetime. Those in this position wouldn’t have to pay such a hefty fine, of course, if they had had access to a bank account in the first place.

Similarly, a recent study at the University of Michigan revealed that low-income families spent more money on toilet paper than higher-income families due to their inability to buy toilet paper in bulk (and receive the accompanying discount). There is also evidence that Vimes’ theory applies to clothing: one 2020 study discovered that price is indeed an accurate indicator of clothing longevity, where the highest-priced black T-shirts far outperformed the cheapest ones when worn numerous times.

With lower prices, thrifting does somewhat ameliorate the issue of sustainable shopping accessibility. But getting people with a wide range of budgets to sign onto secondhand shopping may not necessarily prove easy: plenty of accounts have argued that growing numbers of high-income shoppers who venture into low-income neighborhoods to thrift have gentrified Goodwills. As a result, prices have risen out of the reach of the communities that thrift stores were originally meant to serve.

The mainstreaming of thrift shopping in songs and on TikTok represents a win for the sustainable shopping movement. After all, erasing the stigma of secondhand clothing is a significant first step towards stemming the waste of perfectly good clothes. However, already burdened lower-income individuals should not be priced out by upper-middle class clientele in the thrift shops that serve as their only entryway to sustainable shopping.

Higher income shoppers have a larger menu of sustainable shopping options available to them, and it is on them to thrift in their local neighborhood rather than exploring another, to purchase the ethically sourced clothing that remains unaffordable for so many, and overall, to think critically about their impact on other consumers.

Admittedly, these are small and imperfect remedies to enormous systemic inequities. But ultimately, the more intentional shoppers are about our secondhand habits, the more accessible — and therefore more expansive and all-embracing — the community of sustainable fashion can be.

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