All over the fashion industry, we can see buzzwords “ethical” and “sustainable” popping up everywhere with little-to-no explanation on what these terms actually mean. As newer brands emerge with mission statements to be carbon neutral and create long-lasting products, established luxury brands are now competing to prove their worth, justify their practices, and target the younger generation. With so many companies introducing modern, eco-friendly manufacturing processes, is there any room left for the fashion house giants?
What do “sustainable” and “ethical” really mean?
Fundamentally there’s a distinction between ethical fashion and sustainable fashion. Ethical doesn’t necessarily mean the brand is a green company, the term instead describes a company neutralizing the harm it has put into the process of manufacturing the products – kind of like one good deed for one bad action. But being “ethical” should be a given. Just as how people are expected to be law-abiding, companies should expect to reduce as much harm as possible to ensure limiting the toll fashion has on the environment.
Sustainable fashion, though, represents the materials used. Sustainable fibers, even within man-made fibers, can be recycled or made from nonorganic products. Rather than relying on harmful materials such as cotton or animal furs and skins, companies can use leftovers and byproducts. Currently, 95 percent of clothes worn can be repurposed, recycled, or reused; of those clothes, only 15 percent are recycled in some form, and 85 percent go to the landfill. Now stay with me here: Leftover petroleum from refineries is actually better to use than many organic materials because they have been repurposed and can be biodegradable. Petroleum being a sustainable material is hard to grasp – and the fashion industry takes advantage of that confusion.
The top 1% and the top 99%
Luxury fashion houses go hand-in-hand with fast fashion brands. In fact, fast fashion brands are created for a demand to mimic luxury pieces at an “affordable” price – but the idea of affordability and accessibility is where the problem begins. Ultimately the need, demand, and expectation of these cheaper prices on these items cause the environmental damage that we’re currently seeing.
Fashion Nova, arguably the largest dupe clothing website, exploded in recent years due to its ability to quickly create celebrity outfit dupes. Consumers see their favorite celebrities post an outfit on Instagram, and instead of shelling out hundreds of dollars to buy the same dress, they can buy a dupe at a fraction of the price. Even though the quality is nothing compared to a fashion house’s, the consumer is focused on style rather than longevity – most fast fashion items are worn a grand total of seven times before being tossed, but that number may be even lower now.
We never had a fashion waste problem for thousands upon thousands of years. But our waste has been accelerating in the past 10 years, so much so that we can’t even keep up with what is currently being produced, leading the U.S. alone to throw away over 11 million tons of clothing every year. There needs to be a back to basics – a back to keepable pieces.
The alarm bells are sounding
Consumers are paying more attention to the companies they purchase from and their environmental practices. The younger generation, although originally large contributors to fast fashion companies, is now the most eco-conscious generation with a willingness to spend 10 percent more on sustainable products.
As Gen-Z matures and comes into “adult money,” it’s soon to take over the millennial’s throne as the top spender, and this generation’s push for sustainability is unlikely to slow. The focus is on the now attainable luxury brands such as Dior, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and the like. To keep up with the most recent consumer trends, these pre-established fashion houses will need to adapt their practices in the next 10 years.
Or, maybe they won’t. Other companies, such as Everlane, are advertising themselves as champions of sustainability when they actually have controversial manufacturing processes. A site called good on you is a directory that ranks the ethics of a brand, explaining how it treats employees, which materials it uses, and how it treats animals, among other things. This site can be a major tool for consumers who want to make informed decisions on what stores they buy from, and it offers better alternatives for your previous choices.
While the fashion industry remains a large polluter, this is one industry where the consumers can shape the future of it and its practices. With the right research and education, all consumers will be able to create a sustainable fashion ecosystem and improve companies’ practices.