Is Ethical Fashion Elitist?


by Marissa Heyl

As the founder of an ethical fashion label, I am constantly grappling with issues revolving around income. I work to ensure that our artisan partners are earning a livable wage. I think about our target customer and how we can price items in a way that’s accessible. I started Symbology to democratize the artisan marketplace, not make it privy to a select few. I loathe the whole snooty dynamic of high end boutiques (Pretty Woman, anyone?) and the notion that fashion is only for skinny bitches. 

But if the past four years have taught me anything, it’s that making a dress--especially an artisan-made dress--is an expensive (and quite complex) feat of global proportions. 

Think about it. From the farmers who grow the cotton to the weavers who make the fabric, to the dyers and printers who create the beautiful design, the designers who make the pattern, the seamstress who cuts and sews the garment, all the way to the shipping and customs agents who get things to your doorstep—the supply chain of making a dress is extremely complex. And if we are aiming to ensure no one is exploited along the way, we are in an expensive situation folks. 

On average, a Symbology block print dress costs us about $40 to make. That doesn’t include our overhead costs like office space and salaries or sales commissions. We have to factor all of our expenses into each item we sell, and if we want to sell it to other retailers, we have to price it according to the standard retail markup to not undersell them. We all need to make margins in order to keep the businesses successful.

Thus, by the time the dress reaches our final customer, it’s priced at $180. That’s no chump change. I wish that we could make it less expensive for our customers who don’t have the disposable income to purchase it without thinking twice.

However, the real issue at hand is more about our pervasive, almost zombie-like consumtion of stuff. If you’ve ever seen ‘The Story of Stuff’ video, you know exactly what I’m referring to. We are constantly buying new, cheap things, then throwing them away and buying more new, cheap things. It’s a vicious cycle, and one that rarely leads to a sense of fulfillment. Fashion trends especially play into this, leading one to feel inadequate if she is not donning the latest graphic tee or off the shoulder dress. 

This is a very American problem, as my husband likes to point out. “To be American is to consume,” he says. And he’s right—we don’t really have artisans who know how to make beautiful block prints and intricate beadwork, or silk brocade weavers. And that’s not a bad thing. It’s how we play our role as a consumer that needs a desperate makeover.

With ethical fashion, you’re paying for quality and integrity. Your purchase reflects a value—not just quality of the garment--but of an ethical standard that refuses to exploit people or the planet for vanity. It unites the makers with the wearers and connects women around the world in an unbreakable bond. And that is a beautiful thing.

Fashion should be something that we celebrate as wearable art—an investment that reflects who we are to the core—not just a throw away piece of polyester that looks like what everyone else is wearing. We should think of our wardrobe as an investment in good quality, unique pieces that express who we are and envelop us with beauty and confidence to take on the world.

The next time you go shopping, instead of judging the price tag, find out who made it, take a look at the fabric used, inspect the quality of stitching. Take that speculative approach you have for your food shopping—is it organic? or processed? does it use real ingredients? Ask questions and be curious.

The saying goes that you are what you eat. I’d also argue that you are what you wear. Choose wisely.