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I never meant to get stroppy with the ethical fashion brand. I’d stumbled across their Instagram ad, for a lovely forest-green dress, at a time when I was already thinking about how I could shop better and avoid fast fashion. The brand, Unfolded, promised high quality, no waste and fair pay for garment workers; the dress, at £47, looked just as good as the sustainability credentials. It took a handful of clicks, a matter of seconds to order it. I didn’t bother myself with the small print, but went about my day, looking forward to wearing it at a few spring events.

Four weeks later, spring was in full swing and I hadn’t received the dress. Unfolded emailed me frequently with cheerful updates in an Innocent smoothies tone. My dress was being “cut”, “stitched”, “picked”. Five, then six weeks passed. Seven weeks in, I emailed customer service. “I have to ask, when will I receive this dress? While I want to support sustainable fashion, I don’t think you made it clear that it would be six weeks plus before it arrived,” I huffed.

An apologetic staffer replied, explaining the label’s no-waste ethos – each item is made from scratch after a customer orders it; there’s no stock sitting around waiting to be sent out – and adding that some orders had also been held up at customs. Unfolded’s standard delivery time was four to six weeks, so it was only slightly behind schedule. “We hope you’ll love your product when it arrives!” she signed off perkily.

At this point, I had to have a word with myself. Was I being an eco Karen? Rationally, I knew it was Asos, Amazon and Shein that had made me like this: a greedy retail monster, bitten by the radioactive combination of three-click transactions and next-day delivery. I knew kinder shopping equalled slower shopping – I just hadn’t reckoned on a snail’s pace.

I tried going back to my motivation for buying the dress. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, one truckload of clothing is landfilled or burnt every second. Around 30 per cent of clothes made globally each year go unsold. Big retailers know this will happen. Google “Chile clothing mountain” for the type of place they end up – it’ll turn your stomach.

On top of this, garment workers – overwhelmingly female – suffer in this race to the bottom. Andrew Morgan’s documentary The True Cost estimates that fewer than 2 per cent of the people who make our clothes earn a living wage; undercover reporting in 2022 found that some Chinese factory workers were making just 3p per garment. I knew that by running a slower business, Unfolded was doing something positive, going against the fast-fashion grain. Why couldn’t I just wait?

We have to get out of the habit of thinking, ‘I want this tomorrow’. That’s not a fair demand to put on a small brand; it’s an unreasonable expectation

Lizzie Rivera, Live Frankly founder

But I knew that if I couldn’t, others wouldn’t. If the first wave of sustainability-curious shoppers was meeting a slow or unclear customer journey and finding it off-putting, how would this kind of brand ever catch on?

“The problem is that the consumer is just not in that mindset,” says Alison Lowe, who works with brands on this very issue. A UEL lecturer and author of How to Start Your Own Fashion Label, she tells me Unfolded follows a “pre-order” business model, and that not all ethical labels use it.

“They did the right thing keeping you updated – you know they haven’t just taken your money and run.” But she feels they could be even clearer in preparing buyers for the delivery period. “The customer really values honesty,” says Lowe. “It’s better to say, ‘we’re doing this well, but we haven’t sorted out that bit yet’.” She prefers the approach of small-batch labels who create a handful of stock, sell those items and then make more.

Lizzie Rivera, founder of ethical lifestyle guide Live Frankly, agrees that seven, nearly eight weeks is “a little unreasonable”. “We’re not going to change the world if we’re only appealing to diehard sustainable fashion fans,” she says. But Rivera sees consumer patience as a vital part of changing the game. “We have to get out of the habit of thinking, ‘I want this tomorrow’. That’s not a fair demand to put on a small brand; it’s an unreasonable expectation.”

To try to understand how we got off on the wrong foot, I spoke to Unfolded’s founder Cally Russell. He feels they are clear about their four- to six-week shipping time, but acknowledges that however they communicate this, some people will fail to absorb it and find it jarring. He asks why I chose this dress, of all the options, and I pause. “Probably the price,” I say, thinking back to other ethical brands I’d browsed but abandoned, due to price points of £120+.

‘Many consumers either can’t afford to pay more or are unprepared to’ (Unfolded)

“Right, well, that’s your trade-off,” he explains. It turns out there’s a lot of fair pay and emissions maths that goes into making a sustainable label. When Russell started Unfolded, he spoke to 300 shoppers about ethical clothing: what they wanted and what it would take for them to buy. “One big barrier was, ‘I don’t know where to shop’,” he explains. “The second was that ethical fashion is usually more expensive. Many consumers either can’t afford to pay more or are unprepared to.”

He asked what people would be prepared to compromise on if he could push down prices. The top thing was less choice; smaller collections were fine with them. The second was time: shoppers accepted it might take longer to receive goods.

What I hadn’t gleaned from my seconds-long Instagram shopping experience was that Unfolded started as a community. Enthusiasts join the brand’s private Facebook group (currently 6,800 members) where they give creative input to each collection, share photos of buys and volunteer to model in photo shoots.

We think that this is the right trade-off to make. It’s better for the planet, better for the customer and better for the garment worker

Cally Russell, Unfolded founder

Given this “tribe” feel, Russell is surprised that the email updates were a source of irritation. Most customers are fans. “People get in touch to say, ‘I had no idea about any of this’. They have this new appreciation for the process.”

As much as operating a clean-conscience business, Russell wants to enlighten people about what goes into the making of a garment. (My “gimme now” consumer brain has clearly killed off this level of curiosity.) He apologises for the longer wait I experienced but stands firm on his approach. “We think that this is the right trade-off to make. It’s better for the planet, better for the customer and better for the garment worker.”

As for ethical brands that are speedier to deliver, Alison Lowe points me toward Pangaia (three to five business days) and Spanish brand ECOALF (one to three days). I find Fanfare (24 to 48 hours), while Lizzie Rivera champions the Isle of Wight-based Rapanui and US-based Aya for basics, as well as another made-to-order label, Lora Gene (two to four weeks). With the exception of Rapanui and Aya, most price points are considerably higher than Unfolded’s, so I take Cally’s point. We can have feelgood products and speedy delivery, but not on the cheap.

In a way, my peek behind the curtain of one ethical choice is what every consumer needs in order to shop with clarity. There’s no such thing as a simple, affordable, speedy product that is also kind to people and planet. There is always a cost, even if we don’t see it. But if we budget for a few better choices – in patience, as well as cash – maybe we can still turn that tide.

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