The conventional definition or understanding of sustainability tends to focus on eco-friendliness, particularly on pollution and climate change. A person or population’s impact on the environment is measured and referred to as a carbon footprint, which is the total amount of greenhouse gases — including carbon dioxide and methane — that are generated by all our actions.
The average carbon footprint for a person in the United States is 16 tons per year, one of the highest rates in the world. There are many ways to reduce your carbon footprint, like by eating less meat or using public transport.
But you also reduce your carbon footprint by shopping sustainably, purchasing less clothing, and sending your unwanted clothing or textiles to other places besides a landfill.
Treating people with dignity and respectThe environmental aspects of sustainability are critical, but there is another important aspect of sustainability: ethical practices.
Fashion is sustainable if the clothes and accessories are made in an eco-friendly, ethical, and socially responsible way. The socially responsible aspect of sustainability in fashion means that clothes and shoes are made in a way that is fair to workers and the farmers who grow the crops for fabric, such as cotton. Workers should work in safe environments and receive adequate wages.
The ethical aspect of sustainability in fashion means that there is a fair and transparent supply chain, with fashion brands directing their business to factories that are audited and accredited for fair labor practices or sourcing fabric from fair-trade farms.
The problem with today’s fashion industryThe fashion industry has an overproduction problem, and this overproduction is part of what makes the fashion industry the least sustainable, one of the worst polluting industries, and the one with the most unethical practices.
New stuff comes into stores every week, our closets are bulging with clothes, and charity stores are receiving record amounts of clothing donations because there are just too many clothes entering circulation.
It is estimated that 100 billion clothes are produced annually. That’s the equivalent of 12 new pieces of clothing per year per person, and whether these clothes are bought or not, they are still made. Those statistics explain why we have clothes piling up in landfills. We are consuming 60 percent more clothes now than we did 20 years ago and throwing away a lot of them.
Also, a lot of the waste comes from fashion factories in the form of excess fabric that isn’t used in garment production and is thrown away.
The rise of fast fashionSo what has happened in the last 20 years? Why do we all own more clothes? The 60 percent increase correlates with the rise of fast fashion. Fast fashion is an approach to the design, creation, and marketing of clothing fashions that emphasizes making fashion trends quickly and cheaply available to consumers.
Fast fashion equates to quick production, high volume, trendy items, and inexpensive prices at the register. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the clothes cost less!
Fast fashion appeared in the 1990s and early 2000s and has taken the industry by storm, providing more variety and a greater volume of clothes than we have probably ever seen — or needed.
Fast fashion is the norm right now, but there was a vibrant fashion world before fast fashion. Many well-known brands predate fast fashion, and they were viable, successful businesses back then.
A three-legged monsterThe fast-fashion model relies on churning out lots and lots of trendy clothes very quickly, which in turn is heavily dependent on fast, on-demand manufacturing and uses a lot of resources. The end product — literally tons of clothes — ends up in landfills as soon as a trend is out of style. Consequently, the problem with fast fashion is threefold:
- The fashion industry has become an environmental disaster. According to the World Economic Forum, fashion production makes up 10 percent of humanity's carbon emissions. Dyeing and constructing clothes leads to water pollution, and the final product ends up polluting the land when it’s tossed into a landfill. But that’s not all. Today, most clothes are made with synthetic (man-made) materials that take decades to decompose, emitting greenhouse gases in the process. These gases trap heat in our atmosphere and contribute to climate change.
- Garments workers are treated poorly. This breakneck speed of production means that clothes need to be in and out of the factory in two to three weeks and workers must work arduous hours, often in unsafe conditions. On top of all that, most of the time, garment workers aren’t even paid a living wage (an income that keeps a worker out of poverty).
- The modern mass-market fashion industry’s business model scams you, the consumer. What seems like a good deal when you have options galore weekly at apparently cheap prices is not a good deal. That’s because if you aren’t spending a lot of money on an item, chances are, it’s made with poor-quality materials. Once it falls apart, you need to buy a new one. And then another one. In the end, you probably would’ve been better off buying a higher-quality, but more expensive, item at the start.
Most fashion brands try to convince consumers to buy more than they need. That works for them, because you give them more money, but it’s not good for your wallet or the environment.
Being part of the solution and avoiding eco-anxietyThe scale of the problematic practices of the fashion industry may make it seem as if individual action can’t have any meaningful impact in reversing the adverse impacts of such practices. The more you read or hear about the problem, the more you are at risk for eco-anxiety, a chronic fear of environmental doom and feeling helpless about it.
Even if that’s not you, you may still wonder where you fit in all of this. You don’t make clothes; you just buy them. You still need clothes and still want to enjoy fashion, but you don’t want it to be at the expense of the planet and the people who make your clothes.
You also know that precious resources go into making your clothes. Armed with this information, you can and should make more sustainable fashion choices. This book explains what those choices are and helps you implement them.
You may be one person, but your choices and actions have an impact! The actions of each one of us ultimately add up to become a catalyst for good, meaningful change in the fashion industry. So don’t aim to change the world by yourself; you’ll get frustrated and quit, and the planet can’t afford you quitting.
The fact is that fashion’s adverse impacts are primarily caused by the fast-fashion brands that produce all the clothes. If it weren’t for their manufacturing of hauls of these clothes, fashion consumption wouldn’t have changed in the ways it has. The industry is the cause of the problem and the primary culprit, of course; but by consuming fast fashion the way the industry wants you to, you become a sort of accomplice after the fact.
So, what actions can you take as an individual? I believe wholeheartedly that if many more people were to bring sustainable values to the consumption of fashion, brands might be forced to do better. It may sound whimsical, but there are definitely more and more fashion consumers who value sustainability, so a domino effect can’t be discounted.
Show fashion brands that you don’t support their unsustainable practices by boycotting their products. As brands plan for the future, the wiser ones will listen and make changes.
While your individual actions may seem like they’re too small to have any impact, aggregated with similar actions of others, the impact becomes meaningful. Plus, there is an emotional benefit to you. It feels good to know that you’re doing your part by, among other things, shopping more intentionally and mindfully. Once you begin living your values as a sustainable fashion consumer, you can be an inspiration to others in your orbit.
You can also work on educating yourself about the issues from reliable sources. You can follow environmental bloggers or sustainable fashion bloggers and read ethical fashion publications like Good On You. With more information, you can become involved in more targeted engagement, including petitioning brands to make the changes necessary to operate more sustainably.
What you can do to increase sustainabilitySustainable fashion habits are built over time. Don’t aim to do everything at once. For example, it may take you some time to learn how to sew to repair your clothes, but you can shop for preloved items or from your own closet right away. Also, perfect sustainability doesn’t exist; don’t let seeking perfection be the enemy of your progress.
Try these tips to get started on the road to sustainability:
- Use what you already own. Your most sustainable clothes are the ones you already own, including your fast-fashion clothes. Resources have already gone into making these clothes so take care of them! That’ll help them last longer, keeping them in your closet and out of landfills.
- Repair the clothes in your closet. A great way to be a sustainable fashion consumer is to repair your clothes. This keeps your clothes in your closet and out of landfills. The task may seem daunting, but you can make some simple repairs without a sewing machine. For the bigger repairs, you can take clothes to a tailor.
- Buy preloved clothes. This not only keeps clothes out of landfills and prevents the resulting environmental damage, but also gets you great stuff for less. Ready to get thrifting?
- Shop from sustainable brands.
- Donate and recycle what you no longer need. At some point you might fall out love of with clothes and need to give them away or recycle them.
For the details on how to do all of the things I'm suggesting here, check out my book Sustainable Fashion For Dummies.