Plus size, sustainable, ethical clothing – why is it so hard to find?

Clothing that’s a) sustainably made, b) ethically made, and c) plus size is like hen’s teeth. Yet approximately 50% of the population are size 16 or above (or equivalent in men’s sizes), and sustainable fashion has been a growing market for at least a decade. You’d think there’d be more options.

Most plus size clothing is made from environmentally-damaging synthetics like polyester or acrylic. It’s often poorly made, certain to end up in landfill before long. And as for knowing where it comes from or who makes your clothes… the most you’ll get is a tag saying “Made in ——“ with the name of a developing country on it.

Who made your clothes? This image shows a garment factory in Bangladesh. The Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka collapsed in 2013, killing more than a thousand workers. Photo CC-BY Tareq Salahuddin (source) https://www.flickr.com/photos/91431624@N00/5904028188
Who made your clothes? This image shows a garment factory in Bangladesh. The Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka collapsed in 2013, killing more than a thousand workers. Photo CC-BY Tareq Salahuddin (source) https://www.flickr.com/photos/91431624@N00/5904028188

It’s a horrible feeling to have to ignore your own values just to dress yourself in the morning, yet any eco-minded person living in a larger body has to do that or else go naked.

“Why not try thrifting?” (or op-shopping, as we call it in Australia.) The problem is that when decent plus-size clothes don’t exist in the first place, there’s nothing to wind up in the secondhand market either.

Slowly we’re starting to see more plus size brands using sustainable materials or traceable supply chains, and slowly we’re seeing more sustainable and ethical brands offer clothes in larger sizes, but “slowly” is the operative word here.

Why do clothing brands say it’s hard?

Fashion brands have long had excuses for why they don’t make plus sizes (it costs more in fabric and in drafting the additional sizes, the market isn’t there, we don’t want fat people to wear our clothes and taint our brand image) or why they aren’t making their clothes sustainably and ethically (usually because they’re focused on cost-cutting and profits, which they advertise as “affordability”.)

When you look at the intersection of these two (or three) fields, you can see that the excuse-making just multiplies.

Making the choice to make sustainable and ethical plus-size clothes

From where I stand, in my own large body, making plus size clothing is simply a matter of fairness and inclusion. To do anything else is discriminatory. And no sort of profit is as important to me as living and working according to my values, so I do all that I can to be sustainable and ethical from the get-go.

The main challenge I have, as a one-person creative business, is having any sense of the working conditions upstream from me. I order fabric in tens of metres at a time, which is a minuscule quantity by industry standards. At this level, there’s no way I can inspect factories or even deal directly with them. I mostly buy through local wholesalers, and rely on their own assertions about the factories they buy from.

Beyond the factories where the cloth is woven are the farms where the fibre is grown. How much are the farm workers paid for their work? Do they have safe working conditions? I must admit that with a few very small exceptions (such as knitting wool), it’s hard for me to tell.

What I do know is that I can do everything within my own power to make my own work sustainable, including:

  • choosing naturally sustainable materials
  • using renewable energy and human-powered transport to run my business
  • making products to last, and educating my customers about how to make that happen
  • minimising waste and reusing, repurposing and recycling to create a “circular economy” within my own business, household and community.

From an ethical standpoint, I know that I am working in conditions that are safe and comfortable, rather than outsourcing to an unknown factory with unknown labour standards. I also know that my products are priced to provide me with a fair hourly wage for my work. Selling directly means I get the majority of that price, rather than the mere cents that a factory worker might get for each garment after it has passed through a long supply chain.

Simple designs to fit all bodies

One of the problems with plus size clothing is that larger bodies come in such a wide range of shapes and sizes. There’s just much more scope for variety! Most modern fashion is fairly closely tailored to the body, and it can be hard to scale it up for people who might have large or small booties, long or short legs, thick or thin thighs. A shirt may fit differently depending on shoulder width, the ratio between chest/bust and waist measurements, or the size of your biceps.

The clothing I make follows older, traditional patterns that are less fitted and more flexible. Most of my clothing has simple lines, is designed to be worn however loose you like it, and in many cases has adjustability built in, through drawstrings or other features.

Simple clothing inspired by traditional and historical patterns.
Simple clothing inspired by traditional and historical patterns.

It also means that I can make my clothing in any size just by adjusting the measurements. There are no paper patterns in my studio (ok, except a few for small things like pockets and necklines) and each garment is measured and cut according to its finished dimensions. Want it wider or taller? Just cut more fabric.

The simplicity of my designs makes them timeless. They’re not up-to-the-minute like fast fashion, but that’s a good thing. If you buy simple, timeless garments to base your wardrobe on, you can always accessorise with a trendy accessory or two if you feel the need. Or just work your own style, and be yourself! If you’re comfortable and wearing clothes made out of quality materials, you’ll always look great.

For me, it really feels like making my clothing size-inclusive and making it sustainable and ethical are part and parcel of the same underlying values. It’s about simplifying, getting away from the mass-produced world, and making clothes that are comfortable and a pleasure to wear, rather than cheap and trendy.

If you’re a person living in a larger body, what’s your experience been like finding sustainable and ethical clothes? Got any tips?

Alex

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