I recently attended the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, where I learned that sustainability efforts in the fashion industry have slowed over the past year. Consumer spending on sustainable clothing is also down 30 percent since 2016. There was a sense of defeat in the air as I heard speaker after speaker make the same remarks about the need for transparency, new and better legislation, and better communication throughout the supply chain. The panels felt like desperate pleas to the audience about how time is running out, that we cannot wait for the government or consumers to take the lead, and that we must simply “do better”. One of the panels was even called “The House is on Fire”. I left the conference with a lot of information about how the industry currently works and how it should work, but as far as how to actually get from point A to point B, I still felt lost.
So much of sustainable fashion still revolves around the manufacturing of new garments. In an industry where we know that the over-production and accumulation of “stuff” is killing our planet, why is it that most of our focus is still on creating more stuff? We talk about best farming practices, using less energy and water, and paying our employees a living wage; however, we’re still creating more stuff in a world with way too much of it already. Is that all sustainable fashion is, just new stuff that’s less horribly made? Thankfully for us (and for the planet), I don’t think so.
When I first learned about sustainable fashion (or “green fashion” as it was called back then), it was a much smaller movement, pretty much completely outside the fashion industry. The only places I could find sustainable garments were in outdoor markets and small boutiques. I bought my first “sustainable” tank top from a vendor at Seaport Village in San Diego. It was purple, made from bamboo and had a giraffe wearing sunglasses on it… clearly, I had to have it. I proudly wore it to the beach, hanging around on my days off, and whenever and wherever I could. I told everyone who complimented me on it all about how bamboo is sustainable due to it being easy and fast-growing, and how it’s self-regenerating and doesn’t require fertilizer (pretty much regurgitating what the sales lady had explained to me). Looking back, I laugh at how I admittedly patted myself on the back so much about being such a great “global citizen” by wearing one stupid tank top. Soon, though, the giraffe design faded to the point that you could barely see it, and the material started to pill. I was crushed that this piece I loved (that wasn’t cheap, by the way), was already becoming somewhat unwearable. I downgraded it to a gym/pajama top and told myself not to buy any more bamboo clothing.
For those like me who want to do right by the planet, buying sustainable clothing can be a good first step. You hear the right buzzwords, see a tree, water droplet or other “earthy” icon on the tag, and you feel like you’re doing something good. However, sometimes buying those “good deed” garments don’t live up to the hype. Either the clothing falls apart (like my tank top), the garments are difficult to care for (many are hand wash or dry clean only), or sometimes they just don’t end up making the cut in your wardrobe.
There’s a sustainable fashion brand I love (that shall remain nameless) that I’ve purchased quite a few items from over the past few years. When people ask me for recommendations of sustainable brands, I always mention them and talk about how they are really “walking the walk” in sustainable practices. However, when going through my closet recently I realized that I hardly wear some of the items I’ve purchased from them. There are two pieces that I absolutely live in, but most of the others either sit in my closet or in a basket of dirty clothes that I need to take to the dry cleaners. I’ve even sold a few on Poshmark. This was a rude awakening for me because these garments are priced a bit higher than I’m used to spending. However, I saved up for them and told myself they are investment pieces as they are high quality, classic looks that won’t go out of style, are sustainably and locally made, and would likely be staple pieces in my wardrobe for years to come. So, if they’re so great, why am I not wearing them? The truth is these pieces just aren’t “me”. They don’t suit my daily aesthetic, and don’t fit into my lifestyle. I don’t have time to hand wash clothes, rarely make it to the dry cleaners, and since I work from home most of the week, I don’t need many dressy pieces.
I’ve come to realize that buying sustainably made clothing is not the right avenue for me. The technology is still very new, and very flawed. Many sustainable fabrics (like the bamboo viscose my tank top was made of), although made from environmentally friendly and easily renewable materials, still require a lot of water, chemicals and energy to be turned into cloth. Clothing brands are still shipping raw material, yarns and fabrics all over the world to be spun, dyed and cut, which uses lots of fossil fuels and racks up a large carbon footprint.
The new trend in sustainable materials is making fabric out of recycled plastic bottles. While it’s a noble idea to find a way to reincorporate this plastic into circulation, it’s still a rigorous process to turn it into fabric. You could also say that in some ways it gives those with wasteful habits a pass. Go ahead and keep using those disposable water bottles. We’ll fix the problem for you. As my former professor Raz Godelnik once said “You cannot recycle your way into a more sustainable future.”
It’s also difficult to gain access to enough bottles to continuously produce your line. I met a designer once who previously had a line of bags made from recycled plastic bottles. She said she had a lot of traction at first, but then the more business picked up the harder it was for her to get enough donated bottles in. She ended up having to purchase bottles to make sure she’d have enough to create the fabric she needed for her line. Not only were her efforts to help the planet being compromised, but she was now losing money, so she closed the business.
Another issue with sustainable brands is much of the clothing is designed for a specific aesthetic. As Dominique Drakeford, founder of Melanin and Sustainable Style, states in an article “sustainable fashion is dominated by privileged white women.” I found this to be a sad truth in my personal experience and would also add the word “thin” to that description. If you look at many sustainable fashion brands, they are definitely catered toward a specific type of woman. Since many, if not most, of us don’t fit inside this small box the sustainable fashion market is targeting, it’s hard for us to justify paying not so budget-friendly prices for it. To be fair, a lot of the higher pricing is because these brands are actually paying their workers a fair, living wage while also using higher quality, natural materials rather than toxic plastics. However, these prices are still outside of most of our comfort zones, especially for somewhat basic or blah designs.
So when I heard about the drop in sales in sustainable fashion, I wasn’t at all surprised. The industry, despite its noble efforts to do right by the planet, is not meeting us where we are right now. It’s forcing us into a box we don’t want (and can’t afford) to be in. Leaders of the sustainable fashion industry need to look beyond manufacturing to find a new solution to fashion’s damaging affects to the planet.
The numbers stating sustainable fashion’s downfall only consider one small segment of the industry: manufacturing. Nowhere in Global Fashion Agenda’s report does it mention the tremendous growth in secondhand sales, clothing swaps, mending and upcycling, or clothing rentals in recent years. Companies like Poshmark, The Real Real, Swap Society and Rent the Runway are changing right under the sustainable fashion industry’s nose. ThredUP, an online secondhand clothing company stated in its annual fashion resale report that resale has grown 21 times faster than apparel retail over the past 3 years. Rent the Runway has climbed its way up to over 9 million members and over $100 million in revenue. Clothing swap events are popping up in communities everywhere, and more retailers like Patagonia, Lululemon and Uniqlo are offering alterations services (some even for free!).
While the sustainable fashion industry hangs its head in shame for not getting enough clothing brands to become more transparent and make their clothing in less harmful ways, I choose to celebrate the successes I’m seeing every day. Francois-Henri Pinault, the chairman and CEO of Kering, said at the conference “We cannot wait for consumers to drive change”. The thing is, they already are. The industry just needs to start paying attention.