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The myth of sustainable fashion

Why you are not killing turtles by shopping at Zara

By Martyna Hanak

Image courtesy of Aeronaut Matthew Jackson via Flickr

Do you ever feel crushing guilt after buying a £6 top in Primark? Sure, it's cute and cheap, but you just can't shake off the thought that it was produced by underpaid workers in South East Asia, and that you are killing the planet by fuelling money into the highly polluting production processes.

Labour concerns aside, the fashion industry is said to be responsible for a whopping 10% of carbon emissions (and this number will only rise). It is estimated to use 1.5 trillion litres of water per year. Polyester doesn't entirely biodegrade, contributing to nearly a third of plastic pollution in the oceans—in short, killing turtles.

In search of an alternative, the movement of “slow” (or “sustainable”) fashion emerged. Its goal is to create long-lasting, recyclable clothes through fair labour practices while limiting energy emissions, water usage and waste production.

Climate-conscious consumers eagerly turned to brands committed to sustainability goals. A landmark example is Patagonia, beloved by surfers and outdoors enthusiasts. Apart from using organic cotton and primarily recyclable materials, it has pledged 1% of its sales to environmental organisations and launched the Worn Wear programme, which offers repair or resale of used items.

Despite these noble efforts, even Patagonia didn't manage to avoid a scandal when, in 2011, claims of forced labour and human trafficking in its supply chain resurfaced. This begs the question: how ethical really is slow fashion?

A few years ago, H&M, the fast-fashion mogul and one of the sector's greatest offenders, launched its “Conscious Collection”. On the website advertising the concept, the word “sustainable” and derivatives thereof (a magnet for the increasingly “green” clientele) appear 8 times. I counted. Not much more, however, is explained. Mentions of greenhouse gas emissions or water pollution are nowhere to be found. In 2019, the Norwegian Consumer Authority called the brand out for greenwashing, signalling that the information provided was insufficient and “consumers should know if a garment is based on 5 per cent recycled material or 60 per cent”.

Uniqlo has recently “partnered” with a famous cartoon cat, Doraemon, to “contribute to a better, sustainable world”. It remains unclear how exactly a fictional feline could single-handedly curb carbon emissions. All the while the company remains adamant on keeping its supply chain details a secret—zero transparency and witty advertising, in line with tactics employed by big brands around the world.

Is there an end to this smoke and mirrors display? We could hope for increased corporate social responsibility, and a slightly positive trend could indeed be observed, thanks to monitoring initiatives like the Fashion Revolution's Transparency Index or KnowTheChain. At the end of the day, however, it is legislation that could really hold the big players accountable. The EU is currently working on updating its textile strategy, which would require more detailed labelling and Extended Producer Responsibility—a framework whereby fashion firms are responsible for recycling their products once they are no longer of use.

Further, as suggested by Amy Nguyen, one of the most influential sustainable fashion advocates, concrete science-based targets imposed on companies would help avoid any more cartoon-cat gimmicks.

If the onus of responsibility is on producers and politicians, have we, consumers, been collectively guilt-tripped into believing it is our duty to fix the broken system by staying away from Zara and only buying £300 sneakers? The short answer is yes. Of course, following the law of supply and demand, the more fast fashion we buy, the more will be produced, and, in consequence, more plastic will end up in the ocean. And yes, we should ask ourselves twice: “do I really need to buy the eighth pair of blue jeans?”. But slow fashion has one colossal defect. It is ridiculously expensive.

Again, as per common rules of the economy, it costs more to produce sustainably, hence the outrageous price tags. The brands argue that we still benefit by buying one expensive jacket that will last for years instead of a handful of bad quality ones we will have to replace every few months. A valid point, but not every starving student has £500 in hand at any given moment, even for a one-off purchase.

What could we really do then if we cannot quite save up for a pair of Veja shoes? The sharing economy might provide an answer. With the rise in popularity of apps like Vinted, Instagram sellers or Facebook Marketplace, we can improve our wardrobe at a relatively low price, while maintaining the closed loop—a virtue of the “anti-growth” strategy for fashion.

Ethical fashion can offer some viable solutions and, if our wallets allow, we should definitely consider switching our loyalties, provided we conduct proper research into the brand to avoid greenwashing. However, we are only small cogs in the market machine and we can’t let the corporations put the blame on us, even if they have “vegan” in their name.


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