The notion of sustainability cannot be separated from industry. Industrial agriculture, manufacturing, forestry, services, and renewable industries can all be connected to sustainability in a way that either reflects it or antagonizes it. The textile industry is no exception. Eileen Fisher, the designer of an apparel company under the same name, has stated that the fashion industry is one of the largest polluters in the world, second only to oil. While this claim cannot be verified based on what little data that has been collected, it’s certainly possible that she is not far off.
Regardless of whether or not we want to admit it for fear of vanity or superficiality, clothing is an important part of culture and self-expression and we make conscious decisions every single day about how we want to present ourselves to the rest of our communities. Yet, oftentimes we give little thought to where the clothing we wear comes from, or how it was made.
Parallels can be drawn between this attitude towards clothing and our attitude towards food: we care about what the food we eat does for our bodies, just like we care about how the clothing we wear looks on our bodies; however, rarely do we think about the food that we eat and how it is raised affects the earth or those who produce it, just as we rarely think about how the clothing that we wear affects the earth or those who manufacture it.
This is another example of how our anthropocentric attitudes take precedent over humankind’s relationship with the earth and disenfranchised communities whose labor we take advantage of (i.e. sweatshop workers and agricultural workers). Just because we might not physically see the consequences, does not mean they do not exist.
This is especially true of the textile industry today. There is far more focus on the concept of “fast fashion” than ever before. Fast fashion is the term used by fashion retailers to define designs that move from the catwalk to retail stores quickly enough to keep up with ever-changing fashion trends. These textiles are generated quickly, cheaply, en masse, and often are poorly made because they weren’t created to last long. Some examples of fast fashion brands are Zara, H&M, Forever 21, ASOS, and similar retailers that are churning out collections faster than consumers can purchase them. These clothes are frequently made in developing countries and involve child labor and sweatshops, can be laced with dangerous chemicals such as lead, and are created with little regard for the environment. As with most commodities in capitalist nations, profit is the main concern for many of these retailers. Media and globalization have affected consumer trends in a big way, and consumers want to have immediate access to textiles they see in the media. This is the opposite of what we need if we are working towards sustainable fashion.
I am acutely aware of this issue as I sit writing this piece in a pair of H&M overalls. It’s difficult to afford well made, ethical, sustainable, long-lasting clothing when cheap, easy options permeate the market. However, when possible, those splurges are worth it. The $30 Reformation tank top I am wearing underneath the overalls was made ethically, with less water than traditional retail, reasonably-paid local workers, and with the instructions to wash it in a sustainable way. There are retailers emerging to combat the fast fashion trend, such as Reformation, Everlane, Ethica, and Freedom of Animals, that model their business practices on sustainability and ethical sourcing. These types of brands are gaining traction with celebrities and regular consumers alike. Even the traditional fast fashion retailers, while not necessarily changing their current business practices, are switching up their marketing strategies by advocating for recycling clothing. H&M now has a separate sustainable line called H&M Conscious, and popular brands such as Nike, American Eagle Outfitters, Patagonia, and The North Face all accept used clothing (sometimes even from other brands). A new startup brand Evrnu, has the goal of using 100% recycled textiles and a 98% reduction of water use and, “to use no virgin product in the creation of [their] fiber, and create no waste”.
Fashion epitomizes trends. Hopefully the fast fashion trend is as fleeting as their collections, and the sustainable fashion movement is the new classic.