Sustainability in Fashion: Realistic or Idealistic?

I think it’s really interesting to think about what “sustainability” even means in fashion. At the route of the industry is the need to be materialistic – “fashion” wouldn’t exist without the need to be a bit excessive or “consumeristic.” If we are pursuing sustainability to “avoid the depletion of natural resources [and] maintain an ecological balance” then it seems that fashion and true sustainability cannot co-exist.

According to a McKinsey report, the number of clothing produced annually has doubled since 2000, and exceeded 100B for the first time in 2014. Not only the production count of fashion is increasing, the number of styles we expect as consumers in a season has also grown exponentially. Then fast fashion was born. This democratized and transformed the way consumers thought about clothing – consumers now demand trendy pieces at affordable prices with… free and fast shipping.

Clothing, cotton and polyester, has never come hand in hand with environmentally friendly practices. It takes 2.7K litres of water to produce a single t-shirt (WWF). According to the UN, the fashion industry currently produces 10% of all global emissions (more than international flights and global shipping) (BoF).

I’m not focusing on colour right now as I am about designers who are going to focus on sustainability, who are going to focus on responsibility, who are going to talk about fashion as something that is not so much disposable or can be easily thrown away … I want to hear about why fashion is worth it.

Anna Wintour, VOGUE: Go ask Anna

And yet, sustainability is the “new trend” of the fashion industry. It advocates designers and consumers to look for sustainable practices – to shop vintage, to reuse materials (e.g., Reformation), to use more sustainable materials (e.g., Girlfriend Collective). But at the heart of it, shouldn’t the industry be promoting a conscious decision to consume less in totality?

But as Business of Fashion reports, this type of “true anti-consumerism” is not scalable.

Anti-consumption designers can be limited in their ability to scale. It’s virtually impossible to grow a brand that relies on unusual, often expensive or hard to find materials into a global business. Often that isn’t their goal.

Sustainability in fashion just doesn’t quite work – or realistically make sense. Yes, the industry has made strides in becoming more environmentally conscious. This past summer, major fashion players (150 brands that make up 30% of the global industry) met with world leaders at the G7 summit, agreeing on a “Fashion Pact.” This stated that companies will take action to lessen fashion’s impact on the climate.

When you’re in fashion, the best ‘police officer’ is not the state, but it is the consumer.

Marie-Claire Daveu, Chief Sustainability Officer at Kering

At the end of the day, any form of sustainability can only be dictated by the consumer, not the industry.

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