To work for everybody, sustainable fashion needs to understand every body

I think we can all agree the fashion industry of the future (and present, for that matter) needs to be sustainable and ethical, putting people and planet before profit. But it also needs to be inclusive.

In the wake of this chaotic year, it has become increasingly evident that fashion has an inclusivity problem. Previously, the fashion industry’s idea of inclusivity meant expanding size ranges and hiring more diverse models. While these are positive steps, inclusivity doesn’t stop there. We need sustainable brands to cater for different genders, budgets, bodies and cultures. If we want a truly sustainable and ethical future for fashion, we need it to be for everybody.

This year has been a wake-up call for more reasons than one. We’ve had bushfires and floods, a global pandemic and racial tensions sparking protests around the world. However, some positives have come from these – Country Road became the presenting partner for the National Indigenous Fashion Awards, and homewares giant Adairs collaborated with First Nations textile designers Miimi and Jiinda for a new spring collection.

Sustainable brands such as Reformation were held accountable for their lack of corporate diversity, which resulted in numerous brands launching anti-racism commitments and promoting POC-owned businesses. Last year, Clare Press’s Wardrobe Crisis podcast also shone a light on disability accessibility in fashion during an interview with disability advocate Sinéad Burke.

In the media, Vogue Australia featured an Aboriginal artwork on the cover for the first time; the artwork titled Ngangkari Ngura (Healing Country) was by Anangu/Aboriginal Pitjantjatjara woman Betty Muffler. Over in the UK, the Duchess of Sussex guest edited for British Vogue’s ‘Faces of Change’ issue which featured 15 diverse faces and bodies from around the world including Sinéad Burke, Greta Thunberg, Jacinda Ardern and Jane Fonda. The American Vogue has also just released its latest issue with Lizzo on the cover – she announced the cover on her Instagram and proudly claimed to be ‘the first big black woman’ to feature on the cover. If an international publication like Vogue is engaging in racial, political and social issues on their covers, then change is certainly in the air. Fashion is no longer just about the clothes, it’s about the people who wear them.

Inclusive sizing

If we look at it logically, if we really want people to purchase ethical clothing and there are only ethical clothes available in small percentage of sizes, then only a small percentage of the population CAN purchase them. – Charada Hawley, Jackfruit the Label

One of the most obvious places to start for a more inclusive fashion industry is inclusive sizing. Bodies comes in all shapes and sizes, so clothes should too. There are plenty of options available in the fast fashion model, but sustainable and ethical brands are few and far between in this department. Natalie Wakeling, the former plus-size model and founder of the Embody Women brand, says ‘your size should not define your style. All you need is the right fit’.

Jackfruit the Label

Ethical intimates by Jackfruit the Label

In the fast fashion model, having an increased size range means ordering more fabric and having a complete range on hand in store and online. This model is excessive and wasteful, and not entirely cost-effective. But if we did things differently and brands only made to order, then they would only pay for the materials they need – avoiding overproduction and excess stock. There are some great brands already working within this model such as Citizen Wolf and Jackfruit the Label. Charada, the founder of inclusive underwear brand Jackfruit the Label says, ‘It’s been a fabulous business decision, [she]even had to extend the size range not long after launching the label because the demand was there.’

Affordable clothing

While there has been progress, one of the biggest problems with sustainable and ethical fashion is affordability – or lack thereof. We all wear clothes, and presumably all want to do right by our planet, but we also have mouths to feed, rent to pay, bills and other life expenses which take priority. In the current system, it can feel like we have to choose between a sustainable budget and sustainable values. The problem with cheap fashion though is that there’s almost always someone, somewhere else, paying the price – whether that be their time, health, wellbeing or some other form of exploitation. The poor quality of fast fashion also leads to more frequent purchases, so while the individual payments may be less, they can add up to a larger total.

To combat this problem, we need options. The second-hand market has always been a great way to update your wardrobe on a budget. According to the online resale giant ThredUp, the resale market is expected to grow x5 over the next five years, while retail is expected to shrink. They also predict that resale will overtake fast fashion markets by 2029. Second-hand shopping makes luxury garments as well as everyday basics accessible to all sorts of budgets. Better yet, the rise in second-hand purchasing keeps pre-loved garments out of landfills and supports a circular economy. It’s a win-win!

Read next: Your guide to affordable and ethical clothing in Australia

Styles over trends

Fashion is about trends, style is forever. – Nina Gbor

For a sustainable and inclusive future, we need to have a style-based industry, rather than a trends-based industry. Fast fashion companies release new products every week, thereby reducing previous releases to redundancy. These trends are usually designed for a limited demographic, thriving on the insecurities of customers and the perceived need to be ‘on trend’. But if brands focus more on timeless pieces that will endure, or can be altered or adapted, then the customer will be empowered to reuse what they already have without needing to purchase something new. A great example of this is the US company Vetta, which produces capsule wardrobes. Each item in every capsule is designed to be worn various ways and encourages customers to get creative. They decide their own style, rather than follow how ‘trends’ are telling them to dress. Inclusivity and sustainability go hand-in-hand if we want a fashion industry that will empower individuals through clothes, rather than exclude and marginalise with trends.

Adjustable clothing

If ethical and sustainable clothing is only available in particular styles, and these styles don’t resonate with the customer, that customer isn’t going to choose the sustainable option in most instances. How we present ourselves to the world is so entwined with how we feel, and we need more options in this realm. – Charada Hawley

What is adjustable clothing? Adjustable clothing is adaptable for different sizes, heights, fluctuations in weight and changing bodies and styles over time. It’s such a shame when your body changes and your favourite dress doesn’t fit you anymore. So why not have clothes that can change with your body? It’ll save you money, stress and time.

Adjustable clothing is also empowering for people who may have a disability, and people who use wheelchairs and prosthetics. It’s also a solution to short-term garments that are disposed of after use, such as maternity wear. Adjustable clothing can be empowering for people with limited mobility too, giving them greater independence and the ability to express themselves through their clothes. Clothes should be made for bodies, not the other way around.

Gender inclusivity

If we want people to make more conscious choices, we need to provide options for all bodies – Aja Barber

We’ve come a long way towards recognising gender diversity in the 21st century, but that pride we see within the LGBTQI+ community is not mirrored in most retail stores or fashion websites.

Genkstasy

Brisbane-based brand Genkstasy makes fashion for non-binary folk

Most labels still work within clear binaries for ‘men’ and ‘women’. How many times have you walked into a store and seen a clear divide down the middle between the two gendered sections? So, if we know that gender is a spectrum, why do we still operate in such strict binaries when shopping for clothes? There are very few brands – sustainable or otherwise – who are working towards inclusivity in this area. Some op shops and vintage stores are great examples of organising stock based on style rather than gender. I often find myself buying “men’s” items without even realising it until later. Bespoke and made-to-order clothing may be a great solution to this issue along with sizing and adaptability.

For the future of fashion to be sustainable and inclusive, we need to focus on the individuals and the bodies who will be buying and wearing the clothes. We need to celebrate and embrace our differences, and to do that we need options for every body.

About Author

Kate Fleming

Kate Fleming is a freelance writer from Melbourne and the founder and editor of The Mindful Materialist blog.

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