The wealthy shouldn’t be the only ones who can access sustainable fashion brands. As it stands, all your average consumer can afford is mass market, fast fashion-- an industry that we’ve seen first-hand to have an extensive environmental impact and human cost.
Fast fashion is a cheap alternative that copies the design and style of luxury brands. It serves as a quick fix for many western consumers. It satisfies the desire amongst customers in the developed world for what they perceive as instant style. Fast fashion takes the easy way to "get the look" of an expensive designer brand, despite the shoddy construction of these garments. Longevity is practically nonexistent, which encourages disposability. Fads run their course at lightning speed, with today's most recent designs promptly replacing the ones from the other day, which have already been consigned to the trash can. A quick turnover in the store means that this cycle of obsolescence happens in a matter of weeks, not years.
Our culture of wannabe-Instagram-celebrity-trend-chasers rather than nurturing our unique style results in vast quantities of newly unfashionable clothing with a dramatically short shelf life. The average person in the US throws away around 80 pounds of clothes every year. The amount of discarded clothes has doubled over the last 20 years.
A lot of mass-market clothing is polyester, which emits harmful microfibers when washing. That water that drains from the washing machine eventually finds its way into the ocean where marine wildlife swallows these pollutants. We consume these microfibers when we eat fish and other products of the sea, which then poses a serious threat to our health. It’s not just the humanmade fibers that are causing environmental problems. Toxic agricultural chemicals used for growing cotton have caused brain tumors in the farmers that produce them and congenital disabilities in their children. Dyes used in the manufacturing process are toxic and are causing significant environmental problems.
To sum it up, fast fashion is bad for the environment. Is luxury fashion any better? Not only that but what do we do about the fact that mass market clothing is the only affordable option for the average person?
Several sustainable fashion brands cost a pretty penny. High-quality brands like Gabriela Hearst, Vivienne Westwood, Edun, and Stella McCartney are at the forefront of sustainability and ethical sourcing. Stella McCartney has championed eco-friendly sustainable production since the launch of her label decades ago. The problem is that her clothes aren't cheap. The price of an average item from the McCartney collection is well out of range of the average consumer.
According to business advisor Pete Dunn, we often tend to invest up to around 5% of our salaries on clothing. For the majority of individuals eliminates any opportunity of acquiring these luxury-priced environmentally friendly, sustainable fashion brands.
One option would be to shop the racks of Goodwill. However, not all second-hand clothing stores are created equal. Some shops offer a great selection at an affordable price; others charge nearly the full retail price for a used garment. Shopping second-hand is time-consuming. And the masses generally don’t have the stamina, patience or strategy to successfully find what they’re looking for in these types of shops.
It’s easier to fall out of love with fast fashion if you consider the CEO salaries of the major players. The founder of Inditex, the parent company of Zara, is the sixth wealthiest person in the world. His net worth is nearly $70bn. H&M’s CEO is the world’s 73rdrichest with a net worth of $15bn. Now there’s nothing wrong with running a successful company. But, when you contrast the CEO salary with the conditions that the garment workers have to endure, the contrast couldn’t be more glaring. Remember the collapse of the factory that produced these types of clothes in Bangladesh that killed over 1,100 workers? The condition of the factory was well known yet ignored before tragedy struck.
Think mass market fast fashion is the only culprit? Think again. Luxury brands have their fair share of ethical violations. Luxury products may be more expensive, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re paying garment workers a decent wage. Nor does it say that they’re ethically sourcing the raw materials for their supply chains to make their garments. The discharge produced during the leather tanning process is some of the most environmentally harmful toxins produced by any industry. The entire fashion industry needs an overhaul.
Advances in technology are addressing the environmental impact of fast fashion, but progress is slow. H&M and Gap have both added recycling bins in select retail outlets where you can recycle your old, worn out items. Zara and Uniqlo are experimenting with ethical lines manufactured from sustainable materials like organic cotton and recycled fibers. Levi’s has partnered with I:CO to collect shoes and clothing for recycling. Patagonia offers a repair service to customers to extend the life of their garments.
The solution lies with every one of us, the consumer. We have the option to change our consumption habits. We can choose to purchase higher quality garments much less frequently, which ends up being cost-effective in the long run. Fast fashion, on average, is designed to hold up for ten uses only. The cost may be cheap, but it adds up if you have to replace a garment after you’ve worn it ten times. If we choose to nurture our style free from the fads of the moment, then we are less apt to cycle through our wardrobe continually. Brands at all price points can do their part to lessen the environmental impact of the fashion industry and become sustainable fashion brands. And we as consumers can do our part as well.