It has been said time and time again that the environmental panic and economic turmoil of Covid-19 is forcing the fashion industry to adopt a more sustainability-based business model. But what exactly does sustainability mean?
The recent popularity of sustainability in fashion has caused for a cultural over-indulgence of a word many know nothing about. Ecologically, sustainability is defined as “the ability to be maintained without exhausting natural resources or causing severe ecological damage”, but the fashion industry buzzword, having been thrown around so frivolously, has begun to erode.
Sustainability has lost its connection to its true meaning and practical application, to the extent that self-confessed sustainable shoppers might not be doing as good a job for the environment as they think they are.
The sustainable fashion market
The sustainable fashion market has begun to dominate the industry, and big brands are taking note of this none too surprising change in consumer habits. Brands such as H&M, NIKE, ASOS and Stella McCartney are taking important steps to ensure their products are compliant with the new sustainable clothing rise.
However, as these brands promote sustainability with one hand, they contribute to the ever-growing pile of discarded, old-season clothing with the other. And a new line of products means it’s time for old products to be discarded and shipped off to landfill.
Despite the new and improved branding makeover that some companies have adorned, for those desperate to purchase the new ‘sustainable’ designs, one thing must be noted: sustainable branding does not equal a sustainable brand.
For consumers of fashion, it is important to consider the long-term environmental impact of the fashion being consumed, rather than just the immediate effect. Just because a brand steers away from fast fashion sweatshops for example, doesn’t mean their clothes aren’t contributing to the enormous overflow of unnecessary products already on the market.
The environmental impact of vegan alternatives
A part of this unnecessary product overflow is the marketability of ‘vegan leather’. Many brands such as Doc Martens offer ‘vegan alternatives’ to their leather products. But, despite the seemingly positive product description, their production can be harmful to the environment.
Although, ethically speaking, finding leather alternatives is far better than buying real leather, some ‘vegan’ products such as PVC and PU are made from plastic which cannot be recycled. And, while veganism is a truly noble cause, the chemical production of some faux leather forms actually run against the core values of the movement.
Of course, it is not the case that vegans should suddenly run to buy up all the leather bags and boots in production either. The answer is, where possible, to buy second hand.
Second hand sustainable shopping
Second-hand shopping is, essentially, the best answer to combatting throw-away culture. And it is important to remember that second hand sellers do not make the products, so any ethical reservations can be, for the most part, separated from the product.
Take the dilemma of whether to buy a pair of brand-new vegan leather boots from Nasty Gal or a pair of second-hand real leather boots from eBay. For the ethical consumer, it’s a total Sophie’s choice. If you buy the vegan leather boots you are contributing to unethical product production, but, if you buy the real leather boots you are acting against your core principles.
However, since the boots have already been bought and worn, the act of re-selling offers the boots a new and continued life. This adds further value to the unfortunate circumstance of their manufacturing process, and saves the boots from spending the rest of their days in a landfill.
Reduce, reuse, recycle
Sustainable shopping is a privilege, but it doesn’t always have to break the bank. Many of us are aware of the extortionate price tag which sustainable brands can often bare, while the social berating you get from buying fast fashion makes shopping ethically more of a chore than a choice.
But, there are many ways to recycle, upcycle, and shop consciously, without leaving you destitute.
For example, many brands have initiatives to promote fashion recycling. Campaigns such as Schuh’s “sell your soles” offer a £5 voucher for any old pair of shoes given to the store; while “runners need” offers a £20 voucher when shoes are recycled; and the 1993 Nike program “reuse-a-shoe” aims to make new shoes from the scraps of its customers old ones.
These initiatives all offer alternative ways to discard your old clothes, while helping to lighten the ethical load that comes with wanting to buy new shoes.
Process not product
As consumers we need to be conscious not only of the product, but of the process. We need to realise that the sustainable tag is only there to coerce us into buying newly made products with a false sense of security toward the environmental impact our shopping habits are having.
While buying a top on eBay or Depop might not singlehandedly save the planet, it is far more sustainable than buying straight from a ‘sustainable’ brand, and as an added bonus, it won’t hurt your pocket either.