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What is Sustainable Fashion?

Sustainable fashion is the buzzword of 2019. In the face of the looming effects of climate change, the fashion industry is figuring out how to create climate solutions as it reckons with production chains, consumer interests, and corporate responsibility. Paris aims to be the capital of sustainable fashion by 2024 (read here and here), and the concept of sustainable fashion is gaining traction with magazines like Vogue, Vogue Australia, Fashionista, and The Cut. While fashion is great at distilling the cultural climate down to something simple and recognizable like the color, hemline or silhouette of a season (or decade), it’s equally good at mass producing something trendy into irrelevance. So, rather than merely being “on-trend” and pointing to examples of sustainable labels, let’s figure out what is “sustainable fashion?”.

Can fashion be sustainable?

Technically, no. In the words of Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard, “There has never been, nor is there now a sustainable business, or a sustainable fashion on this planet.” The industry has made strides and sometimes impressive measures towards creating systems that are better for the environment, workers in the industry, and the production chain, but sustainable fashion as a concept, within our current capitalist society, is an oxymoron. To be sustainable means you take out of a system the same amount of energy as you put in, with no pollution or waste. Fashion has a product-producing, non-circular business model, and inherently depends on generating waste and pollution in its creation. It is also backed by a marketing juggernaut whose purpose is to convince us that we regularly need to accrue more clothing than we need or actually probably want, contributing to a culture of disposable fashion.

 

In this sense, our current rate of clothing consumption on a planet of finite resources is unsustainable, meaning our spending habits are collectively contributing to our potential extinction. (Consider this piece, it is problematic because it evokes the fear of China as consumers and not just as manufacturers of cheap goods for the West, but regardless, it contextualizes this problem.)

 

While sustainable fashion can never be truly sustainable, the idea of sustainable fashion refers to clothes that are produced, distributed, and sold with “less” environmental and human harm. It takes a conscientious approach to production and consumption that considers any number of issues whether it is the idea of transparency of factory and labor conditions (i.e. Able), the kinds of materials used, which can run the gamut of recycled polyester to dead stock (i.e. Girlfriend, Reformation), or attempts at circular economies (i.e. For Days, Eileen Fisher). These companies, while imperfect, are alternatives to profit-at-any-cost fashion (i.e. Forever21, Missguided). It is fashion that considers the benefits to people (consumers and workers alike) while softening the negative impact on the environment. Because the multi-billion dollar industry of fashion is notoriously harmful to people and planet from seed to store and beyond; however flawed and convoluted it is, “sustainable fashion” is something we must strive for.

 

How is Fashion Harmful?

Consider whatever you’re wearing right now: a t-shirt, jeans, blazer, whatever it is, it might be hard to imagine that it contributes to human rights violations or climate change. You bought it in a store where everyone seemed relatively happy or you bought it online so you didn’t encounter a person at all. But it didn’t just appear in a store from the minds of designers. In contemporary society, many of us have lost connection with the source of our clothing. That cotton t-shirt started as a seed, that was grown and harvested, before it was picked, milled, spun, woven, bleached, washed, dyed, cut, sewn, distributed, marketed, and then sold to you. This process is energy intensive, and requires things like pesticides and chemical dyes, and often exploits human workers along the supply chain. And this is before we get to the issue of garments that are produced from synthetic fibers, like polyester which is made from petroleum and is shedding microplastic into our oceans at an alarming rate (by the way you should get this to wash your polyester clothing in). Or the energy output required to care for your clothes with washing and drying.

 

If you’re still not convinced that fashion needs to reduce its environmental impact, here are a few statistics about the fashion industry that keep us up at night:

  • The fashion industry uses enough water to quench the thirst of 110 million people for an entire year.
  • The production of clothes creates the same amount of emissions as 372 million cars driving for one year.
  • There are 29 pounds (or the weight of 3 gallon containers of milk) of fashion waste produced for every person on the planet each year.
  • 51 countries use child labor in at least one part of their garment or jewellery supply chains.
  • Evidence shows how child labor is used in cotton cultivation, with children as young as five working in cotton fields or ginning factories in countries such as India, Egypt and Kazakhstan.
  • 45.8 million people are living in modern slavery or forced labor today, many in the supply chains of clothing brands and retailers.
  • Every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or incinerated globally.

Sources: Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report, US Department of Labor, Environmental Justice Foundation, The Global Slavery Index, Ellen Macarthur Foundation.

 

So, what do we do? How do we support sustainable fashion?

  1. Accept that it’s an imperfect process, and it’s okay to be uncomfortable with that ambiguity! Yes, the racial politics need reckoning, the conversations surrounding solutions are heated, and we believe that forces us to constantly be innovative, flexible and rethink all processes along the supply chain. We also have to be mindful of the politics that contribute to these problems and how we engage. As we said, sustainable fashion is an oxymoron, yet we still wholeheartedly believe that it matters.
  2. Be informed. If you already care about where your food comes, you should care about where your clothes come from. We used to look at a label, and naively assume that if the clothes were made in China versus the U.S. that the U.S.factories were going to have better product and provide better working conditions and wages for its workers. Nope. And, nope.
  3. Buy clothes with joy, and buy things that you know you will want to wear year after year. This can mean buying items that are more expensive, which often forces you to make more considered purchasing decisions. Or, changing the speed at which you buy things. Or, buying things used and second-hand.
  4. Support designers that are committed to sustainable practices. (We have some suggestions here, here, and here).
  5. Consider the end of life of your garments. Can it be recycled? Repaired? Donated? Resold? Turned into something else? In short, can you keep it out of landfill?
  6. Become an active citizen and let your politicians know that you support stronger laws to protect workers and the environment! While we firmly believe in shopping our values, this alone is not enough. Some organizations we encourage you to donate to or volunteer for are Sunrise Movement, 350.org, Environmental Defense Fund, and Earth Justice.

Words: Laura Jones

Photography: Daemian Smith + Christine Suarez

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