Why Does So Much Ethical Fashion Look the Same?

Earth tones, neutral colors and minimalism dominate the average ethical fashion fan's feed. But why is that — and who is getting left out of the equation?
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Clockwise from top left: Everlane, Elizabeth Suzann, Nisolo, Vetta Capsule, Above Studio, Whimsy & Row, Only Child, Hackwith Design, St. Agni and Open Air Museum. All photos via Instagram.

Clockwise from top left: Everlane, Elizabeth Suzann, Nisolo, Vetta Capsule, Above Studio, Whimsy & Row, Only Child, Hackwith Design, St. Agni and Open Air Museum. All photos via Instagram.

On our way to the opening party for a brand-new sustainable apparel store, a friend of mine, who shares my love for ethical and sustainable fashion, turned and asked: "Do we really need another ethical brand making neutral-colored basics?"

I quickly retorted something about how this brand was different because its pieces were better designed, more accessibly priced and produced in a country that needed jobs more — and in the case of the particular label in question, all of that was true. But a part of me knew what she meant. The ethical fashion scene may be a still-burgeoning one, but it's already a space with more than its fair share of minimalist brands, influencers who wear exclusively earthy colors while posing against white walls and impeccably curated neutral Instagram feeds with desaturated photo filters applied.

If ethical fashion is more about how something is made than its aesthetic, why is there such a specific look so often associated with it?

It's a question that 18-year-old British ethical fashion blogger Tolmeia Gregory, better known online as Tolly Dolly Posh, has at least a partial answer for. While her aesthetic doesn't fit the minimalist mold — she's big on using secondhand clothing as a way to up her wardrobe's funk factor without compromising her ethics — Gregory notes that some "fun" materials are simply not sustainable for brands to use or make. Therefore, she posits, it should be unsurprising if they rarely show up in ethical fashion spaces that involve primarily new, rather than used, clothing.

Tolmeia Gregory. Photo: @tollydollyposh/Instagram

Tolmeia Gregory. Photo: @tollydollyposh/Instagram

"There's a reason why conscious brands don't use sequins or vinyl," she says via email.

Another reason for ethical fashion's sometimes homogenous-seeming offerings is just as practical: if you're trying to create a piece of clothing that's timeless enough to be worn over and over rather than being destined for landfill after a few seasons, that's easier to accomplish with a foolproof color like black or navy than with a trendy hue like millennial pink or slime green. Plus, it's easier to live with less — a core value among conscious consumers — when everything you own matches everything else you own. Hence, neutrals that never clash become a mainstay.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the 10x10 challenge popularized on Instagram, in which participants commit to wearing only ten different pieces of clothing and shoes, styled different ways for 10 days. While it's easiest to succeed in the challenge by avoiding crazy colors and prints, a group of ethical fashion enthusiasts sought to prove that a minimalist lifestyle (i.e. not shopping much) need not mean a minimalist aesthetic (i.e. not wearing anything too out there) by starting a "Glam Capsule" challenge this summer. The principle was the same as a traditional capsule, with the caveat being that pieces should be more "fun and fashion-y" — not limited to black, gray, navy and tan.  

"People already feel like they have to give up shopping at their favorite stores [when they start their ethical fashion journey]," explains Glam Capsule co-creator and ethical fashion influencer Benita Robledo via email. "They don't want to feel like they have to sacrifice their personal style on top of that."

Benita Robledo. Photo: @benita_robledo/Instagram

Benita Robledo. Photo: @benita_robledo/Instagram

For Robledo, the idea that she might have to kiss crazy prints and bright colors goodbye to embrace a more ethical way of dressing was depressing. Plus, it felt to her like a mandate to disappear inside an aesthetic she sees as being dominated by wealthy white women ("I don't know if it's cultural or what, [but] a lot of them love neutrals," she says). As an American with Colombian, Mexican and European roots who identifies as mestiza, that was an unappealing prospect for Robledo. "Color and pattern are a part of my blood," she writes.

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She's not the only person who sees a connection between ethical fashion's most commonly presented aesthetic and the race of the often-privileged people who shape its narrative. Dominique Drakeford is the founder of MelaninASS, a platform that exists to highlight communities of color in sustainable fashion, and she echoes the sentiment.

"My lens is from the African diaspora, but this holds true for most non-white cultures globally: Color means something and traditionally our cultures [are] very vibrant," Drakeford says via email. "During slavery, clothing was very restricted to muted-toned (aka neutral) garments. In order to feel liberated and to make a distinction between their working body and worshiping body, enslaved seamstresses used their earnings to buy bright fabrics to make colorful church garments that differed from their laboring clothes. Bright clothing was a symbol of freedom and a liberated identity."

Dominique Drakeford. Photo: @dominiquedrakeford/Instagram

Dominique Drakeford. Photo: @dominiquedrakeford/Instagram

That's not to say people of color always want to wear brights, or that they can't enjoy wearing neutrals. But Drakeford's point stands: When the ethical fashion community overlooks the political and historical implications of dressing in a riot of color and pattern in the name of versatility and "timelessness," it risks alienating a group of people who may use those former elements to connect to their heritage. An ethical fashion space that's all tawny browns and creams doesn't leave much room for people like Gregory, either, whose whiteness hasn't made her love wearing bright color any less.

It's not that Drakeford, Robledo, Gregory or my friend at the store opening want to boot minimal color palettes or the people who love them from the ethical fashion community altogether. They just want to see the space become one where people of all backgrounds and all aesthetic persuasions feel more at home, because sustainability will never become the norm if huge swaths of people feel excluded from the conversation.

Luckily, there are plenty of influencers and brands working to make the space more aesthetically diverse. From POC-led sustainable labels to streetwear brands marrying hypebeast digs with hippie-worthy ethics to next-gen designer darlings like Marine Serre and Kevin Germanier, there's plenty of ethical fashion that's not the least bit beige, if one's willing to look. And influencers like Robledo, Drakeford and Gregory are contributing to that future themselves by showing their followers ways of exploring sustainable style in a rainbow of hues.

"As the space opens up for more diversity you're really starting to see new points of view," Robledo says. "More color, more innovation, more fashion-forward designs. It's glorious! And it entices new people shop ethically."

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