Fast fashion and sustainability are an oxymoron. The whole idea behind fast fashion is to churn out cheap new collections and stimulate consumption, and there’s nothing sustainable about that. It’s impossible to produce ethical, eco-friendly clothing at the quantity and rate that fast fashion demands while maintaining genuinely high and environmentally sustainable standards.
Many clothing companies would have us think otherwise. They create sustainable and eco-friendly lines to entice those slightly more discerning or skeptical customers. An article in Al Jazeera points out that “H&M has its Conscious collection, made of organic cotton and recycled polyester; Puma’s biodegradable InCycle Collection; Adidas’ Design for Environment gear; Uniqlo’s All-Product Recycling Initiative; Zara’s eco-efficient stores; and the Gap’s P.A.C.E. program, to benefit the lives of female garment workers.”
But these efforts are little more than greenwashing, as "sustainability and consumerism do not go hand in hand.”
Livia Firth of Eco Age, a consulting firm in London, argues that fast fashion brands have to change their business models. As long as they continue to produce “in such volumes and at such ridiculous prices, their sustainability efforts – no matter how genuine – are a form of greenwashing.”
An additional problem with these efforts is that they often focus on a single aspect of being green or ethical. A T-shirt made of organic cotton is a good idea, but it might still be manufactured in a facility that uses bonded labour and toxic chemicals that are dangerous to garment workers and neighbouring communities.
This is being addressed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and its Higg Index, which measures 5 factors in clothing production – water use, carbon emissions, labour conditions, waste, and chemical use. Al Jazeera reports that the SAC’s growing membership now covers approximately 35 percent of the world’s apparel turnover and, since 2011, includes major brands Nike, Target, and the Gap. Hopefully this means that more companies will pay attention to the bigger picture of how garments are produced.
But the real impetus for change needs to come from consumers that care about what goes on behind the scenes in the garment industry, instead of leaving it up to companies to clean up their acts. Last year’s tragic factory collapse in Bangladesh raised important questions about production standards, but that consumer interest seems to have lost momentum.
The easiest way to avoid greenwashing is to boycott the fast fashion industry and resist the urge to buy new clothes on a weekly or monthly basis. Contrary to what many people think, you don't have to be rich to do this.
- Support smaller companies, since they are likely to have an easier time tracking the source of their product that companies with high volume.
- Shop at private businesses or buy from a seamstress or tailor.
- Seek out pieces that are made locally or domestically.
- If possible, buy high quality items; they’re more likely to last, and you’re more likely to take care of them.
- Buy clothing and footwear that is repairable.
- Buy second-hand from a thrift store, as those items have proven their durability.
- Make do with less clothing. Resist the urge for novelty and keep the same clothes as long as possible.
- Do a clothing swap with friends instead of shopping.
When shopping, it’s important to discern between companies that truly want to minimize their footprint and improve supply chain transparency, and those that are hopping on the eco-friendly bandwagon only to look better. One great resource is the Shopping Directory on the Overdressed website, which lists fashion designers and brands with strong ethical vision and reasonable prices. TreeHugger is also a solid source for eco-friendly clothing companies; search its Green Fashion and Sustainable Fashion tags for ideas.