How Sustainable Fashion Is Finally Becoming Less Elitist

“There has to be a paradigm in which we're looking at the communities most affected and most ignored.”

A collage of Autumn Adeigbo at the forefront and two models in her sustainable designs in the backgr...

Dechel Mckillian first began researching sustainable fashion about seven years ago. As a stylist who dressed high-profile celebrities like Drake and Nicki Minaj, she sought out ethical brands for her clients, but had trouble finding eco-conscious styles that fit their aesthetics and needs.

“A lot of what was perceived as ‘sustainable fashion’ was very granola-yoga-DIY or extremely luxury-driven,” Mckillian tells Bustle. Plus, as a Black woman, she noticed that few people in the sustainable space even looked like her.

“The scene was just very white,” she says.

That lack of representation inspired Mckillian to open her own SoCal showroom and boutique, Galerie.LA in 2015. It offers sexy slip dresses, breezy wide-legged pants, and utilitarian jumpsuits by local brands that make eco-friendly, ethically-produced items, and practice — and preach — diversity.

“Once I started digging, I found that, actually, there were a lot of sustainable brands [that were run or designed by] people of all different races and ethnicities,” Mckillian says. “But the perception of ‘sustainable fashion’ was that you had to be a white woman with a certain income and a specific type of job [to enjoy it].”

Once upon a time, if you Googled “sustainable fashion,” the same few brands would turn up: the uber-luxe Stella McCartneys — think $1,000+ vegan leather bags and tie-dye jumpsuits — and the resolutely austere Eileen Fishers, with their neutral hues and body-obscuring shapes. The customers who shopped these brands or advocated for eco-friendly fashion looked pretty much the same, too.

“I’d always been amazed in like 20 years of doing this work, you walk into a sustainable fashion conference, and everyone would look a certain way: blonde, tall, and skinny,” says Ayesha Barenblat, CEO of Remake, a nonprofit devoted to environmental and social justice in the fashion industry. Barenblat, a Pakastani-American, knew that plenty of non-white shoppers cared passionately about the environment and garment workers’ rights. But for some reason, the sustainable movement didn’t seem to court them.

The perception of ‘sustainable fashion’ was that you had to be a white woman with a certain income and a specific type of job [to enjoy it].

That’s changing. Today, “sustainable fashion” comes in a variety of sizes, aesthetics, and prices, made and modeled by people from all different races and backgrounds. In the past five years, ethical designers such as Mara Hoffman, Wray, and Christy Dawn have all started including plus sizes.

Designers of color, such as Autumn Adeigbo and EMME Studio’s Korina Emmerich, who use traditional textiles and methods, have been featured in Vogue. Meanwhile, new labels like Girlfriend Collective, which offers athleisure made of recycled plastic, have made diversity a cornerstone of their mission and ad campaigns, showing models of different sizes, races, and abilities wearing their clothes.

As sustainable fashion has embraced more groups of people, its definition has evolved as well: to include thrifting, shopping, and mending (as opposed to just “buying”) and to encompass more than just eco-friendly and organic fabrics.

“People are realizing that “being ‘sustainable’ isn’t something you can buy or [that’s] inherent within a single garment,” says Jennifer Whitty, assistant professor of fashion systems and materiality at Parsons. “It’s about human activities that recognize they are part of an entire ecosystem.”

That realization — that there are myriad ways to have a sustainable relationship with fashion — will create an industry that is “equitable, intersectional, inclusive, and holistic — that fulfills us all and equips us all for living in the 21st century.”

One reason why sustainable fashion has opened up? It has gotten less expensive to produce.

In the past, “I had a lot of people tell me, ‘I’d love to buy this sustainable line but I can’t afford Eileen Fisher’ or, ‘I can’t afford Patagonia,’” says Andrea Kennedy, sustainability professor at LIM college. “However, those companies have great practices that others have emulated since.

“Look at Levi’s,” she adds. “Levi’s has done so much in terms of lowering their carbon footprint, and who doesn’t own a pair of Levi’s?”

Now, non-luxury brands can create textiles made from recycled fibers, “upcycle” discarded materials or fabrics to create new garments, and take advantage of production methods that use less water (like digital printing instead of wet printing) or create a negative carbon footprint through special farming techniques.

“It has gotten easier,” says Celine DeCarlo, VP of Brand, People and Culture at Mara Hoffman, which in 2015 changed its business model to work toward sustainability by sourcing organic and recycled fibers, minimizing waste, and using less energy in manufacturing — and also just producing less.

“There are more ‘responsible’ — quote unquote — fabric options.” DeCarlo says. “There’s more support from the industry. Factories are much more open to being transparent. The technology is definitely going up.”

As sustainable fashion becomes more mainstream, and as the need for it becomes more urgent due to climate change, consumers are seeking out brands that cater to their needs and values. A 2015 Nielsen survey found that 66% of respondents were willing to pay more for sustainable products; and according to a 2019 Hotwire survey, 47% of internet users said they had switched to a different product or service when a company violated their personal values.

That’s why Mara Hoffman began offering extended sizes, up to 3X, in 2018. The brand still doesn’t offer every unit in every size — that’s a goal, DeCarlo says — but it’s part of Mara Hoffman’s mission to put its message of inclusivity and social justice into action.

“When we spoke about our audience being women, we realized we weren’t speaking to all women [by excluding women over a certain size],” DeCarlo says. “It was of critical importance, knowing how much we stood behind this idea of speaking to all women, to start implementing that.”

Black, brown, indigenous designers and artists have long created ethical garments using sustainable methods, even if they weren’t marketed as such.

Nigerian-American designer Autumn Adeigbo began designing her own line in 2009 using exuberantly printed African textiles made by women artisans who were paid a fair wage. Each piece is made to order to the client’s measurements so Adeigbo can cater not only to a wide variety of body types, but also minimize fabric waste.

“I didn’t even know what I was creating was ethical fashion,” Adeigbo says. “I worked in retail for years and I was in the fitting rooms with customers, and I got that firsthand experience of someone wanting a style, but we didn't have their size.”

Plus, she said a made-to-order model made financial sense. “I had very limited resources — I was not going to invest in inventory and not know what sizes were going to sell,” she adds. “I was told by a lot of people it wouldn’t work, but … I just had a belief that women would want to stand out from the crowd by wearing a piece that was special and different from everything else.”

There has to be a paradigm in which we're working through the lens of social justice, environmental justice, climate justice — and really looking at the communities most affected and most ignored at the same time.

Adeigbo’s work helped pave the way for people like sisters Rue Newby, Jael Toczko, and Latisha Rezek, for whom “sustainability” means more than eco-friendly fabrics or eliminating waste. It means paying workers living wages, discouraging conspicuous consumption, and embracing diversity.

“We are all shorter, curvier, mixed-race Black women,” Newby says. “Inclusivity is so fundamentally important to us, because growing up we had to imagine, seek out, and in many ways create a world that we didn’t feel was open or welcoming of us.”

In 2018, the sisters launched Label By Three, which produces handmade clothes in Arizona using only deadstock fabrics (from items from other brands that never sold) and locally made materials. The trio also sells vintage clothing, jewelry, and homewares.

“Being sustainable is not just fabrics and production and manufacturing,” DeCarlo says. “There has to be a paradigm in which we're working through the lens of social justice, environmental justice, climate justice — and really looking at the communities most affected and most ignored at the same time.”