Over the past few years, sustainability has (thankfully!) become a more familiar concept. With it, the idea of creating more sustainable industries has been gaining momentum. It’s an issue highly relevant to the fashion industry, where the notion of sustainable fashion is finally getting attention!
However, to truly understand how we got here, and where we need to go, we must first have a shared understanding of the fashion industry. So let’s start with the obvious!
What is Fashion?
According to Merriam-Webster, fashion is “the prevailing style during a particular time.” Basically, it’s the way people dress… at a given time. As such, it can also help to identify the era (and location) that people lived in, reflecting the times.
So clearly there’s a time factor. And it’s dynamic one. Over time, changing needs, styles, and choices shape what we wear. From this humble origin however, the fashion industry has since evolved into the high-speed, mass-produced global phenomenon that we now know (and many love) today.
The Fast-Fashion Industry
Fast fashion was born in the 1960s. It’s when fashion cycles really began to pick up speed. This happened alongside young people’s desire to dress according to changing trends, leading to a significant boom in the fashion industry.
Fashion brands needed to find ways to meet the increased demand, while keeping their items affordable. Manufacturers responded by opening up textile mills and factories in the developing world. As well as cost, they also focused on agility, prioritizing the pace at which their garments could reach consumers.
And there we have the fast fashion industry! Unfortunately, it’s one that seriously interferes with the prospect of a sustainable future. Happily, there’s also a solution to this vexing problem! Namely, sustainable fashion.
What’s So Bad About Fast Fashion?
Before we dive further into the solution, let’s take a quick look at why fast fashion is so harmful in the first place. Well, fast fashion actually interferes with all three pillars of sustainability: social, economic, and environmental. That’s pretty serious! Without considering the issues and impacts related to each of these pillars, humanity can’t expect to have a prosperous future.
Fast fashion is not at all ethical. For many of you, this isn’t really a revelation. Thankfully, a great number of people have become aware of the existence of sweatshops and slave labour. What you may not know is that these factories don’t only exist overseas.
While more people have begun to discover that slave labor was used to source cotton in China, there are also plenty of horror stories in Western countries. For instance, the exposure of sweatshops in Los Angeles (California), where workers were being heavily exploited to meet the demand of fast fashion.
Human rights are directly violated in these factories and others. People are being overworked and underpaid. If a worker produces a garment that is sold for anywhere from $5 to $75, only three cents of it goes into their pocket.
Not only are workers being treated unethically through their pay, but some might be risking their very lives in order to manufacture your clothes. This was highlighted in 2013, when 1,129 garment workers were killed and even more injured in the collapse of Rana Plaza (Bangladesh).
When shopping for sustainable fashion you may pay a bit more for your product, but you’re also paying for someone to make a decent wage. You might also be paying to help provide safety and protection for those making your garments.
While garment workers struggle to feed themselves, those who work higher up in these fast fashion companies aren’t facing the same issue. Take Amancio Ortega for instance. He’s the CEO of Inditex, the company behind fast fashion brand Zara. Mr. Ortega is currently one of the richest people in the world, with an estimated fortune in the tens of billions.
In no just world should it be acceptable to accumulate that much wealth, while not paying employees enough for them to pay their basic needs. These wretched systems of exploitation feed into the extreme income inequalities that exist in our world. Clearly, it must be stopped. For fashion to be sustainable, it must adopt a better system.
In order to develop cheap products quickly, companies often cut environmental corners. Doing so puts the planet at risk. Environmental concerns include the use of toxic chemicals, high levels of textile waste, high water use, and pollution.
Material choice is particularly hazardous. For example, polyester, an extremely popular fabric in fashion, sheds millions of hazardous microfibers through the wash. These microfibers contribute to the increasing levels of plastics that are permeating our oceans.
The Cost of Returns
In addition to all the microfiber waste ending up all over the place, there’s also the landfills to consider. It bigger than you might think, and not exclusively a result of throwing away old items. Take for instance the online shopping model. Have you ever returned a purchase? It’s highly likely that it actually ended up in a landfill.
Turns out that it costs more for these companies to take the time to ensure that these returned products are fit to resell. So they toss the items in the landfill or an incinerator instead. There are however some countries that are fighting back this practice. France for instance recently banned companies from tossing their returns. We should encourage all governments to do the same.
What is Sustainable Fashion?
Truly sustainable fashion occurs when the entire supply chain of an item is sustainable. For starters, the fabrics used must have a low environmental impact. What’s more, ethical practices must be followed, from harvesting the fabric, to production, and beyond. These items must also be manufactured in an ethical work environment.
Finally, items cannot be mass produced. I’ve seen many companies create lines that use ethical fabrics and pay their employees well, but still mass produce the product. That’s unsustainable. Why? As mentioned before, the fashion industry puts a large strain on resources. If a company is producing more products than are being sold, then excess products are usually disposed of.
Sustainable Fashion Options
So, we know that sustainable fashion is the better option, but how do we find it? To start with, do your research. Before buying an item, try investigating the company. What fabrics are they using, where was it sourced, and how were they produced?
Small batch, limited items are normally a good sign. You may find that they fall short in some areas, but are succeeding in others. Weigh your options and choose the one that you’re most comfortable in supporting with your hard-earned money.
New To You
Shopping sustainable fashion can be expensive, that’s why my favourite sustainable fashion option is thrifting. It’s slightly more expensive sister, consignment, can also be a fun option. As an added bonus, when you go to the second-hand boutiques in your area, they’re often locally-owned small businesses!👌
There are plenty of secondhand options available, and since the items are pre-loved, you don’t necessarily need to worry as much about how they were made. You’re already saving items from ending up in a landfill! With current COVID lockdowns, many in-person thrifting locations and consignment stores might be temporarily closed. Here are some of my favourite online options:
Make sure you are thrifting respectfully! For a lot of people, this may be their only option. Upcycling is also pretty cool! It’s where you alter an item to create something new or “in style.” While that’s sweet, unfortunately it can also put a strain on the number of options available for those who genuinely require specific sizes.
That being said, upcycling can also be really fun! If done correctly of course. Start out by looking at what you already own and may be tired of. For example, I’ve been embroidering some of my old sweaters to change them up and breathe new life into them!
You’re Responsible For What You Wear!
When purchasing new pieces for your wardrobe, you’re in control. That’s not to say that you need to shop secondhand 100% of the time. Or that you can’t buy that dress that you really want, because it uses unsustainable fabrics. Being aware is the first step. Even pledging to make half of your purchases sustainable fashion is a great start!
Lastly, everyone messes up. I really wanted to stop buying mostly-new since I couldn’t afford many sustainably-made garments. I was doing great until COVID hit. With thrift stores closed, I found myself making a few too many unsustainable fashion purchases. Unfortunately, it happens. It may be that those Instagram ads were just too good (I hear you)! Just try your best, no one’s perfect!
At the end of the day, it’s not on you alone to resolve the sustainability crisis. We’re all in this together! So instead, do what you can to support sustainable fashion and try to encourage measures that will ensure the industry itself improves. Collective action can make a difference!
Editing by Megan Fuller & Marc-Antoni Tarondo.