What Makes Fashion Unsustainable?
Able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.
Once upon a time, 170 thousand years ago, man first put on clothes. Early clothing would have been made from animal hides and that stayed on trend for the next 140-150 thousand years when weaving first began.
In the beginning, clothing had one practical purpose: Protection. However technological advances meant that clothing started to become much more than that. Clothing could be form-fitting, colorful, and a status symbol.
The Evolution Of Fast Fashion
The royal and the rich used fashion to show off their wealth, using exotic animals and expensive dyes for their clothing, while ordinary folk made their own practical clothes by hand. Tailors were only affordable for high-class members of society. However, in 1846 the first patented sewing machine contributed to a huge increase of garments being made and a sharp fall in their price. The industrial revolution made fashion accessible to middle-class people, but the lower class continued to make their clothing at home and would continue to do so until the end of WWII.
In the 1960s, fashion became accessible to everyone. Trends became the norm and young people embraced them wholeheartedly. Fashion brands wanted to keep up with demand and to do so they made more, they made it faster, and they made it cheaper. Small European shops such as Top Shop, H&M and Zara began to spread across the world and morph into the huge fast fashion brands that we see today. While it is unclear who led the way, fashionista.com writer Sara Idacavage says “The rapid growth that defines these brands today goes hand-in-hand with cost-cutting measures, and not many companies are eager to celebrate or detail the controversial switch to overseas sweatshop labour.”
“When Zara came to New York at the beginning of 1990, the New York Times used the term ‘fast fashion’ to describe the store's mission, declaring that it would only take 15 days for a garment to go from a designer's brain to being sold on the racks.”
We have grown accustomed to being able to afford a monthly fashion splurge even on the lowest of budgets. Staying on trend has become an essential part of life and trends seem to be changing every single week making it almost impossible to keep up.
To paraphrase Jurassic Park: They were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should. Whether we are talking man-made dinosaurs or fast fashion dresses, the point remains the same. This is not ethical. And this is not sustainable.
We have entered a new age of fashion. It is estimated that 80 billion new pieces of clothing are made every year, enough for each of the 7.7 billion of us humans to buy ten new garments every single year. By that estimate, I should have had around 250 items of clothing throughout my life, but to be perfectly honest I expect there has been more. And yet, 30% of all new garments are unsold and end up in landfills, while a further 30% are only sold at their sale price. This level of waste is just one of the many factors as to why modern-day fashion is sustainable.
Marketing & Trends
Companies overproduce to make sure they meet consumer demands. This demand is generated by a number of different factors that convince consumers that each new item is a need as opposed to a want.
Larger brands have a larger budget to spend on marketing in order to drive desire and sales for their products. This can come in the form of targeted adverts, emails that drive urgent CTA’s (call to action) such as “THE BIGGEST SALE EVER IS NOW ON BUT ONLY FOR 24 HOURS” and the ever-growing influencer advertising.
These days influencers are everywhere you look: They are the stars you see in movies; they are the people you listen to on the radio or podcasts, and they are the everyday relatable people you follow on Instagram and YouTube. These relatable have an audience built up over years of trust that in a variety of ways may want to emulate things about the ‘influencer’ which makes them a marketer’s dream. The more ‘relatable’ an influencer is, the more likely their audience views them as a trusted friend and will listen when they give a review or a recommendation.
A successful influencer campaign will generate thousands of more sales, which usually ask customers to sign up to an email list, which in turn tempts customers every week with exclusive sales and new products. As someone who has personally worked with brands before as an influencer, and someone currently working in marketing, I am all too aware of these effects. However, I decided at the start of my journey that if I ever worked with brands, they had to be kind to people, animals, and the planet. I think of myself as an ethical influencer, but I am surrounded everywhere I look with the opposite. If I didn’t have knowledge of marketing, I can see how easy it would be for consumers to get sucked in.
Marketing drives more sales, more sales means a demand to create more products, however since every brand is competing for sales, they frequently create new trends, styles, and products in the hopes of beating their competition to the next big thing. Unfortunately, this race for sales means that each product they create is forgotten about fast, and this generates an awful lot of waste.
The Fashion Waste
What happens to all these unsold items? In 2017 the media caught wind that luxury English brand Burberry burned around $37 million worth of clothing, accessories, and perfume to ‘protect their brand’. Burberry’s reasoning being to prevent their items from being stolen or sold cheaply, because they are a luxury and exclusive brand. Months after this information was released Burberry announced they will no longer burn excess stock, but this is not an uncommon practice in the fashion industry. This is primarily because burning unsold items is cheaper than shipping it to be sold elsewhere.
I am happy to report that more and more fashion companies are beginning to pay attention to ways that will reduce waste because there is pressure from consumers and governments to take responsibility and make reductions. With a growing focus on climate change worldwide, everyone has to do their bit to help. More than 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions are produced by apparel and footwear industries and nearly three-fifths of all clothing ends up in incinerators or landfills within a year of being produced (Mckinsey).
In light of this, we are seeing brands such as H&M launching recycling initiatives and share their sustainability reports and strategies for the future. However, the unsustainable buck of fashion doesn’t stop at the waste. The fabrics used and production methods are a huge piece of the pie.
The production of different fabrics has vastly different effects on our environment. Cork production, for example, can help to absorb higher levels of CO2 when it is harvested as this promotes growth in cork trees, meaning this fabric is much more sustainable than something like Nylon.
Nylon is man-made, strong and incredibly flexible. Because of these qualities it is used for a wide variety of items such as parachutes, rope and clothing, sportswear especially. It is incredibly useful, but also incredibly harmful. Micro-fibres from nylon clothing get into the ocean though our water pipes whenever we wash our clothes, adding to the staggering amount of plastic already in the sea. In fact, it is estimated that nylon makes up around 40% of all plastics in the sea. The production of nylon also creates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas, as a by-product. Nitrous oxide is the third most important greenhouse gas (after carbon dioxide and methane) that is contributing to the destruction of the Earth’s ozone.
As a standard, natural fabrics such as hemp and linen can be manufactured sustainably and are a good choice if you want to shop more ethically. However, this can be counteracted with poor production methods in the next step.
When creating clothes patterns in fabric, approximately 15% of that fabric ends up wasted. Sustainable fashion brands are combatting their waste by designing patterns that produce less waste, and turning off-cuts into accessories.
For large fast fashion brands however, time costs money, and they prioritise creating more garments over producing less waste. It is rare for fashion giants like H&M and Zara to own the factories that make their clothes, and while they can negotiate, they are not directly in control of how the factory workers are paid or cared for. Usually factories will bid to produce clothes for big brands and the factory that can make the highest volume of clothing the for the lowest price will succeed. This means that for factories to keep business, they need to cut costs as much as possible, which usually results in lower wages for their workers.
While there has been success in wage increases for factory workers in certain countries such as Bangladesh, usually this wage increase is counteracted with rising inflation and the workers are no better off than before. Many factory workers find themselves working 100 hours weeks and still running out of money before the end of the month, which makes the whole system unsustainable.
This need to pay employees so poorly, caused by fashion brands wanting to pay so little for their items to be manufactured, is in truth all caused by us, the consumer. We want the newest styles, we want them now, and we want them cheap enough so that we can afford to buy next week’s new trend too.
An items cost tends to go hand in hand with how much a person cares for it. You don’t catch many people throwing out Prada handbags after only a couple of wears, do you? We have gotten used to buying cheap clothes on a whim when less than a hundred years ago many of our own family members still made everything they wore by hand. If we want to look at the true cost of fast fashion, we need to look at our environment and the factory workers that end up paying the price.
If consumers focused on buying clothing that was made ethically, they would notice an increase in price, but also an increase in quality. They would have to be thoughtful when shopping for something new because to make buying that item worthwhile it would need to be worth wearing multiple times. They would have to look past the current flashy trends and instead find styles they will love for many years to come. They would have to adore that item enough to wear it to death, fix it and wear it to death all over again. And with this new knowledge of the people who made it, and respect for the process in which is came to be, maybe then fashion can be sustainable.
How We Can Make Fashion Sustainable
Right now, the majority of fashion is not sustainable, but we can have a say in what the future looks like. In order for us to have a chance at sustainable fashion, here is what we need to do:
Steer clear of trends and impulse buying: If you see something that you like, don’t buy it straight away. If you are still thinking about that item a few months later, chances are you don’t simply like it because of a new trend and it will have a long lifespan in your wardrobe.
Support sustainable brands: Brands that are using sustainable fabrics, paying their workers correctly, and minimising waste. If we choose to give our money to these companies, then fast fashion companies will begin to lose customers and learn that to stay in business they need to implement slower, sustainable practices.
H&M conscious collection (Vogue)
What is fast fashion (Fashionista)
Fashions second biggest polluter fake news (NY Times)
Burberry stops burning excess inventory (Huffington Post)
Style that’s sustainable (Mckinsey)
N2O The greenhouse gas worse than CO2 (The Conversation)
Naughty nylon creates a hot and bothered atmosphere (New Scientist)
Clothing factory wages (Vox)
About the author: Chloe is an ethical lifestyle writer and video maker known online as Be Kind Coco. She loves cats and a good cuppa and is on a mission to make ethical living easy.