Apr 27th, 2022, 06:45 PM

Opinion: Sustainable Fashion as We Know It Is Suffering

By Sarah Bailey
It seems the word “sustainable” is attached to so much in fashion that it can be hard to pinpoint exactly what it means. Here’s what you can actually do to have a sustainable wardrobe.

Among the buzzwords constantly traded between blogs, brands, at government summits, and in classrooms, it’s not uncommon to see or hear the word “sustainability” attached to any conversation that demands we should all be concerned about the environmental impact of the fashion industry.

The general acceptance of the fact that fashion is among the largest polluting industries inextricably tied to the worsening of the climate crisis has led to an influx of research, journalism, policies, accords, and entire clothing lines dedicated to addressing the multitude of problems that have been birthed from its chaos. With the fashion industry still churning out 80 billion garments a year despite this, the conversation surrounding sustainable fashion is so convoluted that it appears for many to be in shambles. Entire generations have thus been left with a climate change anxiety that has them feeling somewhere between extremely worried and utterly hopeless.

The climate crisis and sustainability debate has disproportionately affected Gen-Z and Millennials, which has been reflected by their consumption habits. On one hand, younger generations have been lauded for their activism and sustainability efforts by publications such as Forbes, CNBC, and the Pew Research Center in the last year alone. Overall, they demand that governments, retailers, and individuals adopt sustainable models in their business and production practices. On the other hand, the seemingly unstoppable flood of cheap and accessible fast fashion into the market over the last two decades has somehow enticed those same generations into buying trendy, inexpensive garments that are poorly and unethically made in sweatshops and subcontracted factories — not designed to last more than a single trend cycle thanks to a tactic called planned obsolescence. If not drawn in by the sheer power of fast-fashion marketing and its influencer army, well-meaning consumers are often driven away by the high cost of ethically produced clothing in comparison to competitive fast-fashion prices. Buyers of luxury can’t escape the guilt either. With brands like Burberry under fire for having been discovered burning excess stock to keep prices low and exclusivity high, it’s hard to imagine that a fully ethical and sustainable wardrobe exists anywhere in the world and what it might look like.

So, the fashion industry is a hot mess. What is there to do about it?

Even the most conscious consumers — those who shop exclusively secondhand, who buy sustainably and ethically produced clothing, who rent instead of own — are haunted by the fact that 85% of textiles in the US end up in landfills every year. With figures like these, how can we stick a label of “sustainability” on anything being actively produced in the fashion industry, or come to a consensus of what sustainable fashion really looks like when the very nature of the industry survives on promoting consumption?

The answer is not revolutionary. It doesn’t rely on the newest technology or require you to go out and buy from a sustainable brand. The answer: to wear the clothes you already have.

The reality is most people have a very mixed wardrobe. Each piece with a different origin, material, age, and history. The one thing that the clothes in people’s closets have in common across the world, however, is that they are already owned and belong to someone. Whether they are worn every other day or are stuffed into the forgotten corners of wardrobes, attics, and drawers, those clothes represent the single largest example of a sustainable wardrobe that this article initially claimed doesn't exist. Your closet, as it exists right now, is the most sustainable one there is.

The real crisis is that so many of us are in the dark about the origin and history of our clothes. Thus, we become disconnected and desensitized to the process of how those clothes ended up in our closets. When we get dressed in the morning, we rarely stop to think about all the lives involved in making a garment. The hands of a seamstress in a sweatshop on the other side of the world, the hands of an artisan in an atelier in Italy, or the hands that whisked past your garment on the department store rack before you bought it and took it home. Projects like Fashion Revolution and Remake Our World have already taken the necessary strides to encourage people to consciously consider the origin of their clothing in their fashion consumption habits, but so often the consumer is placed as the center of fault when production companies should be the ones ensuring their clothes are produced sustainably and ethically. That is, in safe working conditions, with fair and living wages, and with as little impact on the environment as possible.

The key it seems is to develop an appreciation for the clothes you already own and to know what’s in your closet before going out and buying something new. A sustainable wardrobe is one where every piece purchased has thought and specific use behind it, that can be worn and re-worn, that is made and purchased with circularity in mind. It’s one where the origin, age, material, and history of your clothes all come together to tell the story of who you are— your identity and your values. As the author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion Elizabeth L. Cline reminds us: "Clothes could have more meaning and longevity if we think less about owning the latest or cheapest thing and develop more of a relationship with the things we wear."

It’s as hard to imagine a true model of sustainable fashion as it is to imagine a day where Zara, Shein, or Amazon don’t make a sale — yet there are many people who haven’t made a purchase at these places in years, or ever for that matter. This complexity reminds us of the power and agency that we hold as individuals and as consumers. Even within a climate change discourse that constantly shifts the blame to consumers, it’s important to recognize the small actions that each of us can take to try to ameliorate the fashion industry’s environmental and human rights faults. Should you wish to do your part, when you’re at home today take a moment to reflect on the clothes in your closet and think of the story they tell. It’s the perfect place to start.