Pseudo-Sustainability: Fashion's Enduring Dilemma
In the world of ‘Emily in Paris’ or ‘Pretty Woman’, retail therapy seems to be a go-to when trying to deal with modern life stresses. Many of us don’t bother to check if our ‘harmless’ act of self indulgence can have serious environmental repercussions. These frequent acts of buying cheap clothes to uplift one’s mood is fueled by the fast fashion industry. Fast fashion provides ever changing latest fashion at a cheap price - two factors why people resort to fast fashion frequently. The ever changing trends render old clothes as unattractive which makes consumers keep buying clothes. Repeating outfits is also looked down upon thus making it even more essential to buy new clothes. The cheap price of clothes which are further discounted upon make the shopping experience guilt free for the consumer. From a social perspective, fast fashion brands try to mimic styles of luxury brands. Wearing such clothes gives the consumers a superficial taste of the world of luxury. They feel a step ahead in the social ladder.
It is widely acknowledged that a better alternative to fast fashion is sustainable fashion. But sustainable fashion is a multifaceted concept, and it is imperative that we understand it fully, in order to make responsible purchases. Sustainable fashion or slow fashion refers to clothing that is designed, manufactured, distributed and used in an environmentally responsible manner. It is said to be synonymous with ethical fashion: a similar term that is also widely used in the world of conscious consumption, this refers to clothing made in a manner that values social welfare and workers' rights. It includes sourcing materials ethically, reducing waste, following community and manufacturing guidelines like paying proper wage to labourers and leaving as little a carbon footprint as possible. Sustainable fashion items are supposed to be timeless, to be worn for a longer period of time, and as the name suggests, they last longer.
Fast fashion on the other hand, refers to clothing items that are quickly transferred from runways to retail outlets in order to capitalise on trends. The clothing portrayed on runway shows or worn by celebrities frequently serve as the inspiration for fast fashion drops. The industry runs on the main objective of mass manufacturing cheaper quality clothes in less time and to be sold at a cheaper price. At the consumer’s end, they are mass consumed and worn only a few times before they start to wither. Brands like Shein, Urbanic, Zara, H&M, and Uniqlo are some examples.
Each year, 85% of all textile products end up in landfills. Just washing clothes releases microfibers equivalent to 50 billion plastic bottles. According to the UN Environment Programme, the fast fashion industry is the second largest consumer of water and accounts for 2-8% of global CO2 emissions. Many fast fashion companies also provide 24 hour shipping which leads to emission of huge amounts of carbon footprint and many a times, leaves labourers unpaid. Amazon had faced severe strikes from its employees in the USA for the amount of work and less wages in proportion to the work due to its ‘Prime’ delivery.
‘'However, if you are someone that swears by sustainable clothing, have you ever thought of checking whether the items you purchase are truly sustainable?' Consumers often fall prey to the tactic of greenwashing. Greenwashing refers to unsubstantiated claims to deceive consumers into thinking that a company's products are environmentally friendly. This can be done through tactics like advertising a product to be sustainable, when the entire product is not sustainable, but only a certain small percentage of it is. While a company may make a genuine promise and put in effort towards sustainability, failure to disclose the non-fulfilment of claims is also considered green-washing. This lack of transparency can mislead a customer as well as the government organisations concerned with environmental welfare.
A famous fashion mammoth, H&M, especially well-known among teenagers and young adults, marks sustainable clothing using the label ‘Conscious’. According to an article by The CUT, recently, a case was registered against H&M in the New York federal court by a young media student accusing it of engaging in false advertising about the sustainability of its clothing. They include using vague language like “close the loop” and “a conscious choice,” and categorise products as sustainable even though they consume a huge amount of fossil-fuel-based synthetics that shed plastic, in the form of an unrecyclable powder. H&M has been accused of using the recycling initiative to force people to buy even more clothes than necessary. It awards its customers with a discount for every time clothes are donated in the store for recycling. This also does away with any guilt of spending money by creating a false image and sense of satisfaction in the customer’s mind that they are actually -doing good for the planet by recycling, while it actually does the opposite.
Sustainable brands become counterproductive by neglecting some of the most important aspects like overproduction. While cotton is a natural, long lasting as well as a versatile fabric, it uses up tonnes of water. According to an article by Material Exchange, called Fashion and Water: A complex affair, it can take up to 6,000 litres of water to produce just 1 kg cotton. That is approximately 12,000 water bottles used to make enough cotton for a T-shirt and a pair of jeans. What’s interesting is that over 12,000 litres of water is required to manufacture a pair of leather boots.
Sustainable brands are a business at the end of the day. They try to push products into the market just like any business does. Nowadays, small sustainable businesses have capitalised on festivals and holidays just like fast fashion brands too. They have instant gratification inducing limited time period sales which creates a false need to shop for the consumers. This again is counter-productive to the sustainable industry and its ethos.
Every sustainable brand hands out a cotton tote bag with each purchase to indicate that they are environmentally conscious. Interestingly enough, a 2018 study by the Danish Ministry of Environment and Food, indicates that a tote bag made from organic cotton should be used 20,000 times to offset the overall impact of production. This is not achievable.
So, should capitalism be the only one held accountable or is there some consumer responsibility as well?
A current social media trend includes uploading videos of hauls. Hauls were initially only based on fast fashion brands due to their affordability, but they are slowly expanding their boundaries to include sustainable brands as well. One of the main tenets of slow fashion is to reuse the existing clothes as well as to reduce the purchase of new unnecessary clothes. This is greatly ignored by the creator community as well the consumer demographic as a whole which in turn counters the impact that sustainable fashion is trying to make.
Then, how does one identify truly sustainable brands and products? The processes used to manufacture textiles, especially synthetics, often use large amounts of water, chemicals, and energy, and are extremely harmful to the environment. Choose clothing items made from natural materials such as linen or hemp over synthetic fabrics. These are grown without the use of pesticides or other harmful chemicals, making it environmentally friendly. It is very important to know that even many of the dyes that brands use contain heavy metals and toxic elements. One can go for clothes dyed in natural dyes. India, having a rich heritage in art, has many types of natural material, dyes as well as unique printing styles. One can opt for clothes which are dyed naturally and cut some slack for the environment.
Notice what brands disclose about their manufacturing processes. They must clearly state where and how your products are manufactured, share information about working conditions of the labourers, and ensure that they are third-party certified. You can make a difference by choosing to support sustainable small businesses.These brands are vegan and biodegradable while minimising water waste and air pollution. Many make great things out of materials and offer high quality clothing and accessories. Okhai is an Indian brand which offers handcrafted clothes from rural artisans.Upasana, No Nasties, House of Wandering Silk, and Ba Na Batwo are other such brands which claim to be sustainable.
The bottom line is, consumers should make a conscious choice - and by conscious, it means a truly conscious choice.