Sustainable fashion… Fact or Fiction?

Carrie Sear reviews the reality of whether fashion can ever truly be stylish and sustainable

The climate crisis is an ever-growing issue, and it is difficult to figure out how to be more sustainable as an individual. The fashion industry is one of the largest manufacturers of products globally; the high demand for what is ‘in’ fashion and the disregard for what is ‘out’ creates a vicious cycle of consumption that is impacting the planet. The Environmental Audit Committee has stated that fast fashion encourages overconsumption on a trend-driven basis at ‘pocket money prices’ and is ‘excessively wasteful’. We therefore must ask ourselves whether an industry that wants us to constantly buy new clothing to stay fashionable can truly be sustainable. 

Ditching these trends of consumption would certainly have a positive effect on the climate crisis. To sustain our current habits, we would need almost 3 planets’ worth of resources by 2050. This is a problem-driven by the 60% increase in clothing bought by the average consumer over 15 years.

To sustain our current habits we would need almost 3 planet’s worth of resources by 2050.

Textile production contributes more to climate change than international aviation and shipping combined, produces 10% of all global greenhouse gases, and has a high cost in terms of resources used. Once made, a garment is unlikely to be worn enough for this cost to be worthwhile. The average piece of clothing is worn about 120 times before being binned and becomes part of the 16.9 million tonnes of textile waste generated every year.

The fast fashion industry is unsustainable in its current form. The big question, then, is how can we be more sustainable consumers of fashion? At first glance, the easiest solution is perhaps to buy from the eco-conscious subsections of fashion retailers such as H&M’s ‘Conscious’ collection who say that their products have ‘at least 50% sustainable materials.’ One of their slogans is “The shortcut to sustainable choices? Shop Conscious”. 

The big question, then, is how can we be more sustainable consumers of fashion.

This is known as ‘greenwashing’: where unsubstantiated or misleading claims are made about a product’s sustainability. Recycling on a small and insignificant scale, whilst using mostly materials, unethical labour, and encouraging continued overconsumption cannot be sustainable. These ‘eco-lines’ are by no means the solution they claim to be.

Clothes cannot simply be recycled either. H&M has bins for recycling textiles in-store but this is mostly for show; only 35% of items collected are recycled. Globally only 12% of material is recycled and the process is costly, complicated, and energy-intensive. When clothes are recycled, there is little demand for the remaining product rendering the process futile and, even when bought, the material can only be recycled a few times before being discarded.

A common choice for sustainable shoppers is to buy second-hand or vintage clothes from online retailers like Depop or Vinted or charity shops. Vintage items usually come back into fashion, particularly as trend cycles get shorter, and can add renewed value to your wardrobe. Charity shops are generally affordable, although it can take time and luck to find good items. According to the Waste & Resources Action Programme, a 10% increase in second-hand sales could cut carbon emissions by 3% and water use by 4% if it extends a garment’s life by 50%. 

However, this is not a perfect solution. Charity shops often send off clothes they can’t sell to less economically developed countries: an estimated 70% of all UK second-hand clothing is shipped overseas. Donated clothing also often goes to waste with about 6 tonnes of garments rendered virtually useless. Of the 11,000 tonnes of clothing donated to Oxfam every year, 1,000 tonnes are disposed of. So again, choosing to shop second-hand is good, but it seems there is no perfect option.

This information is quite disheartening in many ways, particularly as it makes it seem as if the words ‘trendy’ and ‘sustainable’ don’t mix. The common problem with these proposed solutions is that they follow the fast-moving industry trends. Perhaps, then, we need to change how we think when it comes to trends and seasons. Professor Tim Cooper argues that ‘if consumers are to be encouraged to buy fewer clothes there needs to be a wider public debate on […] the ‘consumer society.’ Does something have to be short-lived to be trendy? How can we change the culture around fashion cycles to make consumption more sustainable?

Perhaps , then, we need to change how we think when it comes to trends and seasons.

The best way to be a sustainable consumer is simply to consume less. We need to confront our habits and discuss what drives our need to buy things and how we could avoid giving in to this drive. Many people have opted for a minimalist ‘capsule wardrobe’, a collection of timeless items that they feel reflect their style, thereby resisting the urge to constantly buy into trends. Others have set up clothes swapping services or renting businesses, allowing for the dopamine hit we get from buying something new and facilitating the reuse of that item when we inevitably get bored. 

We can place more value on pieces that will last long enough to inspire others. These solutions could disturb the dominance of cyclical trends when enacted on a large scale and fundamentally change the way we interact with the world of fashion. 

The reality of sustainable fashion is that there is no one perfect solution, but rather a collection of preferable methods to try. The House of Commons concluded it well in saying that the most ‘sustainable garment is the one we already own and that repairing, rewiring, reusing, and renting are preferable to recycling or discarding clothes.’

I have not written this article to demonise anyone; a change to consumer habits is a slow and difficult process. If every individual tries their best to change their fashion consumption, whilst lobbying for stricter laws and less wasteful production, we can radically change the very fabric of the fashion industry and its unsustainable practices.


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