How green is sustainable fashion really?

Can the trend towards buying sustainable fashion really help at a time of climate crisis, or should we simply be buying less clothing?

Dr Rimi Khan and Dr Harriette Richards, University of Melbourne

Dr Rimi KhanDr Harriette Richards

Published 6 December 2019

Much of the commentary on ethical and sustainable fashion focuses on how to make people ‘better’ shoppers. The aim is not only to ‘look good,’ but to ‘do good’ and to ‘feel good’ as a result of how and what we buy.

Apps like Good On You and Shop Ethical! provide information for consumers wanting to make more ethical and sustainable consumption choices, and online marketplaces like Well Made Clothes, Thread Harvest, and eco.mono provide destinations where people can shop.

No longer a niche market, sustainable fashion has become a trend. Picture: Shutterstock

While these are welcome antidotes to fast fashion online retailers like Asos or The Iconic, they nevertheless reproduce the same forms of desire-production that keep us consuming.

The myriad forms of advice on where to go shopping, which brands to buy and which local designers to support simply give us permission to keep buying and assuage our feelings of guilt: we are saving the planet with our wallet.

This imperative to keep consuming, especially as we enter the holiday season, is amplified by major retailers like H&M, Zara and The Iconic who aim to convince consumers of their ethical and sustainable credentials.

These brands have each recently launched a Conscious Collection, Join Life campaign and Considered Edit that reflect the mainstreaming of pro-sustainability attitudes in the fashion industry.

No longer a niche market, sustainable fashion has become a trend. No longer a luxury, it is available to the masses who are encouraged to purchase items that are fashionable and visibly express personal environmental concern.

However, unlike the designs championed by ethical fashion marketplaces, collections developed by H&M, Zara and The Iconic are often blatant examples of ‘greenwashing.’

Following the launch of H&M’s Conscious Collection, the brand and CEO Karl-Johan Persson in particular, came under fire for their misleading promotion strategy.

Leading brands have come under fire for their misleading or vague sustainability claims. Picture: Getty Images

Norway’s Consumer Authority questioned the legitimacy of H&M’s claims to sustainable production, concluding that “consumers are being given the impression that these products are more ‘sustainable’ than they actually are.”

Zara has also been called out for its similarly ‘vague’ sustainability claims.

When fast fashion is based on constant and rapid mass-production, can the increased use of renewable energy and recycled materials really make a difference to the environmental impact of over-supply? Not to mention the ethical social dimensions of low-cost manufacturing?

Questions of sustainability, ethics and environmental concern while shopping in the time of climate crisis are far from simple. Even people who care about being green do not always buy green.

This ‘ethical consumption gap’ is well documented.

While information about environmental certifications, supply chain transparency, labour standards, sustainable materials and circular systems of production is welcome, it can be overwhelming.

There is an assumption that consumers are rational subjects; armed with the right knowledge, we will make the ‘right’ choices. However, ethical calculations are complex and encompass a host of other often contradictory decisions about care for family, household budgets and convenience.

As well as the financial and cultural capital required to consume sustainably, choosing between ethical products becomes a practice of what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls social distinction or stratification.

This is where our purchasing decisions become a way of distinguishing ourselves and claiming social power through class differentiation.

There is a growing call to stop buying clothes. Picture: Getty Images

‘Voting with your dollar’ becomes an expression of lifestyle rather than activism. The rise of supposedly sustainable brands and the many choices we now have between them, simply ensures that we continue to consume.

But there is a growing call to stop buying clothes. In 2016, outdoor equipment retailer Patagonia famously asked consumers not to buy its products. More recently, sustainable fashion campaigners Eco-Age have implored shoppers to#TakeBackBlackFriday.

Extinction Rebellion’s recent call to boycott fashion for 52 weeks contends that ‘business as usual’ is no longer an acceptable approach for ensuring a future lived within our planetary limits.

All these movements might be understood as expressions of ‘voluntary simplicity’ that resist Western consumerist ideals.

If economic and political restructuring is needed to avoid climate catastrophe, these can only be enacted if they are supported by significant cultural shifts.

Researchers have been arguing that the economic de-growth required in the time of climate crisis is a question of both politics and ethics.

There is a need for legal and political change, but we also have to ask ourselves difficult questions about how we should live our lives.

Buying ‘green’ fashion and boycotting fashion altogether are not completely opposed.

Seeking out, and shopping for, sustainable brands still matters, but practices and choices about sustainability should not be limited to choosing between products.

Buying less also has other benefits – it saves money and time, encourages creativity, increases satisfaction and gives us pause to think about what being a climate activist might look like – beyond ethical shopping.

Banner: Shutterstock

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