OPINION: Sustainability shouldn’t create a class divide

A triangular green recycling icon with the points of the arrows doubling as clothes hangers.
Graphic by Rya Jetha

The words “environmental” and “crisis” are on everyone’s lips, Fridays are reserved for climate strikes and you can’t find a plastic straw within a one-mile radius. 

This is all for good reason — we don’t want to die in our mid-40s because we, more so than older generations, didn’t take care of the planet. 

There’s no simple answer to the question of how to save the planet. After all, many people already recycle, eat less meat and travel less. 

Yet there’s one way of making an impact on the world that isn’t often discussed: Pass on those sweet deals at H&M and Zara. The fashion industry is responsible for 10 percent of global carbon emissions, according to Forbes

The amount of waste produced by the industry is a devastatingly large number, according to the BBC. But, stepping away from the depths of cheap, low-quality clothing still isn’t a mainstream practice. 

I’m guilty of going for the cheaper and more convenient option when I could’ve stopped and spared a thought for the planet. But I know I can do better — by buying secondhand and investing in more durable pieces that I know will last for more than one season.

Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple.

It’s common knowledge that buying secondhand is environmentally friendly and cheap. There’s no new textile waste created, and no new chemicals or dyes that could harm the environment. 

The deals are pretty sweet, too. You can get an old big T-shirt, almost like your non-existent significant other’s, for $2 and a pair of adorable vintage heels for $5.

Yet recently there’s been some debate online as to whether those who can afford to buy new should go for the secondhand option or leave the pre-owned and loved clothing for those who actually depend on places like Goodwill and The Salvation Army.

There’s definitely validity to this debate. As the upper middle class goes for the cheap thrift finds, demand increases and prices rise — meaning that those who previously relied on the low prices can’t afford them anymore. 

Buying secondhand shouldn’t only be about the unique vintage finds for relatively low prices. For some people, it’s what they need to do to survive.

At the same time though, I don’t think the middle class should be banned from shopping at thrift stores. We don’t need more textiles to end up in landfills. 

But there are other options.

Over the past decade or so the fashion industry has seen the rise of sustainable brands — from the H&M Conscious collection (they use obnoxious “greenwashed” marketing to promote their products, but the campaign is still a step in a better direction) to actual sustainable brands like Everlane, Veja and cult favorite Reformation. 

These companies strive to be transparent about their practices, where the products are produced, who produced them and how big the environmental impact of their products is. 

But sustainability comes with a price — an expensive one. Often, you can’t find a simple T-shirt for less than $50, and dresses can be up to $300.

Personally, I’m a big fan of Reformation — if you ever spot me anywhere, I’m most likely wearing my cream-colored polka-dotted mini dress from the brand. Yet, every time I wear the dress, I can’t get the price tag out of my mind: $250. 

I’m not here to brag about it. It was an investment I had been thinking about for months, and last April, I decided to make the big purchase. 

The dress is good quality, the fabric is soft and wearing the dress makes me feel confident. But I do wonder if it’s really worth $250.

Sustainability shouldn’t create a class divide; we should be seeking ways to save the planet together. We don’t have much time to change our ways, so I encourage everyone to shop in a more mindful way, whether it be secondhand or new. 

Ottilia Nummelin is a Pitzer College exchange student who is a Finn from Luxembourg. She will probably not stay in one place for too long and she has a place in her heart for fashion and writing bad poetry at 3 a.m.

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