Is Sustainable Fashion A Plausible Truth or Fallacy?

When it comes to the issue of sustainable fashion, multinational brands are not the only entity accountable for ensuring an eco-friendly approach. While it is the manufacturer’s responsibility to create in a way most considerate of humanity and the environment, consumers carry equal weight in being conscious of their purchases.

The evolution of the 21st century’s fast fashion system – where inexpensive designs move quickly from the runway, into stores to meet and create new trends – has since pushed idealistic dreams of sustainable fashion further and further away. Challenging the traditional means of annual four-seasonal releases (Fall, Winter, Spring and Summer), it is not uncommon for fast fashion retailers to introduce new products multiple times a week, utilizing replication, rapid production, and low quality materials in an attempt to stay ahead of competitors and on-trend.

With about 52 “micro-seasons” a year, fast fashion retailors produce at least one new collection per week, and are at all times, equipped with a towering supply of stocked merchandise. While these methods keep stores from running low on designs and help them appear consistently “fresh” , their goals are to ensure consumers never tire from their inventory.

The accelerated production pace coupled with low retailing costs, inevitably lead to poor and inconsistent product quality, which lack longevity and will eventually be thrown out or replaced with something “trendier” in a year or two. While this is an igneous business model for ensuring a retained consumer base, each element which characterizes “fast fashion” has severe consequences not just to the overworked and underpaid workers involved, but to the environment.

As the fashion industry’s leading contributor of pollution, fast fashion is responsible for at least 5% of total global emissions – with the textile production industry producing more emissions than international flights and maritime shipping. With 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 produced per year, textile production easily ranks as one of the world’s most destructive industries.

60% of all textiles are used in the fashion industry and a large proportion of clothing is manufactured in countries which rely on coal-fuelled power plants such as China and India – increasing the carbon footprint of each garment. In addition, to the consequence of production, research has revealed that in the United States, an estimated 11 million tonnes of clothing – full of lead, pesticide and an innumerable amount of chemicals – get thrown out every year.

Stella McCartney is one of numerous brands working toward cruelty-free, no-fur, ready-to-wear fashion for both men and women. Reshaping fashion from the get-go of the early 90’s, Stella is known for creating modern garments which exude natural confidence, utilizing reengineered cashmere and ethically-sourced wool, organic cotton and recycled textiles. In 2014, the brand launched a simple five-step labelling system to help consumers care for and prolong the life of their clothing through mindful garment care. This system entitled ‘Clevercare’, aimed to minimise consumer wastage, considering the brand’s potential carbon footprint at every point of the product’s life. Stella McCartney is an official member of the Ethical Trading Initiative, and has actively collaborated with various Non-Profit and environmental conservation organisations, such as Wildlife Works and Parley for the Oceans.

Major French international luxury group, Kering is also taking strides to become sustainable. In September this year, Kering pledged to become carbon neutral within its own operations and across its entire supply chain. Under the conglomerate’s control, the pledge includes luxury brands Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Bottega Veneta, and Alexander McQueen, among others. With a goal to offset the entire group’s annual greenhouse gas emissions from 2018, Kering plans to work towards avoiding and reducing its environmental footprint by 50% by 2025.

Revealing its intention to purchase carbon offset credits from REDD+, an international initiative supporting forest conservation projects in developing countries, for every unit of carbon it fails to eliminate, Gucci alongside, Kering will accomplish their sustainability goals through verified best-in-class REDD+ projects that conserve critical forests, biodiversity and support the livelihoods of local communities.

Despite the significant initiatives of revered name brands, critics and experts have accused the industry of offering consumers and the media mere “lip service” while co-opting the phrase as a marketing ploy to shift more product without enacting real change.

Of all the measures set in place, “carbon neutral” runway shows have gained immense traction – beginning with the Gabriela Hearst show at New York Fashion Week, followed by Burberry in London, and Gucci in Milan. However, according to senior expert in McKinsey’s Apparel, Fashion and Luxury Group, Saskia Hedrich, who works closely with brands on strategy, sourcing optimization, merchandising and sustainability: While there is a lack of objective criteria in rating fashion sustainability, using recycled materials or pledging to become carbon neutral does not necessarily make a brand sustainable. For example, cutting down on single-use plastic is just one element of sustainability, it does nothing for the humanitarian-aspect where 90% of garment workers worldwide are denied negotiating power over factory conditions, wages or their own health and safety.

Former fashion editor of the Financial Times and newly appointed chief fashion critic and director of the New York Times, Vanessa Friedman, confronted the fallacies of sustainable fashion in her speech at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, in April this year. Pointing out the contradictions of the two-worded phrase, Friedman dispelled sustainable fashion as a the false and pretentious myth, “On the one hand the fashion industry is under the pressure to be new, on the other is the imperative to maintain. If you put them together, they repel each other, like the opposite ends of a magnet.”

Urging listeners to actively reduce consumption through the collation of a sustainable wardrobe – swapping out fast fashion for higher quality garments and accessories with varying styles, which can be mixed and matched multiple times to create fresh outfits. Her solutions align with eco-conscious fashion label, Asket – an activist brand with the sole, slow-fashion mission of creating clothes with longevity. The name Asket which translates to “A person who does without extravagance and abundance”, is felicitous to the brand which believes in mindful manufacturing, fair labour rights, natural-only material, and lasting garments.