SUSTAINABLE FASHION VS. SUSTAINABLE CHOICES
What is sustainable fashion?
Sustainable fashion is defined by Green Dreamer as “…clothing that is designed, manufactured, distributed, and used in ways that are environmentally friendly.” In other words, “sustainable fashion” refers to how clothing is made.
Ethical fashion, its common companion, generally refers to who is making the clothing: their working conditions, wages, and rights—both as laborers and as human beings.
Both terms are useful when referring to parts of the fashion industry that fall under one or both categories, but, unfortunately, due to a great number of factors starting but not ending with capitalism, the vast majority of clothing you buy will be neither.
To be frank, producing clothing both more sustainably and more ethically costs money. A lot more than what we’re used to, especially now, in the Great Age of Fast Fashion. Even a simple T-shirt produced sweatshop-free in a lower-cost country like China or Bangladesh (yes, ethical labor does exist in “third world” countries, just like unethical labor exists in “first world” ones), will run about 2-3 times as much as your average cheap T-shirt from Forever 21 or the dreaded Shein. With obscenely low wages commonplace across the globe, most people are just not paid well enough to build a wardrobe full of certified ethical and sustainable brands and individual garments. Sure, you could buy everything secondhand, but, in the case of larger thrift stores like Goodwill and Salvation Army, their own labor violations and sheer volume of textile waste regarding donations that never make it to the sales floor don’t actually reflect sustainable/ethical practices on their part, either.
There are plenty of ways to improve the fashion industry, several of which I’ve written about myself, however, all of them take time. So, while we work towards a better industry and future for both our planet and our closets, it’s up to us to also make changes on a micro level.
Does sustainable fashion really exist?
Regardless of our best intentions, the vast majority of us will never purchase a single stitch of new, non-secondhand clothing from a “sustainable” source. And that’s not our fault. Unless you’re able to purchase exclusively small-batch or even made-to-order garments that are fair trade certified and produced sweatshop-free, it’s just not realistic. The reason for this is twofold. Those small-run, handmade brands absolutely exist, and in abundance, but, not only are they expensive, they are extremely limited in terms of where they can actually go. Sure, plenty of designers would love to stay small, but many others would love to become big names, and truly, the second demand grows exponentially, and a brand, in turn, ramps up production to keep up—perhaps even wholesaling to boutiques or outsourcing overseas—it becomes unsustainable, whether due to excess waste from increase production or unsold goods, or even from the environmental impact associated with having to transport merchandise across an ocean.
I say “despite our best intentions” because of the second reason: greenwashing.
If you’re a Zara or H&M shopper—or just aware of the two behemoth brands—you’ve probably heard of their “sustainable” lines. They make some decent promises: “eco-friendly” materials like recycled polyester and organic cotton; fewer single-use plastics; published intentions to become 100% zero waste by 2024; etc. But the feasibility and effectiveness of those promises go out the window when you’re producing over 840 million garments a year like Zara, but only selling roughly 450 million of them and incinerating the rest. This is greenwashing, and it’s not just fast fashion brands that are guilty of it.
Sustainability is a hot topic in fashion right now, and the prospect of “doing good” while still participating in our hyper-consumerist society is too good from a marketing standpoint, and far too easy to fake for a general population that doesn’t fully understand what sustainability actually is. This is why you have brands promoting “100% organic cotton” garments that ship in individual plastic bags, or “energy-efficient” stores that are literally just subject to and following local laws regarding lightbulbs and insulation. It’s why a brand like House of Sunny can gain notoriety producing “small sustainable collections” full of synthetic fabrics and hyper-trendy styles that will still look dated by the time the next collection drops, encouraging you to buy an entire new wardrobe just to repeat the cycle in a few months.
Fashion is, first and foremost, a business, and businesses exist to make money. Without actual government intervention, few businesses have incentive to actually do better, especially when they’re making money hand over fist only pretending to.
What are unethical choices?
We all make unethical choices everyday: some of which are out of our control and born from trying to survive in an oppressive society. Some, though, can be avoided, and that’s where personal responsibility and “doing the work” comes in. Most fashion, especially cheap and/or fast fashion is unethical, but affordable clothes are necessary in a world where the majority of us barely make enough to live comfortably. That said, if you can afford and access better, and you actively choose not to explore better options, that is, simply put, the wrong choice. We’ve all seen those $200, $500, even $1000 Shein hauls that come in giant boxes filled with individually plastic wrapped polyester garments, most of which will barely survive the first wear, let alone the first or multiple washes: there is a vast difference between that and the person who needs a functional wardrobe but can’t afford much more than $10 for a piece. Oftentimes, the issue of price is a valid one, but for others—and make no mistake, the “others” are by far the biggest consumers of fast fashion and therefore the most accountable for driving demand—“I can’t afford non-fast fashion brands!” is code for “I can’t afford to overconsume non-fast fashion brands.”
But overconsumption isn’t just hauls, it’s a general attitude. Buying a new outfit for every event or outing, regardless of the price, is a form of overconsumption; buying multiple sizes to try on and return the ones that don’t fit (especially considering how many brands simply toss or even shred/burn returns) instead of learning your measurements and using them to get a better idea of sizing is overconsumption; refusing to be seen twice in the same outfit or garment is overconsumption; having things in your closet that you haven’t worn and don’t plan to in the coming months is overconsumption.
Beyond simply buying too much, there is the issue of what we’re buying and where. Knowingly buying knock offs is unethical. Full stop. It doesn’t matter if the designer is a huge name or an indie one. Counterfeits aren’t just limited to the fashion industry: there are thousands of deaths a year from fake medical supplies, tests and medications, and that fake YSL or Chanel is a huge part of what’s funding their larger enterprise.
Capitalism is a great beast with many, many heads, each of which grows back immediately when you attempt to cut it off. Like that monster thing. But, we as consumers are not without responsibilities: after all, we drive the demand. If businesses didn’t make money off their bad actions—including the ones we are aware of--they simply wouldn’t do them. And as the vast majority of us walk around with the entire internet in our pockets (or purses, as the case may be with the lack of pockets on most women’s clothing these days), there’s virtually no excuse for not, at the very least, being informed of what choices are available and what path we can personally take to cause the least harm, even if it’s just a drop in the bucket compared to all the harm corporations cause everyday.
Your Sustainable Wardrobe
Okay, so you know what sustainable fashion is, you know what unethical choices are, and you’re beginning to understand how bleak life under capitalism is and how it’s almost impossible to escape benefitting from the harm that major corporations do. But you still want your own closet to be useful, beautiful and, at the very least, not actively detrimental to the earth or the people on it. But you’re also—like many of us—broke af and can’t afford to get every garment you own handmade from organic deadstock materials by a well-paid artisan located in your city. Well, I’m here to tell you that there are some easy, almost-free choices you can make that will get you to your goal. But first, a reminder:
The fast fashion industry will never be sustainable. However, you can build a sustainable wardrobe with fast fashion pieces.
Now, I’ve written about how to break the fast fashion mindset and shop with more intention, as well as where to look when you’re ready to stop shopping fast fashion altogether—
—but, even more important than just buying things you’ll want to wear for a long time, is maintaining those good things so that they will last for a long time. That includes learning how to make minor fixes like darning and patching holes and reinforcing seams (or finding a tailor/friend that can); it means skipping the super trendy things that will become “cheugy” (whatever that means) in a few months and going for looks that can transcend time—and no, I don’t mean just basic silhouettes in neutral colors; it’s learning your style and needs and picking pieces that can be worn in multiple ways and settings, and learning to wash them properly so they’ll hold up (when in doubt: wash on cold, put it in a delicates bag, and/or lay flat to dry). Above all, it’s not shopping for the sake of shopping, not buying huge hauls and not looking at clothes as disposable. I’ve admitted to still shopping fast fashion before, and it’s taken time to learn how to look for quality in the vast seas of quick-stitched polyester, but, I have clothes from H&M, Akira, Zara, NastyGal, even one dress from Missguided that have all held up for several wears and washes. A little fast fashion mixed in with higher end pieces (Farfetch and SSense sales are my best friend), vintage/secondhand (love Etsy for vintage), and handmade here and there is the best way to not only cultivate your own personal style but also inject a little flare and excitement into getting dressed in the morning.
Only you know your limits, whether that be fashionably or financially, so please don’t ever think I’m telling you where to shop, what to buy, or what you can afford. That said, at the end of the day, the most sustainable thing you can do is wear what you already own. Take frequent inventory of your closet and put together outfits in new ways so you’re not racking your brain for ideas every time you get dressed. Of course, most of us have a few gaps that need to be filled here and there but, when filling those gaps, look for permanent solutions, not just fly-by-night microtrends that TikTok made you buy. And, who knows, maybe a few skipped hauls will result in a couple extra bucks to invest in that handmade deadstock organic cotton dress of your dreams.