There is no one ‘sustainability’ in fashion—there are many different paths to it, and they are not all inclusive or efficient. Sure, plastic straws are bad for the environment, but they’re also necessary to make drinks accessible to some communities; policing an individual’s usage of a single plastic straw is not a solution to the global climate crisis. In thinking about environmental sustainability we also have to account for other ethical considerations—not just how bad various types of consumption are for the environment, but also how accessible they are for different populations, the labor conditions within the industry, and the practices of each company. Though the systems-level change required to tackle the climate crisis can only be accomplished by large corporations and holders of capital, cultural shifts in our consumption habits may still be an effective signal to drive such change in industries. So what can we do? It is impossible to be a completely enlightened consumer, but gathering knowledge is the best place to start.
Rather than striving towards perfection, the most important thing is to locate where the bulk of the environmental harm is coming from. Sites such as goodonyou.eco and sustainyourstyle.org can help you make informed choices. It’s important to note, though, that different brands or choices make more or less sense depending on your buying habits, location, and relationship to fashion. It is the fashion industry as a whole that is responsible for 5.2% of the waste in our landfills, 23% of the chemicals produced worldwide, and 20% of all industrial water pollution. No individual person can fix that on their own. But by pressuring companies and influential players in the fashion industry to change their practices, as well as shifting our own mindset away from overconsumption, we can begin to make strides towards a more sustainable fashion industry.
In short, there is not one clear answer, and it works differently for everyone. But engaging in more sustainable practices can help you shift away from an entirely capitalist mode of consumption, and in the process expand your individual imagination as well as your fashion sense. Most industries work by relying on a set of assumptions that truly sustainable fashion works to dismantle: a new thing is better than an old thing, trends are important, style requires constant refreshment and purchasing, people need to shop every season, there is always something new to buy, it is more important to keep things cheap than to enforce safe labor practices, clothing isn’t meant to last, etc. Shifting these mindsets can allow style to become a part of life that you engage with actively instead of passively, bringing fulfillment and connection with others and with the history of your clothing.
So, let’s talk about a few ways to engage sustainably with the fashion industry and shift some of our mindsets.
It doesn’t matter why I buy things → When I buy something, it should spark joy.
- This is stolen from the wonderful Marie Kondo, whose perspective on tidying encourages not a new kind of consumerism but rather a shift in attention that is embraceable for everybody.
- Often we view sustainability in terms of deprivation: in order to be more sustainable, I have to make sacrifices.
- However, we challenge you to have a different idea, selectively applied: if you buy something, it should spark joy. Rather than buying just to buy, buy things that make you truly happy—you owe such high standards to the environment, but also to yourself. Cultivate a relationship with the owner of the shop, so that each trip is a connection with another human. Research the history of your clothing if you buy something vintage. Steal a dress from your mom’s closet. We believe that selective, ethical engagement with material items can be an act of self care.
Consumption is really enjoyable → I’m going to try to consume less.
- Why do we find consumption enjoyable? Buying things is something we’ve been socialized to enjoy—purchasing creates a rush of immediate gratification that is hard to replicate. We buy clothes often because each purchase brings us satisfaction, and because we are addicted to a “trendiness” that asks us to switch out our closet every new season. But what if we flipped that script? What if we found satisfaction in buying something, knowing that it will last for a long time, and anticipating long-term satisfaction every time we put it on? Or in borrowing a pair of shoes from someone you love and admire?
- Often, we hear about thrift shopping as the be-all and end-all of sustainability. There are often myths circling around about who should or shouldn’t thrift shop, but many of these are unfounded. First of all, a ton of clothing is discarded every year; we’re not running out of thrift clothes. Because of the volume of second-hand clothing, if you go thrifting, you’re not raising prices for anyone else. With a healthy dose of awareness and common sense, thrifting can help you shift your own buying practices towards sustainability.
- But it’s still important to approach thrifting mindfully, with the idea that each piece you buy may be a part of your closet for years to come. Similarly, if you’ve bought something long-lasting at a fast fashion store, don’t throw it away! Mindful consumption is not just about the source of your purchase, but also about your use of it afterwards. In summation: make informed decisions about where you buy but also choose durable items.
I’m going to buy American products because they’re more ethical → I’m going to actively research the labor practices behind the companies I buy from.
- There’s a popular assumption that if a piece of clothing is made in the U.S. it is more ethical than when made abroad. While fast fashion companies often exploit non-U.S. labor and then sell clothing at exorbitantly low prices, there are plenty of ethical companies that work with manufacturers abroad and provide living wages in sweatshop-free environments; there are also a ton of U.S. labor practices that are wildly unethical. You can find a little more information about various fair trade certifications here: Fair Trade vs Made In America.
- This idea is just one of many sustainability assumptions that we make based on popular information that isn’t always correct. Don’t rely on buzzwords such as ‘recycled’ or ‘made in America’ when they’re coming from big companies; trust your own research.
I’m going to buy environmentally friendly products → I’m going to consider the whole world of ethics behind my consumption.
- Often, corporations of all kinds will use sustainability as a marketing strategy. We’ve all seen the ‘sustainable’ section of an H&M, or the ways in which various brands capitalize on our desire to be ethical consumers. But replacing all of your current products with ‘environmentally friendly’ branded products doesn’t fix the environmental waste involved with the fashion industry. There are so many ways to be sustainable beyond buying more things.
- Here our some of our favorite ideas of how to be sustainable without buying things: host a clothing-swap party to meet people, drink lemonade, and expand your style; repurpose the clothes you have; join the “Free and For Sale” and “Buy-nothing” Facebook groups in your local area; ask your friends if they could use a piece of clothing you’re done with. Challenge your relationship to consumption, rather than seeing sustainability as another check on your shopping list.
In considering all of these ideas, consider also your relationship with other people. Feel free to educate friends on a particular company’s labor practices, but remember that you don’t ever know someone’s situation. Sustainability is not simply a problem of individual consumption but rather an entire system in which we’re all complicit. Mainstream fashion is not often size-inclusive, nor inclusive of all kinds of bodies, nor accessible to people at every income level. We can all adopt more ethical principles, but being compassionate and supporting a better world is part of fashion ethics, too. And don’t forget to afford yourself this same grace.