Why Is it So Difficult to Find Sustainable Plus Size Fashion?

Nana K. Twumasi

Fast fashion is not good for the planet. In 2015, textile production was responsible for pumping out 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions. In 2018, fast-fashion heavyweight H&M admitted to incinerating $4.3 billion of unsold inventory—putting even more strain on the environment. Sustainable fashion isn’t perfect—but it is the best option we’ve got for filling our wardrobes without adding to a growing problem.

It is also catching on. Data shows searches for “sustainable” and “ethical” fashion are up 16 percent from 2018. This progress is important, but the fashion industry—sustainable brands included—has a diversity and inclusion problem. While the average American woman wears between a size 16 and 18, only 17 percent of revenue in fashion came from plus size garments in 2017. With sustainable fashion rising in popularity, it seems like a missed opportunity for brands to step up to the plate, but designing clothes for women of all shapes and sizes—and keeping it affordable—isn’t a straightforward as you might think.

More than just “making it bigger”

The first hurdle sustainable fashion designers face is in the sizing. Making clothing that fits larger bodies isn’t as easy as tacking a few extra inches of fabric onto existing patterns. Kat Eves, stylist and proprietress of The Style Ethic, says, “You really can’t just grade up if you want to create plus size garments that fit right. There is definitely some upfront investment involved to do it right, from pattern making, to hiring plus size fit models. Plus size bodies are more diverse, which means adaptations of original designs for your straight sizes may need further adjustments to work on plus size bodies.”

When asked about improving sizing options, many brands cite the expense involved in developing the actual patterns to suit plus sizes. In a 2019 blog post, seamstress Leimomi Oakes explained the economic implications of designing for the plus market, as well as the challenges in creating the patterns for each garment, which include finding fit models, and putting in the extra work to design larger patterns. In her post, Oakes suggests it can cost her up to $2,000 (AUS) to make patterns in extended sizes. When the garment is made, this cost is often passed on to the consumer.

On the consumer side, cost may be a prohibitive factor for plus size women, leading to a perceived lack of market share. Sustainable garments are typically more expensive than fast-fashion options but might be even more so for plus-size clothing. For example, a plain white plus size T-shirt at Old Navy costs $7. A similar sustainable plain T-shirt from Know the Origin runs around $30. A plus-size sustainable T-shirt from Hackwith Design House? A cool $70.

It’s a reality that if brands carry both straight and plus sizes, the plus size items are often more expensive—and almost always have to be ordered online, potentially incurring additional shipping and handling costs. Sustainable fashion is also a movement that has been one of exclusivity; the aesthetic tends to appeal to a more high-end consumer, and the realities of small-batch production, and the use of primarily natural fibers and paying employees fairly, rightfully yield more expensive goods.

Representation matters

The notion of representation is slowly gaining traction in the wider fashion industry. We’re seeing more models that exist in bigger bodies on the runway, but these forms of diversity still tend to be underrepresented. The 2018 New York Fashion Week saw a decrease in the number of curve models on the runway between the spring and fall 2018 shows.

In the industry’s sustainable niche, finding representation can be even harder.

“I’m an ethical stylist but I often feel like an outsider to the world of ethical and sustainable fashion because the options available to me are few, and I don’t represent the thin-centered aesthetic so many designers seem married to…I’m a size 16/18 and I have yet to see many leading ethical or sustainable brands represent diversity with women whose bodies even vaguely resemble my own, let alone anyone larger,” Eves says.

Sustainable style options

The sustainable fashion movement can’t gain real traction unless everyone is involved, and that means brands must make a concerted effort to expand their sizing. Some popular brands have committed to this, such as Elizabeth Suzann, who has started offering options up to 4XL, as does Hackwith Design House. Some brands offer capsule collections in extended sizes, to test the waters—this was the case with Reformation, who initially launched a temporary plus size line that become permanent in spring 2019. There are also sustainable fashion brands made especially for plus sizes. Eves cites Alice Alexander, Poppy Row, and JIBRI as frontrunners in the size inclusive movement. All are made with sustainable fabrics and production and meant to suit larger bodies.

But brands like Elizabeth Suzann are still expensive options, with trousers, skirts, and dresses running more than $200 per item. Part of the practice of building a sustainable wardrobe means buying fewer items and taking better care of the clothing you do own. But cost-effective staples for a sustainable plus size wardrobe are still frustratingly few and far-between. Brands like Pact offer reasonable organic basics but only run up to a size 2X—and that’s only for a limited selection of styles and colors. “It’s exciting to see brands like Reformation and Mara Hoffman get on board, but what we really need to see is a size expansion from the brands who carry more everyday wear, like Everlane and Amour Vert,” Eves says.

Instead of excluding plus size individuals, these brands, and others, are doing the important work of making sustainable style accessible for all. If you’re invested in sustainable and ethical fashion, don’t be shy about reaching out to designers whose work you like, but don’t make your size. As product producers, makers in this market should be challenged to do better and include everyone—benefiting your closet and the planet.

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