The democratization of fashion has failed us




noun: democratization; noun: democratisation

the action of making something accessible to everyone.

The democratization of fashion is a hot topic button for people who are in the industry. The democratization of fashion means that their jobs are becoming obsolete or more difficult. For the purist, democratization has cheapened the art of fashion and has corroded the mystic of the experience. However, I am not here to reminiscence about the elitism of events like New York Fashion Week or to praise the power that social media has given to consumers to become influencers.

Before I understood the dirty side of the fashion industry, I believed that fast fashion was the best thing that could happen to us common folk. Not so long ago, the shopping options in my country were limited to a few shops for the middle class and a lot of cheap “Made in China” clothing. Fast fashion brands were the compromise between the two – style at the fraction of the price. Growing up in Panama in the 90s, being fashionable meant that you could afford shopping sprees in the US. Now I just need to drive 10 minutes to shop at one of largest malls in Panama City, where a lot of global luxury and fast fashion brand are within my reach.

Is democratization of fashion a terrible thing?

Fashion was made accessible to everyone (in the Western world) through mass production. I think this has brought some good things for consumers. Although there is a trend popping up every week, the rules to dress up are more relaxed. Remember when matching your shoes and your bag was de rigueur? Or when women’s office attire was strictly skirts and heels? The standard is still the tall, skinny woman, but there are more options now for all body shapes and styles. Nowadays, if you have an idea and an artistic vision, you could start your fashion line with a crowdfunding campaign, and you wouldn’t need to pay a supermodel to promote your product.

However, this “fashion for the masses” has a downside that we are not able to ignore anymore. The time it takes for a dress in the runway to show up in a store is becoming shorter. We are used to having things NOW, and we don’t want to pay the full cost of making things faster, cheaper and better. This feat of manufacturing and logistics is impossible to do without cutting some corners, and this is why modern slavery is prevalent in the fashion industry, among other issues.

Can we have a sustainable “fashion for the masses” industry?

A lot of the ethical fashion brands that I know are small, so they still preserve that kind of exclusivity because the collections are limited. I love these brands and designers because it brings back that mystic of owning something unique, except that now I know that I am paying for clothing that is made with care for its people and the environment.

However, as much as I love pop-ups, limited editions and bespoke collections, we also need to have a sustainable “fashion for the masses” industry. I can wash away my consumer guilt by buying from brands that are made in the USA or the UK, but that doesn’t improve the lives of people in Bangladesh, India or China. In a sense, buying from your local designer is the democratization of aristocracy – more people can afford to do this, but not everyone can afford to do this.

I’m no expert in capitalism or globalization, but I highly doubt that the solution will be going back to the old days where you could only afford a few garments made at your local tailor. While this could be a solution for some people, it is not what will happen at a massive scale, and we need massive scale changes if we want to change the industry.

Note that I am calling it fashion for the masses instead of fast fashion. Fast fashion cannot be sustainable because it demands speed. Anyone who has ever held a job knows that things cannot be fast AND cheap AND well made! So why should we expect a miracle from fast fashion?

There is a need for affordable clothing that is also sustainable, simply because a lot of people cannot afford anything else. While I can fork out $300 for a pair of shoes, it’s a tall order for someone who makes that same amount in a month, or less. We seem to forget that in a global context, the middle class is only 13% of the world’s population and the upper-middle class is the 9%. What should the 56% of the world’s population (low income) wear?

They could wear second-hand clothing, I guess? Still, that does not solve the human rights and environmental abuses of this industry!

I believe that the only way to accomplish this is through legislation. If there is no accountability, then we depend on amazing, well-intentioned CEOs who can keep the board happy, do the “right thing” and somehow stay competitive and cheap in a market where everyone else is playing dirty to keep prices low. It’s not impossible, but it would be a very slow change and not all companies would join the sustainability bandwagon. Instead, I’d like to imagine a world where:

  • It is compulsory for companies to do due diligence on their supply chains and take measures to eliminate modern slavery. For example, there is a Modern Slavery Act in the UK, but it is voluntary.
  • Human rights transcending borders. Organizations like Public Eye (previously Bern Declaration) are working to make this a reality, so that corporations respect human rights and the environment in their operations abroad.
  • Essentially, these “extraordinary” things that sustainable companies are doing should just become the norm!

I don’t have the answers as to how we can make this a reality as an individual. I’m new to this and I’m learning from organizations like Fashion Revolution, reading up on the research produced by Project Just and supporting the companies listed in the Good on You app. If you are part of the privileged percent that chooses to buy from sustainable brands, that’s awesome. But we need to do more than just shop. Ask questions to brands, follow the work of NGOs that are advocating for change, participate through volunteering, donating and voting when possible.

I highly encourage you to check out Fashion Revolution's online course, I went through the course material and wrote a short review about what I learned