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.