‘It’s cool to be kind’: is it possible to be a truly sustainable and ethical consumer?

This piece explores the varying conflicts, contradictions and possibilities of ethical clothes shopping, and offers some tips on how to navigate the growing trend of conscious consumerism.

The idea of consumption as a political choice is not new, but social media’s ultra-fast and international reach has brought this idea to younger and more diverse audiences. A 2017 Unilever report suggests that up to one-third of consumers prefer sustainable brands, while a global Nielsen report says that 66% of consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable or socially conscious brands. These trends strongly suggest that we are more conscious consumers, and wish to see companies take steps towards addressing over-consumption, pollution, labour exploitation, and dignity at work. Such preferences will have knock-on economic and political effects. 

With the rise of fast fashion, it is unsurprising that many consumers live by a ‘less for more’ philosophy. There are increasing demands for newer and cheaper products. However, many have clocked the damage such trends cause and are now calling into question the ethicality of fast fashion. A noteworthy example was in 2021, when online retailer PrettyLittleThing held a sale with eyebrow-raising low prices, such as 25p for stilettos and 8p for dresses. Social media was ablaze with users highlighting fast fashion’s environmental and human costs, particularly in the global south where most of these clothes are manufactured and disposed of when consumers in developed countries are ‘done with’ them. 

Buzzwords have been invented or popularised to reflect this shift towards conscious consumerism, such as ‘slow fashion’, which is seen as the reaction to fast fashion and asks consumers to consider an item’s sustainability, quality, processes, and resources before purchasing. While there are many avenues to engage in slow fashion, shoppers have turned towards buying second-hand (‘new to me’ style) and consciously buying from ethical brands. The following sections will discuss these two trends from a non-expert (i.e., consumer) point of view while also considering the criticisms associated with ethical shopping.

Photo by Burgess Milner on Unsplash

Criticisms of ethical shopping

If you ask a group of people what shopping sustainably means to them, you may find that answers vary widely as people may prioritise different aspects of sustainability or ethical shopping. Some may focus on workers’ rights (e.g., fair wages, sweatshop-free conditions), others on animal rights (e.g., ethically-sourced wool), while others may focus on environmental impact (e.g., recycled materials, non-plastics). These priorities can sometimes conflict with one another. For example, prioritising animal rights may mean buying vegan leather, which is often made using synthetic materials that are not environmentally sustainable. Alternatively, someone prioritising sustainability may want to buy leather, an organic material, over plastics. This creates a real dilemma and consumers may feel overwhelmed. Sustainable fashion TikToker, Andrea Cheong, addresses the dilemma and urges followers to remember that ethical consumption cannot always be perfect. It is therefore important to mindfully consider what you as a consumer want to prioritise and whether a purchase is really necessary. 

Another dilemma in ethical consumerism is its accessibility. Ethical brands seek to procure the best materials and treat workers well, which is often reflected in the price of products. A pair of jeans may cost upwards of £100, leading many to ask if only the privileged are able to afford ethical goods, while the working class are only able to afford fast fashion items. This bind seeks to further the class divide, as some may accuse the working classes of feeding into fast fashion culture. Being a kind shopper is not something without a cost. You are probably paying more if you shop from an ethical and sustainable brand. If you are boycotting brands that have not done well in ensuring the workers along their supply chain are treated fairly, then you are losing out on choices. We benefit from money savings by shopping second hand, however, the time cost of searching increases.

Furthermore, there is no regulation of what makes a brand ethical, and some companies have come under fire for ‘greenwashing’ or misleading consumers to believe that their practices are more environmentally friendly than they are in reality. It is difficult and time-consuming to verify whether a company is truly ethical, as supply chains and other practices aren’t often publicly available. Many consumers may therefore feel overwhelmed when starting out as an ethical shopper. 

Ways to shop sustainably 

Buying from charity shops not only raises money for the charity but also reduces the amount of waste being sent to landfills. If online shopping is more your thing, consider circular fashion platforms where you can purchase or rent upmarket high street and designer brands. If second-hand shopping or renting isn’t for you, there are always ‘ethical brands’ to choose from. Ethical brands typically pride themselves in following some or all of the slow fashion’s principles: caring for the environment, for people, and for animals. Shopping for sustainably produced garments supports an innovative way of manufacturing and reduces pollution. Some ethical brands will clearly state the factory their products are produced in or join pledges promising ethical behaviour, such as the ‘Responsible Wool Standard’, which advocates for sheep welfare. 

Reflection

Fashion is seen as a way to express one’s identity, to feel socially desirable, and to ‘fit in’. There is now more pressure for the fashionista to be both stylish and kind: Kind to the environment, to workers, and to animals. Cognitive dissonance theory, a classic psychological theory, proposes that we feel uncomfortable when there is a gap between our beliefs and our actions. We are now more aware of climate change, workers’ rights, and animal welfare. These ideals come into conflict with behaviours like buying fast fashion often. Perhaps our shift towards conscious consumerism, sustainability, and ethical shopping are a collective attempt to reconcile this gap. However, it is important to understand that conscious consumerism is a privilege with class, financial, and social constraints. Further, consumerism is still at the heart of this trend. Perhaps we should be asking ourselves if we really need more clothing, regardless of source, and if sustainability is an illusion to justify our purchasing. 

This blog is the second in the series ‘The Political Economy of Everyday Life’ by SPERI’s Doctoral Researcher Network. You can access the full series here.