Seems is the operative word here. Because while fashion can be beautiful, challenging, expressive and fascinating, it’s not always what it seems. Get ready, kids! It’s another long, dense post!
Many fashion industry insiders still bring up the stereotypes of tie dye and granola when they mention sustainable or ‘green’ fashion. But ‘sustainable’ is another nebulous term that can get pinned to brands trying to market themselves as eco-friendly.
What does sustainable really mean, for a fashion brand? In an industry that’s often cited as being the third most polluting one on the planet, behind oil & gas and agricultural (sometimes cited as the second most polluting), it’s not an unimportant question.
Ideally, fashion would be produced locally, using sustainable fabrics such as bamboo, grown without pesticides (since bamboo doesn’t need them). But does that mean every brand that markets itself as sustainable working through this model? Likely not.
Many times, brands will tout themselves as sustainable without providing a clue as to what they mean by that. Is there supply chain sustainable? Do they use sustainable fabrics? Just like ‘natural beauty’, as mentioned in last week’s post, ‘sustainable fashion’ is a problematic term that seems to be adopted when markets demand it.
This one may seems self-explanatory, but its implications are not. Just like vegan beauty and vegan diets, vegan fashion is produced without any animals products. More often than not, this is done out an ethical concern for sentient life.
However, the upshot is that environmental impacts of producing garments are lessened as well, since raising animals for food or fashion is much more resource heavy than any alternative could be.
I used to be torn on vegan fashions. Specifically, I used to get annoyed whenever the press referred to Stella McCartney as an ‘eco-friendly’ designer. And this was due to the enduring fact that vegan alternatives to leathers and furs are made from plastics, which in turn are produced from petroleum. And guess which industry is the most polluting industry on earth?
So it seemed to me that ‘saving’ animals by polluting the planet is like borrowing from Peter to pay Paul. But it seems to me that plastics are the best alternatives that currently exist. Some brands, such as Matt & Nat, produce vegan handbags from PU rather than PVC, and in doing so choose the less polluting of the two options.
There are a range of bamboo plastic products on the market today, and since plastics are made largely of carbons, there’s no reason why this should be possible, and a less impactful option for designers and brands. However, in my research I’ve not yet been able to figure out the processes that go into plasticizing bamboo. Is oil still required? Do its processes cause just as much pollution as PU?
It’s early days yet, and while there’s plastic alternative bamboo tableware on the market, I’ve yet to see a faux fur or vegan leather available that was engineered from bamboo. The solution will require a significant amount of engineering, green chemists, interest and funding. But I’m hopeful that in time and with public pressure, we’ll be able to access beautiful, stylish clothing that’s not a drain on the planet.
Just like with organic beauty and organic food, the organic fashion industry suffers from a lack of transparency and a lack of legality. A cotton farm could be certified as organic even if the soils they use are choke full of pesticides from past uses. Many times, the difference between a product that is certified organic and one that is not comes down to money. In fact, many small organic companies will not be certified since they cannot afford it. The irony is that these smaller supplies may be operating closer to the spirit of pesticide and chemical free farming than many larger, certified farms are.
The demand for organic clothing, has also created another strange occurrence in the market. This is obvious when H&M comes out with their ‘Conscious Collection’ once each year. During that marketing push, the company touts itself as the biggest buyer of organic cotton in the world. But that defeats the premise of what sustainable fashion is all about, doesn’t it? For the fashion industry to become less harmful and more sustainable, what we need is not more consumption, but less. As Livia Firth put it, they can do better.
Inclusion & Expression
More widely, fashion has a problem with inclusiveness. Whether it’s age, size, ethnicity, or how we choose to express ourselves with the styles we wear, fashion likes to hold itself apart from almost everyone.
And I get that this has to do with wrong-headed ideas about ‘aspirational’ marketing imagery and creating the perception that fashion, especially high fashion, is something exclusive, esoteric, and therefore sought after.
But couldn’t that be achieved through creating small batch or bespoke clothing? After all, creating locally with environmentally neutral fabrics and non-abusive supply chains does create waiting lists for quality products (here I’m thinking of Everlane’s basic tee or Reformation’s already iconic Avalon bodysuit, both of which generated huge waiting lists).
Why is it that the most well known labels have to exclude everyone in their marketing materials (or worse yet, outright appropriate cultural symbols and imagery), and then produce crap clothes for pennies, and then inflate the price because we’re all meant to buy into a ‘lifestyle’?
Related, although there’s been some progress with the fashion industry realizing that women come in many different sizes, there are still so many problems here. This manifests itself in the hiring and abuses of high fashion models. Sure, some of them may be paid exorbitant amounts for shows, but at what cost? It seems that garment producers are not the only fashion workers who are taken advantage of.
These are often teenagers who have yet learned to speak up for their workers’ rights, and it’s important to keep that in mind when we consume fashion images. It’s also important to keep in mind that as they grow, agencies pressure their models to lose weight to retain their adolescent figures. If these girls weren’t models, they would be eating normally and would achieve a normal adult weight. So what we see on runways and in magazines really is an impossible standard, even for the models themselves.
I used to get annoyed at models for all the attention they get, considering just how unrepresentative they are of all women. But these young girls did not scout themselves. The reason why they look the way they do is because of the fashion powers that be, and need legislative protection from abuse, and not my annoyance.
It seems from this post as though the fashion industry, even more than the beauty industry, has a laundry list of ethical problems. And the last has to do with resale. Resale fashion is the bright spot in an otherwise dire situation. Not only can it reduce waste, labour abuses, and the environmental cost of fashion by buying resale, but it can also mean that you spend less on fashion than you otherwise would.
And for me, it’s a great way to express my style while bucking trends and being truly fashion forward. I know that seems counter-intuitive, but the easiest way to avoid becoming a fashion victim is to disregard what everyone else is doing and wear what feels best for you.
And while consignment and vintage are amazing options, thrift shops are among the most affordable and adventurous ways to shop resale. Designer and vintage finds for rock bottom prices are not unheard of, and some of my most cherished pieces are thrifted.
But thrifting has an ugly side. Tons of unwanted garments and textiles that won’t even move in thrift shops find their way to emerging nations, along with all the dust, grime, and diseases from the so-called developed world. This speaks to a wider problem of over consumption of poor quality textiles, and is at the heart of almost every single ethical issue I’ve covered in this post.
Shop resale, by all means! But just like with new garments, we should do so with caution. Mending clothes, swapping with friends, and upcycling can all be opinions to pursue before you take your cast-offs to the thrift shop (or the trash). Again, part of this solution has to do with each of us and our behavior, but it also has to do with the rampant pace of the fashion industry as well as the environmentally harmful, abusive and low quality clothes that it pumps out. And as long as these abuses are legally allowed around the world, they will continue to occur.
That was a long one! What did I miss? What are your most pressuring ethical concerns when it comes to fashion? Let me know in the comments below!