Or slow fashion. Or environmentally conscious apparel. Regardless of what you call it, what exactly is it?
By Tanima Hasan, SUNY New Paltz Student
Illustrated by Tatyana Starikova
A broad definition of sustainable fashion is clothing produced with the intention of manufacturing garments that create the least amount of harm. Harm can be put into two different categories, which we will explore: environmental and humane.
Sustainable fashion is produced at a much slower rate than its counterpart, fast fashion—hence its being dubbed as slow fashion. The reason for the “slow down” is to ensure quality and integrity of the pieces, not overwork the people producing the garments, reduce the harm done to the environment post-manufacture and prolong the shelf life of the garments.
The fast-fashion industry is, well, extremely fast paced and operates with much shorter “seasons” than what we are aware of when we watch fashion week. During this event, we’re aware of only two main seasons: spring/summer and fall/winter. Within fast fashion, these seasons exist but are further broken down so that every two to three months there is another “season,” thus creating a loop where the consumer is constantly out of style and must purchase clothing to remain on trend.
Due to the extremely low prices of these garments, the consumer is tricked into believing they are getting a good deal, when in reality what they are buying is not well produced; the garments will lose their integrity (shape, color, elasticity) after the first couple of washes. Interestingly, the decline of the clothing happens in conjunction with the incoming of the new fast-fashion season. A coincidence? I think not.
The dyes and chemicals involved in producing clothing are extremely toxic and often dumped into neighboring water bodies close to the manufacturing plant. These bodies of water then become uninhabitable for the wildlife that lived within them and undrinkable to animals nearby. The water also becomes integrated within the water cycle, which can then cause acid rain. Not to mention how synthetic garments—such as rayon, polyester and nylon, among others—are produced through several extremely environmentally harmful processes, such as fracking.
And the damage does not stop there. After this clothing is produced, it goes through inspection, where clothing determined not up to par is rejected and then thrown into landfills. This clothing often contains synthetic fabrics, which will not even begin to biodegrade within our lifetime. And because these products are not easily biodegradable, the only cost-effective way to get rid of them is to burn them, which of course produces noxious fumes that will affect the surrounding environment as well as our ozone layer.
Clothing companies target developing countries with high levels of poverty and lax labor-regulation laws. This allows companies to commission clothing that can be produced at high volumes, incredibly fast and extremely cheap. This may sound like a win-win situation, but in reality, it’s the companies who have everything to gain and the workers everything to lose. Countries have varying codes of safety and concern for workers. What may be considered safe and sanitary working conditions in Bangladesh—a country where many fast-fashion companies have their manufacturing centers—would not pass inspection in the United States. This is how companies can claim any negligence was the fault of the owners of the factories and not theirs. All too often, this is a case of willful ignorance. These factories often have occupancy well beyond the space provided, a disproportionate restroom-to-worker ratio and may be rampant with abuse.
For some perspective, consider that with the amount of money these workers are paid, they are not even able to afford the five-dollar t-shirts—or any clothing—that they make.
Going sustainable not only benefits the environment and the garment workers, but it will help innovate your wardrobe. By not following the fast-fashion calendar, you will not fall into the trap of feeling you have to reinvent your wardrobe every couple of months. Instead, you can carefully think about the next piece of clothing you want to buy—if any. Doing so allows you to really think about what your aesthetic is rather than what happens to be trendy at the time. Trends are usually created through cultural zeitgeist, but due to the nature of fast fashion, they can be artificially created to outdate consumer wardrobes. In my own experience, I have found that dressing how I feel brings me more joy than following the newest trends. Fashion is an amazing avenue of expressing yourself, and what better way to do it than to dress in tune with how you are experiencing the world! Your wardrobe is something that should bring you happiness and confidence; every single piece should be carefully considered before purchasing and be versatile enough to be worn with the rest of your clothes. A piece of advice is to think of how many different ways you can wear something before you buy it. Buying an item you might only wear once and can’t wear with anything else will cause it to go unloved and ultimately get pushed aside from your essential wardrobe.
As a college student who absolutely loves shopping, I found it hard to break the relationship with fast fashion’s cheap prices, but a friend introduced me to the concept of secondhand and vintage shopping. There are several secondhand shopping apps available, Mercari (www.mercari.com) and Poshmark (www.poshmark.com) being two of my favorites, where items are sold at low prices by people who want to upcycle their old wardrobe. I’ve purchased many wonderful pieces through these sites, but I think my favorite find to date has been my snake-texture Dr. Martens.
Another way to sustainably shop is through local artists and designers. You will be supporting someone within your own community and also have access to the person who created it should any problems arise. Local craftspeople proudly produce high-quality items, and this small manufacturing model is much more kind to the environment than large-scale operations.
Sustainable fashion is becoming a rising consumer demand, and companies are complying. Kind of. Some companies simply use clever wording within their promotion campaign to give the image they are sustainable. Case in point: “100 percent cotton.” Growing cotton is extremely detrimental to the environment, as the fertilizers used end up in “freshwater habitats and groundwater, causing oxygen-free deadzones,” according to a 2010 article in Business Ethics. This is one example of why it is important to research companies before you buy from them. An easy way to do this is to look at where the clothing says it is produced, then research that country’s labor-regulation laws to see if they are defined clearly and justly. Your business is valuable to these companies, so sustainable clothing brands should have transparency about their sourcing, manufacturing and accountability regarding their workers’ safety.
Many people wonder what they should do with their clothes that are considered unsustainable, but the answer to that is quite easy: your unsustainable clothing should be treated the way it was before you read this article, since throwing it out would be contributing to that 84 percent of unwanted clothing that ends up in landfills (according to a study done by the Environmental Protection Agency). The best course of action would be to sort through your closet, keep what you love and use, and then join other people in selling the clothes you no longer wish to keep—or do a clothing swap with your friends! Anything that is left can be donated to shelters, thrift stores or even textile recyclers. I sometimes repurpose my old clothes into rags for cleaning or as sources of fabric for art projects.
Sustainability in all forms, be it within fashion or daily life, is important to the survival of our planet. While we can individually hold ourselves to the standard of buying clothes in an ethical manner, we must make corporations admit and rectify their part in harming the environment as well as human beings. Because unless they change their manner of manufacturing, this damaging cycle will continue. █