Why “Sustainable Fashion” Means Nothing

Why “Sustainable Fashion” Means Nothing

Happy Earth Day! By now you’ve been bombarded with commitments to the planet from countless fashion brands as they outline their sustainable promises and initiatives. If you look through our instagram, you’ll see plenty of mention of being a sustainable fashion brand. Because you have to be. The success of the climate movement has made sustainability a baseline consumer expectation. Being sustainable is essential to compete today, so it has been manipulated into pithy ad copy and lost a lot of its credibility. But beyond obvious greenwashing, “sustainable fashion” itself is an oxymoron. Nothing you buy will ever be perfectly sustainable and pretending it will takes focus away from the more important big picture. 

The most cited reason for the current empty promise of the phrase “sustainable fashion” is greenwashing. A recent survey found that up to 40% of brands claiming to be sustainable had nothing to back that claim up. The constant exaggerations and empty promises by brands have created much savvier consumers. Many now research each purchase and ask pointed questions of the brands they support. But that still doesn’t get to the main issue with trying to shop sustainably. 

Sustainable means able to be maintained. Sustainable fashion at its core means creating in a way that doesn’t cause significant harm to the planet or it’s people. Everything produced has some negative impacts, but sustainable brands work to minimize water usage, avoid polluting chemicals, eliminate virgin polyester and plastic, minimize waste, design for end of life, source plant based fibers and create fair working conditions. But these obvious goals may mask the full story in the clothing and accessories we buy.

Let’s take something that seems simple: organic cotton. Organic good, conventional bad. Many companies like H&M love to use their organic cotton collections to prove they really are sustainable. But is organic cotton always better? There is a debate about whether organic cotton uses more water and resources to grow. Organic cotton also makes up less than 1% of the global cotton supply, making it a lot more accessible to larger brands than smaller ones. This does not negate the harm from chemicals used in traditional cotton production, but is a small brand using conventional cotton because that is what is affordable or accessible inherently less conscious than a giant multinational using only organic? What if the traditional cotton is sourced from the US and the organic from China, so the carbon footprint of shipping is significantly smaller for the conventional. What if the conventional cotton is used by a small batch manufacturer where all scraps are recycled and repurposed and the organic cotton is used in a large factory where scraps are sent to landfill? The point is you could spin scenario after scenario to create an everlasting list of pros and cons for each.  

We’re not trying to send you into an existential crisis! Or encourage you stop shopping your values and supporting brands working to make things better. The main point is that there is no perfect way to shop, even second hand is not without its ethical dilemmas, and obsessing over every small detail or a sustainability checklist an article told you to look out for can be a waste of time and energy. Similarly, shaming someone who bought something that didn’t fit your definition of sustainable isn’t productive. (Important note: shaming massive corporations and fast fashion brands is always encouraged! Because they have much more power for systemic change than an individual) Buying less and looking for brands trying to do the right thing all the way from their supply chain to how they treat their retail workers is a good start. But ultimately, your shopping won’t save the planet and don’t let brands make you believe that it will. You can certainly still shop your values, but if you really want a more sustainable closet, maybe the best thing you can do is demand regulations and real government action not marketing copy. 

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