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Why Sustainable Fashion Will Never Be Sustainable

Sustainable fashion, dedicated to championing a greener future of fashion, will never go far enough within a capitalist-based society.


Clothes shopping, once an infrequent event, has now become an addictive, carless habit too many of us cannot quit. The fast fashion industry, grown off the back of our current capitalist economic system, driven by overproduction and mass consumerism, is largely to blame. Foregoing environmental responsibility and compromising the wellbeing of workers to keep product prices low, are common yet justified criticisms of the fast fashion industry. From contaminating once reliable water sources with toxic effluents: poisoning local people and obliterating aquatic ecosystems, to trapping 170 million children in child labour, the fast fashion industry has become one of the most concerning worldwide. For behind every £3 T-shirt, lies a deep moral cost.

Since the Rana Plaza Collapse of 2013, when a garment factory building in Dhaka, Bangladesh killed over 1,134 people owing to deficient construction standards, the social reality of offshoring cheap labour has increasingly come into the public sphere. Greater awareness surrounding the atrocities of the fast fashion industry has awakened a new wave of eco-conscious consumers, with people beginning to question the ethical footprint of their purchases. Combined with the rise in vegan lifestyles and climate activism, fashion labels have begun promoting sustainability as a key facet within their business. Partly due to how this improves public brand image and thus profitability, and partly because it is their moral duty to do so, giving rise to ‘sustainable fashion’.


To define sustainable fashion, one must recognise that sustainability does not exist through binaries- what is ‘sustainable’ or ‘unsustainable’. But rather, embodies a spectrum that has been applied differentially across the fashion industry. Sustainability at its core, means meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Having worked extensively in the sustainable fashion sector, I believe this has been applied in three main way. Firstly, through embodying slow means of production, with products being locally or handmade, to cut carbon miles. Secondly, by taking the life cycle of the product into account, such as through sourcing non-toxic, biodegradable or organic materials. Thirdly, through promoting second-hand purchases, such as from rental platforms or charity shops, which give unowned clothes a second lease of life, to minimise textile waste.


However, in line with the ‘green gold rush’, brands have begun to market themselves as sustainable, when in reality they are not. They may be falsifying statistics, exaggerating existing claims, plastering their products with false certification or utilising vague terminology such as ‘green’ or ‘all-natural’ to give the appearance of a sustainable brand. This phenomenon, dubbed ‘greenwashing’ means customers attempting to buy sustainably, actually perpetuate the harsh social and environmental consequences they seek to avoid.


But how to spot the fakes? When truly buying sustainably it is important to ask yourself key questions. Who made my clothes? Where were they made? What from? What will happen to them after use? If the answers do not compromise the wellbeing of the planet or its people in any meaningful way, the product is evidently more sustainable than not.


However, acting sustainably is not evenly weighted. Consider how a locally sourced item may be made from polyester, a versatile yet synthetic, plastic fabric which breaks down into microplastics once discarded. Or how an item made from natural materials, may have been produced by a low-paid, sweat-shop worker.


Even in the scenario, where an item seems genuinely sustainable, the Jevons Paradox, suggests as efficiency increases, as fashion becomes more sustainable and eventually cheaper, we end up consuming more. This indirect rebound suggests money saved by ‘going green’ in one area, is spent elsewhere through carbon intensive activities, such as going on holiday, refuting any environmental gain made. This may be unintended, considering how money saved in banks, untouched by us, is used to finance fossil fuel companies.


Therefore, nothing we wear is wholly sustainable: every stitch leaves a trace. The most sustainable choice would arguably be to roam naked. Nevertheless, this is not what I would suggest. We need societal change.


Our current capitalist economic system must be debased. This is by no means a call for communism, but rather, an anti-capitalist or post-capitalist system identified by degrowth scholars which moves societies’ focus away from economic growth and GDP to prioritise the health of the planet above all.


With capitalism, buying sustainably is entrenched within endless cycles of production and consumption which is inevitably inconsistent with the ecological bounds of our planet. Using resources and nutrients in a way that undermines its future ability to continue, for the sake of short-term economic gain. One only needs to take one look at climate change and biodiversity loss to see how devasted our natural systems have become, foreshadowing how economic growth will inevitably meet an environmental end.


To be truly sustainable we must suspend our consumption habits. Degrowth aims to address this, recognising that ‘growth is a cause and consequence of ecological and relational degradation’, it entails a societal shift which downscales production and consumption. It re-centres society’s focus from economic gain to more holistic measures of progress concerning human well-being and happiness, making room for cooperation among people and with ecosystems. For fashion, this implies severely downsizing the industry, embodying slow means of production, with materials locally sourced and each item being well used before being tossed away. Corresponding to a cultural change regarding how we view consumption: from materialism towards a sufficiency economy focus on spiritual, relational and collective needs.


A counterargument may state it is too radical to ever enter our reality, as people would not be willing to sacrifice their lifestyle choices. Nevertheless, with less than 12 years left to prevent the worst effects of climate change, fastening them to ‘survivable levels’, and with Greenland’s ice sheet tipping point already reached, transformative change is necessary, now more so than ever before.


Overall, sustainable fashion will never be sustainable without drastically reorganising the economic system upon which it is based. This is not to say sustainable fashion should be rejected outright. Sustainable fashion undoubtedly helps remedy some of the social and environmental ills caused by the fast fashion industry. However, it does not go far enough, introducing the paradox of sustainable fashion. Heralding it as a saviour to all of the fashion industry’s ills would thus be naïve.


Written by Stephanie Frank


Stephanie Frank is a columnist at DecipherGrey.