When it comes to sustainability, the fashion industry is at the top of the list for the industries claiming to always be going a step further. With goals as far as ten or 15 years from now, imprecise data and somewhat tricky maneuvers, clothing and makeup brands have succeeded in coming up with new products and business models that cater to guilt-free shopping. But is it really doing much?
Over the last decade, a wide range of products has come out with eco-tags, such as carbon-neutral, organic, and vegan. But other than significantly increasing their price point, many of these items are not that long-lasting and still designed to be discarded as soon as the trend is over.
How many of these claims can we, as consumers, actually track?
The sad truth is that there is actually very little that consumers can fact-check when it comes to the production process in fashion. What we do know is that a lot of the most common claims around sustainable wear are not doing great in numbers. If we have a look at the production of casual wear, such as shoes and shirts, the number of items—both for sale and burning in landfills—has more than doubled during the last decade. Additionally, the increasing demand for cheap footwear and apparel has resulted in more than double the number of new items produced from non-biodegradable petroleum-based synthetic materials.
The precise environmental impact of the fashion industry is still difficult to track. Because of the way the production model is built, however, the supplies are obtained is a step still lacking in transparency. A very select number of brands own their production factories, and most outsource not only material extraction but also final production. This results in imprecise environmental impact estimations that could range from 5% to 15% percent.
Like all industries, fashion is not exempt from its need for continuous growth. However, unlike other industries, the items produced in fashion don’t stop performing as efficiently with time. So, the fashion industry increases demand by pushing for change. This is why fashion is seasonal. This year’s dress is not better than last year’s; it’s just different.
Overproduction really is inevitable in fashion. Clothes need to have as short a life span as possible to urge consumers to buy again, and they need to be cheap. This is why synthetic materials like polyester is the number one fiber used in clothes production. The more polyester a brand requires, the more energy sacrificed during its extraction and the longer the items produced will take to degrade, if ever.
The role of consumers
Consumers can’t be blamed for this. While it is true that no business model works without demand, the fashion industry is, at its core, an industry of trends. It has set the pace for a lot of our behaviors for decades, and pushing for consumers to spend more money on eco-friendly items and more time recycling and repurposing won’t do a lot in the bigger picture. It is on the industry and government’s end to make a change that is mathematically meaningful. As long as green and carbon-neutral are nothing more than a marketing scheme, sustainability in fashion will remain a myth.