The number of sustainable womenswear items available online from major retailers in the UK rose by 128% between 1st December 2017 and 28th February 2018, according to WGSN. Although it’s coming from retailers for whom such items represent just a tiny percentage of their total offering (in a perfect world it would be 100%), it’s undoubtedly positive news. The more sustainable options there are available to customers, the more likely they are to buy them.
If you know where to look, you can find a sustainable or ethical version for just about everything; from pineapple leather handbags to hemp socks. Sustainable bloggers are sharing their recommendations with ever growing audiences and ethical brands are even making their way onto ‘normal’ shopping round-ups in the fashion media at large. Again, all undoubtedly positive news.
You can pop down to the high street and grab an organic t-shirt, and you can scroll through Vogue and find features on sustainable brands; ethical and sustainable fashion is joining the mainstream. However, the ‘but’ that has been simmering over the last two paragraphs is about to reach boiling point. So, lest the lid blow off and hit us all square between the eyes, let’s address it: we can’t just absorb sustainably and ethically made clothes into the existing model. It won’t work.
If we take the two billion t-shirts that are sold each year (two. actual. BILLION.) and make them all out of hemp or organic cotton, we’re still left with two billion t-shirts each year. Zara could go back to the drawing board and start making every single item they sell out of recycled plastic bottles in a bid to rebrand themselves as sustainable trailblazers, but when they’re churning out a reported 840 million garments each year, the ‘sustainable’ tag starts to feel a little redundant.
It’s vital that we stretch the conversation beyond renewable materials and low impact processes sitting static within the current system. We must directly address the societal expectations and low margin, high volume business models which engender and facilitate clothes being manufactured at such pace.
In a bid to make sustainable fashion accessible, many behind the cause are pushing like for like swaps. Don’t buy that t-shirt, buy this one because it’s made from organic cotton. Don’t buy that bag, buy this one because it’s handcrafted from Pinatex. But perhaps, at least some of the time, we should simply be saying ‘don’t buy that’.
I’ve fallen into the trap twice on this blog, creating shopping list style posts in order to prove how stylish/affordable/great sustainable fashion can be and in order to slot it into a familiar format. But I won’t be doing it again. Why? Because our fixation on shopping got us into this mess and I don’t think it’s what’s going to get us out of it.
A particularly prominent sustainable style blogger (who I won’t be naming because that’s not the point here) now almost exclusively crafts her content around sponsored posts, discount codes and must-have pieces. I understand her need to earn a living and that advertising (in whatever form it takes) and affiliate links are often the best way to do that, but it feels at odds with what we need to achieve. Just as features entitled ’10 Sustainable Pieces You Need This Spring’ and similar do too.
While it’s important to boost the profile of brands who are paying fairly and taking care not to harm our environment, we mustn’t fall into the trap of normalising either current shopping habits or the expectations the fast fashion industry puts upon individuals. Doing so risks turning a powerful and necessary movement into an easy transition from fast fashion to Sustainable Fashion Lite; whereby brands are free to slot token items into their existing model without making any real, systemic changes.
H&M, for all its green claims, was clearly hoping for a nice, easy shift over to Sustainable Fashion Lite. Despite the introduction of recycled fabrics, organic cotton and its Conscious Collection, the fashion giant didn’t show any signs of actually putting the brakes on and slowing the breakneck production pace which currently sees them manufacturing an estimated 550-600 million garments a year. Even when their unsold stock is being used to fuel a Swedish power plant, – proof, if any were needed, that they’re simply making too much – they stick resolutely by their model.
But that plan seems to be unraveling as H&M are currently sitting on $4.3 billion of unsold clothing. Like many, I was hit with a good old wave of schadenfreude but it didn’t last long when I considered, firstly, the amount of energy (chemical, human and otherwise) that went into producing it all and, secondly, the fact that they plan to sell all of it at a discounted rate. More cheap clothes to be unleashed upon the world where they’ll quickly become a mental or environmental burden.
Excessive water consumption, the use of harmful pesticides, monocultures, pollution and the rampant mistreatment of people are all unsustainable and we of course need to promote brands who fight against that. However, we also need to address the fact that making 80 billion new garments every single year is also utterly, inherently unsustainable and we can’t fight our way out of that by buying even more. In fact, doing so only validates the fast fashion business model.
I don’t advocate for laying the responsibility of fixing fashion at the feet of individuals; we need sanctions, government-led targets and real accountability from big business. However if, as a group of champions for the cause, we’re to lay out a vision for a new and revolutionised fashion industry, we can’t position shopping as it currently exists at the centre of that.
Someone with a full wardrobe doesn’t need 10 or 20 or 30 more pieces to see them through the season. It’s a tired trick that encourages us to buy more to fill a hole in our lives that we’ve been convinced to believe exists. Do we really want to emulate the fast fashion-driven media to the letter, merely swapping out Topshop for People Tree? Or do we want to to build something new; encouraging creativity, contentment, generosity, longevity and purposeful choices? I know what I want.
Let’s shift the narrative, change the language and – crucially – slow down.
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