Why the sustainable fashion movement should always include plus-size people

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Aja Barber is an American writer, stylist and consultant who lives in London. Her work focuses on sustainability and ethics within the fashion industry and how all those topics intersect with race, feminism and colonization. The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author.

As a person who has lived through many shifts in the fashion industry, I have often seen new trends positioned as a move towards making the industry more inclusive.

The rise of the fashion blogger extended power and authority beyond a select group of magazine editors; the use of live streaming to broadcast shows meant everyone could get a front row view of fashion week; and social media has created a truly global and open forum for conversations about fashion in identity, politics and beyond.

But despite these promising developments, we are still a long way out from a truly inclusive fashion industry.

Black Lives Matter recently reminded those working in fashion of the systemic racism and blatant lack of diversity across the industry. There is still work to be done to create a more inclusive space for people of all marginalized identities. But there’s one particular group of people who have been consistently excluded: those who are plus-size.

The fashion industry has, noticeably, always failed to invite bigger bodies to the party. Unlike other body categories like “petite” and “tall,” which we have become accustomed to seeing in stores and online, the exclusion of plus-size options, particularly outside of the fast fashion category, is an example of fat body oppression and a reminder that fatphobia exists in many spaces within our society.

Aja Barber

Aja Barber Credit: Stephen Cunningsworth

Go to the doctor in a plus-size body for whatever ailment and be prepared to be told you should lose weight. In popular shows and films, fat characters are often portrayed as comical sidekicks.

As someone who has been many different sizes in my adult body, I can tell you the world definitely treats you differently in a bigger body than a small one. And you can’t possibly understand it until you’ve witnessed the scorn of a sales assistant who tells you point blank that there is nothing in that store that will fit you. Once you have that experience, you begin to see it all clearly.

If you are a plus-size person you simply do not have the same amount of choice when it comes to accessing fashion. And if you’re a plus-size person who cares about your impact on the planet and wants to shop for more sustainable fashion, your pool of options shrinks even further.

Consumers are becoming more aware of the fashion industry’s role in contributing to the climate crisis, and brands — both established and emerging — are beginning to respond to a growing interest in “sustainable fashion” and fashion made in safe and fair working conditions. It’s happening at a glacial pace, but there is progress.

But if we want all people to make more conscious fashion choices, we need to provide options for all bodies.

Sadly, it seems so many brands haven’t quite got the message that people bigger than a size US12 exist and want to exist comfortably in their bodies, dressed in clothing they feel good about buying.

I talk openly on social media about fashion being size-inclusive and still many of the messages of praise and support that I receive come from brands that do not make clothing in my size. Much like other movements, brands want to be associated with the cause before doing the actual work.

But right now, amid one of fashion’s latest iterations, we have an opportunity.

The notion of allyship is currently on a lot of people’s minds as the world continues to contend with how to address systemic racism, sexism and inequality.

Lawyer, civil rights activist and philosopher Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality over 30 years ago to describe the ways in which different oppressed groups are interconnected. Her theory in a nutshell is that if we work on ending one oppression, we can find similarities within that process that will be useful when confronting other social inequalities. So, if we apply the idea of allyship to the sustainable fashion movement, then we shouldn’t pick and choose, or exclude a significant part of the population.

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The ethical and sustainable fashion movement is still taking shape, and in this nascent trend there is a chance to make the fashion industry more responsible and more responsive to consumers’ realities. Beyond the good ethics of wide-reaching inclusion, connecting with people of all shapes and sizes can be good fiscal sense for brands, too.

Fashion brands and retailers working towards more sustainable practices must find room to be truly inclusive — and that means including plus-size bodies, too. And while they’re at it, brands should work to proactively include any other marginalized groups who simply want access to more sustainably and ethically made fashion.

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