In many ways the words sustainable and fashion don’t really sit together well. I have heard sustainable fashion described as both oxymoronic and a contradiction and perhaps this is true. Is it really possible for the fashion industry to become sustainable?
Part of the problem with the term sustainable fashion is that ‘fashion’ is often used to describe constantly changing trends and even associated with ‘fast fashion’, the term used to describe the low cost or affordable clothing that is quickly made to respond to the latest trend often being worn only once or twice before being discarded. The ethical and environmental implications of this type of clothing are well recognised with valuable resources being wasted and workers in the supply chain being mistreated to ensure low cost clothing that is quickly produced. Despite the many negative connotations that the word fashion may have, if you take it as more of a general word used to describe clothing, then it is almost possible to have sustainable fashion, although perhaps not completely because the manufacture of any clothing will have some impact on the environment even if relatively small.
With confusion even over the name of the product, it is not really surprising that most shoppers can’t be bothered with sustainable fashion and instead prefer just stick with the fashion brands that they know despite knowing that they often operate in unsustainable and unethical ways. But the contradiction over the name ‘sustainable fashion’ is only the beginning. There are so many other contradictions and plenty of confusion associated with it.
Take for example vegan fashion. Being vegan is generally considered to an ethical and sustainable way of living, not only reducing the suffering caused to animals in the farming system but reducing the carbon footprint and pollution caused by farming. It may therefore come as a shock to some that vegan fashion is not necessarily the most ethical and sustainable option. Vegan shoes may be made without the use of any animal products but that does not mean that they have been made in ethical factories or using sustainable materials in fact the synthetic materials used instead of leather are often damaging to the environment in their own way. If you want to be absolutely sure that your vegan shoes or handbags are completely ethical and sustainable, you will need to search for a brand that pays attention to all of these issues.
Next on the list of contradiction and confusion surrounding sustainable fashion is the concept of ethical fashion. Many ethical fashion brands support various good causes around the world and empower people to create a sustainable livelihood. However in order to support these great causes, it does involve buying clothes, perhaps clothes that we don’t really need or possibly are not made from sustainable fabrics. The more we buy, the more we help these great causes but also the more we consume. Collections labelled as sustainable may be made from eco-friendly fabrics but this is no guarantee that they have been manufactured in an ethical way. In this situation we are left with the difficult task of deciding what is most important in terms of sustainability economic and social or environmental. Ethical fashion is often made in countries far away; this is another contrast to the locally made fashion which is often considered to be more sustainable because of the environmental impact of its transportation. Second hand and vintage clothing again offer a dilemma, whilst they are probably the most sustainable option, they do little to alleviate poverty around the world, although in this case shopping in charity shops could be the answer to reducing both environmental impact and supporting a worthwhile cause.
The subject of sustainable fashion is a complex one and the confusion surrounding it is sometimes used by brands to green wash consumers by using the terms ‘eco’ and ‘sustainable’ to describe clothing or collections that may help in one way but not another. In order to combat scepticism and distrust of sustainable fashion, there needs to be a clear and easy to understand way of labelling and describing products. The word sustainable fashion is general enough to mean just about anything when used by clever marketers causing confusion amongst consumers. The term sustainable also just doesn’t really excite those looking to buy fashion.
There are however plenty of innovative fashion brands out there that are pioneering new ways of working in terms of ethics and sustainability; There just needs to be a way of communicating this to customers in a simple and easy to understand way.