The fashion industry has a sustainability problem. For the past decade, it has been kept under wraps. But it has slowly boiled to a head and become common knowledge.
The average American produces 82 pounds of textile waste a year. Meanwhile, the fashion industry produces 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions according to the United Nations. The fashion industry is the second biggest polluting industry after oil. The statistics on fashion related pollution that are easily accessible online are jarring. How could an industry that creates such beautiful designs be creating such a blemish on the environmental movement?
The fact of the matter is that since 2000, “fast fashion” retailers such as Forever 21 (year), H&M (year), Urban Outfitters (year), and Zara have been speeding up the fashion cycle by releasing more and more garments. By paying garment factory workers unfair wages, choosing manmade low quality fibers and fabrics, and generally using unethical practices, they have drastically reduced clothing costs. This has led to mass overconsumption. Consumers now buy 60% more pieces that they keep for half as long as in previous decades.
Many people are not aware that the cloth on their backs, their legs, and prettily hanging in their closet have a long, dirty history.
There are many components to the rise of fast fashion which we will cover in another article coming soon. With this brief overview in mind, we put together a list of advice on how to be a more conscious consumer.
The breakdown of sustainability, safe labor conditions, fair wages, and general ethics in the fashion industry are not the consumer’s fault, nor are they your personal responsibility to fix. For many people, the stores that have caused the damage are the most affordable option in our budgets and the most accessible for our aesthetics, body types, and physical locations. Consumers shop fast fashion because it is cheap and easy. The purpose of this article is to remind you that companies listen to where their customers are putting their dollar. If we continue to turn a blind eye the environment, eventually we will pay a much larger price.
STEP 1: CONSUME THOUGHTFULLY
Fast fashion has tricked us all into thinking more is better. For every event from weddings to holidays or even just a trip to the bar, we find ourselves shopping for new clothes to spark a little excitement. We often have multiple events a month which leads us to spend as little as possible on each piece. This is where a company like Zara sinks their teeth into your impulsive retail therapy buying. It doesn’t help that outfit repeating has become the 8th deadliest sin in the world of Instagram.
Consuming thoughtfully isn’t always easy, but it’s simple. Just take a second and think before you buy.
Only shop when something is new. Ask yourself, “Do I own anything similar to this?”
Shop when you actually need something, not just because you are bored, sad, or just ‘because’. What’s a need? An item that serves a specific purpose or that you do not already own, to be worn for a specific event.
Trends are great but fads aren’t worth it. Invest in solid basics, higher quality feeling clothes that will last longer, and pieces that can be styled multiple ways. Every purchase doesn’t have to be a sparkly statement piece to make a huge splash.
Wanting an affordable statement piece doesn’t make you evil. Shopping a few pieces of fast fashion a year is perfectly acceptable with the current state of the industry, but be thoughtful. Reduce how many pieces you are buying per season.
STEP 2: EDUCATE YOURSELF
Spiraling down the rabbit hole of how to shop sustainably can be very overwhelming. No brand is perfect. The global supply chain, consumer’s demand for lower prices, and lack of transparency overall make it nearly impossible for most global brands. Many people oscillate between shopping clothes that are manufactured sustainable or manufactured ethically (under the correct labor laws).
When you’re out shopping, if you find yourself saying, “Wow! These prices are way good to be true!”, they probably are. Even with brands like Urban Outfitters, where the price-point is middle tier, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are manufactured more ethically or safely. You can quickly search the brands ethics or use sites such as Good on You (they even have an app) or Ethical Consumer to see if they are participating in evil practices.
Don’t beat yourself up for not knowing everything, it is stressful as a consumer to be able to think of all this all while trying to find clothes that fit. As you shop, you can make choices on where you can be more sustainable. For instance, leather comes from animal byproducts (the meat industry) and is not considered sustainable. Yet, when you factor in how long you are going to wear this one pair of leather shoes, the decision becomes more justifiable. You might ask if oil-based synthetic fabric shoes are better or more durable. (They’re usually not.) Could you repair and wear these shoes extending their life span? Is there any better option in your budget? Many times sustainable shoppers will also try to buy second hand leather too. Decisions like these can be difficult, so just try your best.
Companies like H&M may claim they are changing to be more “green.” They’re often “green washing”, a terrible practice where a brand will use eco-friendly advertising or verbiage to try to trick consumers or draw attention away from their destructive practices.
Avoid the worst offenders such as online retailers BooHoo, Missguided, SheIn, Nasty Gal, Dollskill, and more who have made fast fashion even faster in the past few years. In store and online, some of the worst in the game are H&M, Forever21, and Zara.
STEP 3: SHOP SMALL
This one applies to all sectors of consumption. Fashion consumption just happens to struggle with this idea more than other areas. Lately, corporations have been pumping out corona-themed commercials inundated with dramatic piano music telling you that they care about you and are “in this together” with you. They are lying. Their marketing team is trying to pull on heart strings. To support your community in hard times, buy local and shop small. Your dollar can be the difference some brands need to continue their missions.
Many consumers have never shopped for clothes outside of a mall or whatever top three results occur on their google search (probably Boohoo, Missguided and SheIn). It’s nearly impossible for the small and most sustainable clothing brands to afford opening up a storefront in a shopping center. Right now, it is impossible to shop in person in the many places anyway. This is the perfect time to check out Etsy or independent designers.
Go out of your way to find small fashion businesses online! Ask around to see where friends shop. Talk personally to business owners. Make your purchase something intimate. Brands listen to what their consumers want. A purchase of $100 means nothing to a corporation but could mean the world to a struggling creative working on their new brand. And chances are, that piece of clothing will last a lot longer than anything you get from Zara.
STEP 4: RESELL + DONATE
Don’t throw away your clothes! Some people think that to be sustainable, they need to get rid of all their old clothes and reinvent their entire wardrobe. This contributes to textile waste and is counterproductive. Keep wearing the clothes that you like that you already own. For older clothes and shoes, patching and repairing is a great way to extend their lifespan and eliminate demand for new clothes.
It’s good to regularly sort through your closet. (Anna did that HERE and vlogged the entire process.) This will remind you of old pieces you forgot about. Make piles of lightly worn basics to donate to local charities and clothing drives. Statement pieces or clothes such as a dress you only wore one time for a formal event can be sold through reselling apps such as Depop, Poshmark, ThredUp. You’ll make a few dollars and give your clothes another life. Think of them as online thrift stores. You should also consider donating clothes to your local thrift or selling them for store credit at a store such as Buffalo Exchange.
STEP 5: SPREAD THE WORD
Contrary to popular belief, we all live on the same planet. We aren’t doing so well at not ruining that planet. But we do have time. We have a responsibility to each other to spread the word and keep the dialogue around environmental decay flowing.
If your friends want to go shopping or compliment something you’re wearing, that is a great time to open up the dialogue and share your knowledge on the topic. Large corporations expect the consumer to not know or not care and get blinded by pretty clothes and low price tags. Continuing the conversation and demanding change is the only way to progress.
Hopefully, if more people follow these steps the future will be a place where we can shop freely without stress and guilt that we have contributed to environmental collapse.