Debunking the fantasy of sustainable fashion
The fashion industry is widely known for its sustainability claims, with many companies marketing their products as eco-friendly or vegan. However, the reality is that the fashion industry has failed to reduce its impact on the environment in the past 25 years, despite attempts at innovation.
Are you tired of feeling like you’re not doing enough for the environment by simply buying clothes? It’s time to face the truth – the fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world. Despite the growing popularity of sustainable fashion, the reality is that most brands are simply using it as a marketing ploy.
The Real Cost of “Fast Fashion”
The fast fashion industry produces clothing at an alarming rate, and at a cost that is damaging to both people and the planet. From toxic chemicals used in textile production to the exploitation of garment workers, the true cost of fast fashion is staggering.
Most fashion items are still produced using non-biodegradable petroleum-based synthetics and end up in landfills, and new ESG strategies such as bio-based materials, recycling, and “rent-the-runway” concepts have failed.
The industry’s sustainability letdown is due to pressure for unrelenting growth, summed with consumer demand for cheap, fast fashion. As a result, real prices for apparel and shoes have halved since 1990, and most new items are made from non-biodegradable petroleum-based synthetics.
Like all industries, fashion is nested in a broader system that is premised on growth. The unyielding pursuit of growth, of “more,” drives strategies that are specific to the fashion industry. The industry pushes change, not better, just different, cheaper, or faster. Combine the imperative of growth with accelerating product drops, long lead times, and global supply chains, and the result is inevitable overproduction. This unyielding pursuit of growth drives the industry to sell more and get consumers to buy more, leading to an increasing negative impact on the environment.
The speed of this treadmill continues to ramp up exponentially. Shein is now “the fastest-growing ecommerce company in the world,” selling tops for $7, dresses for $12, and jeans for $17. To deliver on low price points for fast-changing styles, these “real-time” brands rely on fossil fuel-based synthetic materials that are cheaper, adaptable, and more widely available than natural materials.
As a result, polyester has grown to become the number one synthetic fiber, representing more than half of all global fiber production. It is derived from nonrenewable resources, requires a great deal of energy for extraction and processing, and releases significant byproducts.
The Solutions: Conscious Consumption, Circular Fashion and Sustainable Fabrics
As explored in the Harvard Business Review “The Myth of Sustainable Fashion”, consumers need to stop thinking about sustainability as existing on a spectrum.
Less unsustainable is not sustainable and there are specific changes that need to happen to make the global economy truly sustainable..
1 – The key to truly sustainable fashion is through conscious consumption – buy less, choose high-quality, long-lasting products and be conscious of the impact of each purchase. By choosing quality, timeless pieces and supporting brands that prioritize ethical and sustainable practices, we can make a real impact on the environment and the fashion industry as a whole.
2 – Governments need to step in to force companies to pay for their negative impact on the planet. One solution is to promote circular fashion, where clothes are designed to be recycled, repurposed, or reused at the end of their life cycle. Companies should be required to design clothes that can be easily recycled and provide incentives for consumers to recycle their clothing.
3 – Another solution is to promote sustainable fabrics, such as organic cotton, organic hemp, or linen. These materials are biodegradable and require less water and chemicals to produce than synthetic fabrics, although they do have their own set of environmental problems. For example, cotton is one of the most water-intensive crops in the world, with each pound of cotton requiring an average of 1,320 gallons of water to grow. Similarly, the production of wool and silk requires significant amounts of land and water.
4 – Another response to address the growing environmental footprint of fashion is the use of bio-based materials. Innovators are now fermenting and growing bio-based substitutes for conventional livestock-derived materials like leather and fossil fuel-based synthetics like polyester.
While some of these new bio-based textiles can be engineered to deliver performance features alongside properties such as biodegradability, these innovations are plagued by high initial costs relative to well-established alternatives that benefit from scale economies, large requirements for capital to fund new production sites, resistance to change, and the lack of pricing for externalities that allow fossil fuel-derived alternatives to be priced to exclude their true social costs.
In conclusion, the fashion industry has made many high-profile attempts at innovation in sustainability, but it has failed to reduce its planetary impact in the past 25 years. Despite claims of environmental friendliness, most items are still produced using non-biodegradable petroleum-based synthetics and end up in a landfill. Instead of relying on market-based solutions and voluntary efforts, governments need to step in to force companies to pay for their negative impact on the planet.
The idea of “win-win” and market-based solutions has failed even in one of the most “progressive” industries. If we are to truly address the issue of sustainability in fashion, we must think beyond incremental improvements and embrace radical change. We must recognize that the fashion industry is nested in a broader system premised on growth, and we must prioritize resilience ahead of revenue growth. By doing so, we can move towards a more sustainable future for both the fashion industry and the planet.