Sustainability vs. fashion: who wins?
If I had to ask myself, ‘do you know what makes a sustainable fashion item truly sustainable?’, guess what? I wouldn’t know the answer! Something important to note here is that I actually do not know about many things - I didn’t think camels were real animals, I thought ‘baby hairs’ were literally hairs that you had as a baby that stayed with you for life, and only the other day did I actually finally accept on a molecular level that Washington D.C is on the east coast of the USA (I finally gave in and googled it after watching Hamilton).
Sustainable fashion has obviously been having a huge moment in the burning, too-hot sun: as we move toward a world that is starting to recognise the need for clean and green approaches to most of our lives, we also need to acknowledge that the methods for creation of fashion need to alter to keep in line with these aspirations.
So you’ve definitely seen various items of clothing being described as ‘ethically sourced’ ‘environmentally friendly’ and ‘sustainably made.’ You, like me, have probably picked up the item, shrugged, trusted the label, and given yourself a pat on the back for being an eco-warrior.
But do buzzwords actually connote sustainability? What counts as being genuinely sustainable, and how do we avoid inevitable greenwashing by fast fashion brands?
Essentially, sustainable fashion is based on the principles of slow fashion, which centres around minimising social, economic and natural cost that is paid through production of garments. Still vague! Okay - sustainable fashion shouldn’t hurt people, pockets or the earth.
Slow fashion relies on empowerment: better supply chain management, upcycling, recycling, through using traditional production methods that don’t murder the earth. One key thing to note is the word slow: if a brand is putting out items slowly - ie. one or two collections per year - it doesn’t necessarily connote them as an ethical brand. The term ‘slow’ in slow fashion actually refers to the balanced pace of production, and taking time to get all elements of the process right for people, pockets and the earth. Just chant PEOPLE, POCKETS, EARTH and you’ve pretty much got it.
This is me, at London Men's Fashion Week earlier this year - I was seeing Bethany Williams, who truly is a masterclass in sustainable fashion that supports the community as well. This broody lil pic was shot by the lovely Bojidar Chkorev, in the crypt of a church. Fun!
So, let’s start with people. For a brand to be sustainable, they have to treat their workers right. Sounds simple, but you’d be surprised. This really rose to the foreground of fashion conversation during the Rana Plaza incident, which involved the collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh. Over 1100 people died after the building crumbled, due to a lack of labour inspection systems and zero proper building foundation. The incident (note: we don’t call it an accident, because there clearly is a rampantly unjust and entirely hazardous power structure to blame here), from the exploitation of the largely female workforce to the rampant disease and danger-ridden location, shone a light on where exactly so many of our clothes are made.
So before you buy something with a ‘conscious’ label, do some digging and suss out where their clothes are made: are they exploiting the labour of developing nations?
Next, pockets. The economy! Sustainable fashion has to have a positive economical effect - ie. it has to be affordable, but also it has to be priced in a way that ensures fair compensation for the artisans as well. Lately, this has also been in the news, with some brands refusing to compensate factories for cancelled work due to COVID - check if your favourite brands feature on the list.
An important point here, as well, is asking ‘is it even possible to have sustainable brands, under the current economic system?’ Probably not - the current capitalistic structures aren’t set up to adequately pay workers, artists, minorities, creatives. We know this, huns!
So while we are operating in a restrictive system, we have to do everything we can to change it - and the first thing is at least being aware that not everything that is labelled as ‘sustainable’ actually is.
Lastly, the earth. I always wild tf out when I read that so many brands just burn their unsold merch, to protect their precious auras of exclusivity (even H&M does, which, I mean...honey, what are you protecting there?). So, not only is BURNING CLOTHES terrible for the environment, but harnessing resources to produce more than you need anyway is a terrible starting point. Amongst other ills, the fashion industry pollutes the air, pollutes waterways through dumping of dyes (incredible investigation by my friends at Al Jazeera), and over-farming of natural organisms - and it all comes back to asking where, how and who makes my clothes?
I can proudly say that Maison de Choup is a certified sustainable brand - tees are made from 100% cotton, with the supplier being a member of the Fair Wear Foundation, and all clothing is also tested for harmful substances, using the Oeko-Tex© standard.
Phew! That was a heavy week. I thought that while I had you here, in the exciting germination of this column, I may as well do my best to bring up the disclaimer that fashion can be hurtful and exploitative straight up. But there are great brands out there who deserve your patronisation, and this list helpfully lays out the facts for you.
Next week, we are going to do a how to wear, which is my favourite conversation to have with any person on earth, dear God. God help you, reader! You’re never going to look at a white tee the same again!
WEARING: I just ran out of pants - pants to wear in summer; light, breezy pants - so I managed to snatch this cotton, mum-vibing, lil piece from Skin & Threads.
LISTENING TO: Las Culturistas - dude, anyone will tell you I am NOT a podcast gal. But I adore Bowen Yang, and to watch him and Matt Rogers countdown the 200 best cultural moments has been a true honour. You’re gonna agree with No. 1, no doubt.
WATCHING: Like everyone with access to a free trial of Disney+, y’all already know the answer to this. HOW DOES A BASTARD, ORPHAN, SON OF A WHORE AND SCOTSMAN–
READING: This column keeps me honest, I tell ya. I finished Becoming, and am looking to purchase Florence Given’s ‘Women Don’t Owe You Pretty,’ as soon as I have more than £5 in my Monzo.
BUYING: These kitchen containers, for no reason other than the colours and the Danish design. I am obsessed with them, and I just take a glance at them every few hours, just to cheer myself up.