Source: Vogue

Sustainability Is the Most Pressing Issue Facing FashionAnd Its Only Getting Harder
Image by Arthur Elgort, Vogue, JUne 2001

We’re on the brink of a new decade and everyone’s talking about sustainability. That’s a good and bad thing, depending on how you look at it. Yes, major strides have been made in the past few years: Luxury houses have vowed to stop destroying excess merchandise, and many of them are eliminating fur from their collections (entire cities are banning it, too, including San Francisco and potentially New York). Groundbreaking technologies are being introduced in recycled, organic, and bio-fabricated materials, and the secondhand and consignment market is estimated to reach $64 billion by 2030. Designers across the industry are beginning to incorporate sustainable practices in their collections, from Richard Quinn to Gabriela Hearst to Marni’s Francesco Risso. Evidence suggests consumers are also beginning to care about a brand’s values and impact on the planet and people. Developments like these don’t apply to every brand in this trillion-dollar industry, and that reveals the problem: Everyone is talking about sustainability, but sometimes that’s all they’re doing. If the 2010s were about talk, then the 2020s need to be about action. To see legitimate progress and change, we need to point out the gaps in the dialogue and ask harder questions.

Here’s one to start: Why is it that we still don’t understand what clothing should cost? New Yorkers line up at Sweetgreen to pay $15 for a salad, then spend less than that on a new T-shirt. It’s not just that they’ve been conditioned to think clothes should be cheap, but because those prices are everywhere. I have friends in the fashion industry who will gladly spend $17 on a glass of wine, or $75 on a single dinner, but scoff at a $250 organic silk dress they’d keep for years, getting its cost-per-wear down to dollars and cents.

The food industry has successfully convinced us that healthier, better, organic food is worth the extra cost. Why hasn’t the same thing happened in fashion? We’re living in a moment when aesthetics and taste and personal style are tantamount to affluence, yet we expect to get there by spending a handful of bills. Not everyone can afford the $250 dress, but if you knew exactly why that T-shirt cost $5, I think you’d be happy to put it back on the hanger. Still, it’s possible that once a culture has normalized these kinds of impossibly low prices, there’s no going back. And maybe it’s not the best use of my time to focus so much on changing the consumer’s mind anyways.

I talked about this with Céline Semaan, the founder of Study Hall, a sustainability summit in partnership with the United Nations. She convinced me that we can’t “shop our way to sustainability” and pointed out the elitist fallacy of the “buy less, buy better” trope. “If we’re just going to satisfy ourselves by purchasing $600 sweaters from our indie designers, we aren’t really creating change at scale,” she says. “That’s a really privileged position to be in.”

If this degree of over-production continues, the only viable solution would be for consumers to stop shopping with those brands en masse, and that hardly seems realistic. Semaan’s approach is to “responsibilize” the industry, not the consumer. Through Study Hall, she works directly with brands large and small to reconfigure their supply chains, slow down their production, and reduce their use of synthetic materials. “I get hated on for working with certain big companies,” she admits. “But how are we going to create massive impact if we don’t work with the giants? Activism can only go so far. You can shout outside the establishment, but you also need to work within the institution. It takes both.”

Semaan is advocating for government policies, too; there are startlingly few that address environmental and human standards in the fashion industry. Micro-plastics, the tiny particles released into the ocean as a result of washing polyester and other petroluem-based fabrics, is the issue she’s tackling first. “They’re very difficult to intercept and are damaging the coral reefs, but corporations have zero responsibility in this,” she explains. “So it’s becoming a citizen’s responsibility—we’re learning how to wash our polyester clothes safely, and we’re buying bags that catch micro-plastics in the laundry [like Guppy Friend filters]. But what do you do with the substance collected in the bags? Where do you dispose of that?”

We aren’t seeing the forest for the trees. Instead of patting ourselves on the back for buying micro-plastic filters or for refusing to buy a polyester dress, we should be advocating for policies that would actually hold companies accountable (and possibly eradicate the root cause—polyester and plastic-based synthetics—altogether). Even if I spent the rest of my life avoiding plastic cups, my impact wouldn’t amount to a fraction of what a massive company could achieve by phasing out plastic or synthetics in a single year. Carrying a reusable mug is one thing, but what I should be doing is insisting that more coffee shops and cafés actually compost so we can properly dispose of those “biodegradable” cold brew cups and salad containers. (News flash: Compostable plastic doesn’t just disintegrate in the garbage.)

Source: Vogue

Share This