Is Sustainability Truly Sustainable?

Calla tackles the problems behind a “sustainable” wardrobe.

With an increasing mainstream eco-consciousness has come an outcry against “fast fashion” and the deleterious effects its production has on the environment. Both retailers such as H&M and luxury fashion houses like Burberry have come under fire for their practice of burning rather than donating unsold merchandise. Many fast fashion companies have also been criticized for engaging in exploitative labor practices, compounding their statuses in the eyes of the public as unethical. The push against fast fashion certainly raises salient points; it is undeniably wasteful to manufacture thousands of items that will never be sold, often because they go out of style too quickly. In placing the onus of change on individual consumers by urging people to not buy from certain brands, however, the focus on fast fashion risks alienating those who cannot afford more “sustainable” brands and fails to address the root of the problem: manufacturing practices and a business model which necessitates constantly changing trends to stay relevant.

An alternative to fast fashion commonly proposed by environmentalist critics is to shop in secondhand clothing stores. This is a good alternative in theory; if there are already so many unworn clothes of various styles available, why can’t we just reuse those? In practice, this is not a panacea for the ethicality of our purchasing habits. Thrift stores were once a reliably affordable option for lower-income people. Now that thrifting is a more popular buying practice and carries a social cachet within some circles, stores have increased their prices, leading to what has come to be known as “thrift store gentrification.” Those who could not afford to buy new clothes must find another affordable option. That option is often low-cost fast fashion brands like SHEIN, H&M, or ASOS.

Source: SHEIN

Thrift stores also have an unreliable inventory, which poses a problem if you require a specific size. Women’s clothing in particular is sized inconsistently, making thrift stores a more challenging option; someone looking for business attire will likely not be able to purchase an ill-fitting item lest their appearance is deemed “unprofessional.” Sizing is also of special importance when it comes to shoes–wearing the wrong size of shoe because it was the only one available at a secondhand store is not only a bad look but bad for your feet. The unreliable inventory of thrift stores is also a problem if you need a specific item of clothing like a winter coat, hat, or gloves–some Instagram posts about thrift store gentrification have specifically urged people who can afford to buy a coat elsewhere to avoid buying one at a thrift store–or sportswear for school, or swimwear for the summer. Together, these factors make thrift stores effective as only a partial substitute at best to buying new clothing.

Source: 34th Street Magazine

Another answer to the problem of fast fashion has been the rise of self-proclaimed “sustainable” brands. By selling more “timeless” designs and by using more eco-friendly materials and manufacturing processes, these brands advertise themselves as ethical alternatives to fast fashion. It seems, however, that sustainability comes at a price. Since eco-conscious methods of production are expensive and these brands anticipate buyers making purchases with less frequency, their individual garments are much more expensive than the average fast fashion brand’s. Reformation, a popular and avowedly sustainable brand, sells a plain white tank top for $28, and many of its items cost over $100. Reformation has also been the subject of controversy after allegations from former employees of a racist work environment. This raises the question of if any brand can truly be “ethical” or if environmentalism is just another trend to capitalize on.

Source: Reformation

Fast fashion undoubtedly puts a strain on the environment and should be recognized as doing so. It is unreasonable, however, to expect people to completely boycott fast fashion brands, and culture of individualized shaming (which is a worrying trend in other parts of environmentalist discourse as well) is ignorant of the variation in people’s budgets and circumstances. Until sufficient pressure is put on the entire fashion industry to change its practices and ethical standards, urging individuals to take responsibility for avoiding unethical brands (hint: almost all of them), will not be successful in having a positive environmental impact.

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