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In sustainable fashion, do designers carry their problematic past?

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FEBRUARY 21, 2023

Picture this: You’re well into a day of thrifting, hands achy from sifting through racks and eyes heavy from scanning labels and fabrics. Finally, you think you’ve spotted a gem on the other side of the store, and the adrenaline hits. 

At this point, you’re manifesting (hello, lucky girl syndrome) that it’s a great designer piece — the top you’ve had in your cart for weeks — and it’s in brand-new condition. Upon inspecting the tag, you see the brand is Shein. Perhaps you move on, leaving the piece behind. Or maybe you keep the garment. Regardless of how you handle this situation, you most likely stop and think, “Oh, it’s Shein?”

If you’re a young person on the internet, you’ve probably engaged with or witnessed the discourse surrounding the ethics of thrifting and shopping in general. What we wear and where we shop are increasingly seen as a reflection of our values, and this trend influences the way we construct our wardrobes.

For some, values such as sustainability reign supreme. For others, inclusivity and affordability are of greater concern. Nowadays, many are more likely to take a chance on an indie sustainable brand recommended by a friend than to shop at heritage retail stores with problematic pasts. It’s become apparent that consumer values are shifting, especially in how we tie clothing to selfhood and how that translates socially.  

There are a handful of brands that, while still retaining cultural relevance, carry a negative reputation. Dolce & Gabbana falls into this category for past problematic campaigns. Another brand is Shein, which has been called out for its poor labor practices and environmental ignorance. Yet another is Alexander Wang for allegations of abuse. This has led shoppers to wonder what happens when these brands end up in local Goodwills and The RealReal. Do we let them die in textile landfill? Or do we reimagine a life for them outside of their brand name?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, especially when Balenciaga faced public scrutiny for its ads featuring children with BDSM-esque accessories and the world watched as owners of beloved Cagole and City bags burnt the thousand-dollar accessories to a crisp in the name of morality. As a 21-year-old fashion fanatic and thrifter who’s always on the hunt for a deal, I frequently encounter the dilemma of fashion ethics. Apparently, others do as well. 

During my time as a sales associate at Crossroads Trading Co., my coworkers and I would debate the ethics of buying clothing from these brands, and we never came to a definitive conclusion. Even while writing this article, I’m not sure what avenue is the correct one. But as fashion is seen more and more as a reflection of ethics as much as personal style, I’m sure this conversation will persist. 

Fashion, whether we recognize it as such or not, is a narrative. The thread work that goes into each piece, the minds behind the tailoring and those championing the marketing campaigns tell a story. It’s obvious, then, that we would want the stories we share through clothing to be aligned with our own morals. But, what happens when our morals are so tightly intertwined with the court of public opinion? And what happens when it takes a certain kind of niche knowledge to identify a brand as bad? And what do we even consider “bad” anymore?

Clearly, I have more questions than answers. In fashion — and public opinion, it seems — some brands are granted second chances. For instance, Abercrombie & Fitch was once a 2000s starlet of exclusivity, with access granted to those able to afford and fit into their clothing. In recent years, the brand has undergone a significant rebranding, boasting an inclusive size range that has brought the company back into the public’s good graces. A similar scenario happened with Victoria’s Secret, which faced backlash for alleged misogyny and a lack of body inclusivity. However successful both brands are now, there has been extensive media coverage, documentaries and testimonials on both their bad behaviors. 

So, why are they forgiven now, and how do we define the perimeters of forgiveness? On one side, some would argue that it’s necessary to table these conversations when thrifting in an effort to save textile waste. Others would disagree. This issue forms a gray area, populated by confusion and countless questions. Fashion, though still a social signal for wealth and style, has now assumed the valence of ethics and values. More people look to the brands we wear as a reflection of what we believe in. 

Perhaps this is a step in the right direction for more consumer-focused, sustainable brands that care about the magic of fashion more than generating a profit. Or, it’s a slippery and exhaustive slope of bringing virtue signaling, politics and the court of public opinion into our individual expression.

Contact Kaitlin Clapinski at 


FEBRUARY 21, 2023