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.”
Here’s the bigger picture: Those companies making $5 T-shirts aren’t just continuing to do business as usual, they’re actually growing. In fact, the global fashion economy is speeding up at such a rapid pace that it’s essentially cancelling out the progress being made on the sustainability front. It’s enough to make you throw up your hands and say, What’s the point? It’s true that if I don’t buy that T-shirt, it will create a domino effect—it’s one less T-shirt the brand won’t have to produce, and if other shoppers adopt the same mentality, it could make a difference down the line. But the planet doesn’t have time for that kind of slow-and-steady build. (A recent U.N. report said the global climate crisis could occur by 2040 if greenhouse gas emissions aren’t reduced soon; the fashion industry is estimated to contribute 10% of those emissions.)
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.)
Semaan has a radically simple suggestion: that brands should divert marketing funds to research and development. As sustainability becomes more of a “trend,” things are getting murkier in the world of social media and traditional marketing, from misleading Instagram ads to false statistics. “There’s a lack of honesty, a lack of information, and so much opacity,” she says. “And brands are talking about what they’re doing as opposed to doing. We meet with companies and tell them, ‘This is what it’s going to take to make the brand more sustainable,’ and then we hear, ‘Well, we have no budget for this,’ because they’re a corporate social responsibility team or the head of sustainability. The company has the money to execute on the things they’re shouting about on social media, but it’s all being allocated to marketing, not innovation. It’s just a matter of reconfiguring the system.”
In the 2020s, that could involve working collaboratively with other “systems” across the industry. Earlier this year, Kering chair and CEO François-Henri Pinault revealed he’d been enlisted by French president Emmanuel Macron to create a coalition of CEOs and top brands in the fashion industry to set ambitious sustainability targets together. (You know the old saying: If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.) “Leaders have to put themselves in these uncomfortable positions,” Pinault said. “You may not meet the targets, but you’ll make a difference.” His head of sustainable sourcing, Dr. Helen Crowley, added: “We have to get out of our bubble and leverage the solutions we can achieve by working together.”
The food and wellness industry is succeeding because it made organic, natural products seem glamorous and aspirational—sexy, even—with an underlying message of self-care and self-improvement. (See: Goop; the new wave of eco-influencers.) That might be the only missing ingredient in the fashion conversation. What if we could convince everyone that an organic silk dress was “better for you” than a polyester one? I would argue that’s true in terms of emotional value, but it might require something more physical and immediate to really get people’s attention. Designer Gabriela Hearst has stated that she believes synthetic fabrics slowly leach chemicals into your skin; what if that was one day proven, and synthetic materials became a thing we avoided like GMOs and preservatives in our food?
In the meantime, while it’s tempting to be frustrated by the current state of things, it’s also worth considering the words of Parley’s Cyrill Gutsch. “Fashion,” he told me last year, “has the power to change people’s minds in a very quick way. It has a big role to play in environmentalism, because it [speaks to] people on an emotional and instinctual level. It speaks to desire and beauty, and allows us to convey this very serious message about the fragility of the planet in a way that isn’t preachy. It’s positive. And it’s fast.”