With freak weather becoming ever more frequent and scientific evidence continuing to pile up, irrefutably proving that humans are completely trashing the planet, the only people who don’t believe that we need to take drastic action to save our ecosystem from total destruction are fringe lunatics who believe Jesus was friends with dinosaurs and employees of the Trump administration – although many would argue that there’s a high degree of crossover between the two.
While it has been long-known that plastic packaging, fossil fuels and meat farming are all major contributors to our eco-suicide, it’s only recently that the fashion industry has come under scrutiny – and it’s about time. According to Ecowatch, fashion is the world’s second-biggest polluter, outdone only by big oil. But because we can’t visibly see noxious fumes pluming out of our wardrobes and billowing up towards the atmosphere to tear the ozone layer a new one, the industry manages to evade criticism whilst murdering us quietly. Thankfully, these uncomfortable truths have bubbled to the surface and a growing corner of the industry is paying ever-greater attention to sustainability and ethical production practices.
A number of these brands have been documented here on Highsnobiety and each has its own method of reducing its ecological footprint: many use strictly organic materials, eschew pesticides and avoid exploitative labor practices. But is this really enough? Does sustainable fashion really have much of a chance of saving the world, or at least diverting the industry off its ecologically destructive trajectory in any meaningful sense? Sorry to piss on everyone’s parade, but I would argue no.
The simple fact is that not enough is being done on behalf of the clothing industry to soften its environmental impact. The use of organic cotton is one of the most widely proliferated practices in sustainable fashion, but according to statistics from 2012, it comprised only 0.7 percent of total global cotton production. More recent figures state that the number hovers at a mere 1 percent right now. Although something is always better than nothing, it hardly needs saying that this amounts to sweet fuck all in the grand scheme of things.
Fast fashion has been widely named and shamed in recent years as the dirtiest player in the global clothing industry. Its high level of output creates masses of waste and its dirt-cheap prices are maintained by cutting the cost of labor and scaling back on ethical practices – indeed, less than two percent of women working in Bangladeshi sweatshops for fast fashion retailers earn a living wage. Because low cost usually results in shitty quality, many of those garms usually end up in the bin by the season’s end. Eighty-four percent of disposed clothing, meanwhile, ends up being incinerated into the atmosphere.
Realizing this and attempting to earn themselves some good press, H&M has a recycling program where customers can bring in old clothes from any brand that can then be recycled into new textile fibers. As a reward, customers are even given vouchers that can be used at H&M on more disposable tat.
It’s a good idea, in theory, but according to Newsweek, only 0.1 percent of ALL the clothes recycled by charities and take-back programs – not just H&M’s – end up being recycled into new textile fibers. That’s nothing. And to put it into context, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, recycling all of those textiles would have the same environmental impact as removing 7.3 million cars (and the carbon dioxide emissions that they emit) off the road. Seriously guys, if you’re not going to do it properly you might as well not even bother.
There isn’t a clothing brand on the planet that has done more for the environment than Patagonia. Aside from doing all the usual things like utilizing sustainable materials and employing ethical practices such as the use of torture-free goose down, its Worn Wear program actively encourages people to bring their battered old Patagonia products into stores to have them either repaired or re-sold. This is part of their much-lauded “anti-growth” strategy, where rather than manipulating its customers into consuming more or seducing new ones into its orbit through aggressive advertising, it helps them get maximum use out of their purchases, thus reducing demand for new ones.
The ideological significance of Patagonia’s anti-growth approach can’t be overstated. One of the key tenets of capitalism is the infinite growth paradigm. Under this paradigm, companies must always increase their profits. Stagnation and decline are treated as intolerable ailments that must be swiftly corrected, but you can’t achieve growth without increasing consumption. This is inherently problematic.
We are currently consuming more resources than the earth is able to generate, and Earth Overshoot Day (the day where we’ve consumed our sustainable stockpile for the year) is currently scheduled for August 2. Our dominant economic model ensures that Overshoot Day arrives earlier every single year. Patagonia and its success is essential because it provides an alternative blueprint for businesses to follow, one that reconciles growth with sustainability. But even this isn’t without its pitfalls. The brand’s founder, Yvon Chouinard wrote in his memoir-cum-manifesto, Let My People Go Surfing: “Patagonia will never be completely socially responsible. It will never make a totally sustainable non-damaging product. But it is committed to trying.”
That trying and honesty is admirable, but one singular brand can never do enough to enact serious change. It’s difficult to ascertain exactly how big the sustainable fashion industry is because each brand is eco-friendly to varying degrees and even one like Patagonia isn’t fully sustainable, but safe to say it’s still a fairly niche interest.
Taking a quick glance through this list of 21 sustainable and ethical brands, only two of them have any sort of mainstream profile: Nudie Jeans, and, of course, Patagonia. Esprit and The North Face are two other notable examples, but they’re a rarity. Stella McCartney is a champion for sustainable fashion, yet one of her most recent collections was only 53 percent sustainable. If the believers are so far from perfect and there are so few of them, the task of making the wider fashion industry truly sustainable looks to be a gargantuan ask.
The fact is that meaningful progress on these issues can only be achieved through tough government legislation. How many brands like Patagonia are there on the market? None, really. It’s an illusion that business can be expected to do the right thing through its own volition because the purpose of business is to turn a profit; it’s the state’s responsibility to regulate how the means through which that profit is achieved. If elements from the Patagonia model could somehow be standardized across the entire clothing industry then sustainable fashion could make a meaningful effect on environmental conservation. But, as things stand, it’s little more than a vanity project that cleanses the conscience rather than an effective strategy.
Now check out these 12 mind-blowing facts that could change how you consume fashion.
- Lead image: Le21eme