Fashion is big business. Before the pandemic, the fashion industry generated approximately $2.5 trillion in revenue. If it were a country, it would have the 7th largest GDP in the world. This wealth, however, has been built on the exploitation of our planet and the people that make our clothing.
As the industry tries to reinvent itself, ‘sustainable clothing’ has become its newest buzzword. And while sustainable clothing is a worthy goal, it’s not always fully understood. Too often, it’s thought of only in environmental terms. True, sustainable clothing should have minimal or no negative impact on the planet. But truly sustainable clothing also ensures that everyone involved in its manufacturing works under decent conditions. Sadly, this isn’t often the case. As global brands outsource production to countries with lax labour laws, child labour, unsafe working conditions and poor wages, are common.
The difficulty of sustainability
Even brands that want to produce sustainable clothing find it difficult. Fast fashion brands appeal to customers by selling large quantities at low prices. They cut costs by using low-quality materials and underpaying their workers. Sustainable clothing brands do the opposite, using durable and eco-friendly materials and treating workers fairly. Though their products last longer and prove cost-effective in the long run, higher up-front costs deter consumers.
Clothing brands also have complex supply chains. Growing fibres, spinning and weaving them, and finally producing a piece of clothing involve multiple suppliers across countries. This makes it impossible to ensure that raw materials are eco-friendly and workers are treated fairly throughout this process.
Sustainable clothing also aims for ‘circularity’. This means recycling clothes, giving them a second life, instead of letting them end up in a landfill. The biggest hurdle with this is logistical. Supply chains are currently made to take clothes to customers, not from them. Because of this, well-intentioned people who’d want their clothes to have a second life aren’t able to.
Here’s how things are changing for the better
Sustainability in fashion, while difficult, is not impossible to achieve. Funders, consumers, and governments are trying to support sustainable clothing brands and hold the fashion industry accountable.
Several venture capital firms, for example, specifically fund sustainable clothing start-ups. Customers are also voting with their wallets. A 2020 McKinsey report showed that 2/3rds considered the use of sustainable materials and a brand’s promotion of sustainability to be an important factor when buying clothes.
Governments are getting in on the act too. The European Union, home to some of the world’s biggest fashion brands, is passing the Directive on Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence. This will hold companies responsible for any negative human rights or environmental impact throughout their supply chain.
How you can be the change
Creating a sustainable fashion industry requires everyone’s support. By following a few steps, you can play a role and make your clothing choices truly sustainable:
- Check whether you really need to buy a particular piece of clothing. Is it something you will wear regularly? If you’ll only need it once, is there someone you can borrow or rent it from?
- If you do need to buy something, that’s fine. Start by searching for good quality second-hand clothing, whether online or offline, like Relove on Suspire. (Pro-tip: if you own good clothes that you’re unlikely to wear, sell them! This way you earn money, help someone make an eco-friendly purchase, and become part of a sustainable clothing system!)
- If you need new clothes, before buying do check on the fabric used. Avoid polyester and other plastic-based fabrics. They require harmful crude oil extraction and release microplastics that pollute the ocean. Cotton, though better, is extremely water intensive. Fabrics like hemp, linen, or bamboo, however, are far more eco-friendly. They use minimal water, are grown with little to no pesticide and fertiliser, and are very durable!
This may seem like a lot, but it’s easier than you think. You only need to do this a few times. Find brands that you trust, buy high-quality clothing from them that will last, and if you need to replace them, you can always go back to these brands!