The challenges of sustainable fashion

Fashion brands increasingly describe themselves as sustainable, and we can now see that even leading fast-fashion brands advertise themselves or their collections as sustainable. However, we can probably argue that having some measures that are less unsustainable than others does not make a brand sustainable, and that fashion is still far from being sustainable. Can fashion ever be sustainable?

Let’s discuss 5 myths of sustainable fashion.

1. Price is a proxy for quality and sustainability

It is often believed that the more expensive an item of clothing is, the better the quality must be and the conditions of workers involved in the production. Unfortunately, that statement is often not true. While it is absolutely true that a cotton tee-shirt made ethically can hardly be sold for even €20 if we consider the true cost of quality organic cotton, the workers’ salaries, the logistic costs, the taxes, etc., a tee-shirt sold for €100 could actually cost the company €15 to make, and they could be making it with cheap fabrics and in the same factories as a tee-shirt sold for €20. Brands are free to fix the prices they want and some may choose to have very high gross margins and invest a lot in marketing, for example, which has no impact on sustainability practices but can help improve the consumer’s opinion.

2. Materials used prove sustainability

Sometimes, customers will believe that natural fabrics are necessarily a good option. The reality is they are often a better option but can also be a bad choice. If we consider cotton, for example, traditional cotton uses a lot of water and is often linked to forced labour and child labour in some countries, like Turkmenistan. Additionally, some brands will advertise using cotton free of chemicals but the absence of chemicals in the production of that cotton does not guarantee the absence of chemicals in the dyeing process. Hence, while most synthetic fabrics are a bad choice most of the time (like virgin polyester…), natural fabrics are not necessarily a sustainable choice either.

3. Countries where clothes are made are an indication of sustainability

 It is believed that Made in (European country) is a better indicator of sustainability than Made in (Asian country). While this is very often true, there are two important aspects to consider nonetheless. 1/ Made in Italy does not mean that 100% of the item of clothing was actually made in Italy. Part of the manufacturing can be done in another country before bringing the pieces to Italy. 2/ Unfortunately, there are sweatshops in European countries as well. Those sweatshops will often employ immigrant women of colour that will be underpaid and will work in poor conditions, just like they would in other countries. For example, at the end of 2019, Italian police uncovered a Naples sweatshop, linked to the biggest luxury group, where shoes and bags sold for thousands of euros were made.

4. Giving our clothes a second life is easy 

It is not. Buying too many clothes is probably the biggest obstacle to sustainable fashion. Buying one quality tee-shirt at €50 is more sustainable than buying 10 tee-shirts at €5, even if they can be used over the same period of time. The 9 extra tee-shirts that needed to be produced were an environmental problem. Donating them after use is not a true solution: Africa receives 70% of global secondhand clothes; some of them will be considered in good enough condition to be reused but a lot of them will end up in landfills. If we consider that most of these items are made of polyester, which is said to take 500+ years to fully decompose. Additionally, recycling those 9 extra tee-shirts is not as easy as one would believe either. Recycling clothes can be difficult because fabrics are usually made from blends, which would need to be separated first. Moreover, lower-quality fibres are usually obtained from recycling.

5. Renting clothes is the solution

Renting is, unfortunately, not synonymous with sustainable. Renting an item like an occasion dress that would only be worn once is most likely more sustainable than buying that dress; however, renting pieces of clothing that are meant to be worn more casually has been proven to not be as sustainable as one would think. According to Rent the Runway, for example, renting from them compared to buying new creates a 24% reduction in water usage, 6% reduction in energy usage, and 3% reduction in CO² emissions. As a comparison, an organic cotton tee-shirt is said to represent approximately a 90% reduction in water usage compared to the manufacturing of a traditional cotton tee-shirt. Some of the reasons renting is not as sustainable as one would expect are the dry-cleaning involved with the process, as well as the transportation impact of bringing clothes back and forth.

As much as a lot of actions can be taken to make fashion more responsible, it is, so far, hard to describe fashion practices as truly sustainable when there are new fashion trends out often and new clothes to buy every other week. To the question 'can fashion ever be sustainable?', we can then answer the only way to address the challenges of sustainable fashion is probably to buy less and to buy better.

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