Sustainable Fashion: a question of consumer or industrial change?

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In recent years, sustainability has become more than just a niche lifestyle and multiple fashion brands solely committed to sustainability have emerged. However, the prices of most of these brands are unaffordable to the average consumer. Therefore, for most people buying vintage or second-hand is the only option to shop more sustainably, and even that can be damaging for people who rely solely upon second-hand due to financial circumstances. 

Currently, the fashion industry is the most damaging to the environment after the oil industry, making the need for affordable, sustainable fashion urgent. One of its major issues is overproduction, which has disastrous effects due to its global water usage and textile waste production. With the rise of fast fashion, consumers are encouraged to throw away clothes and purchase again in short amounts of time. However in recent years, with growing public awareness, even the biggest fashion brands have been confronted with climate change and the detrimental part the fashion industry has to play in it. 

This awareness culminated in the ‘Fashion Pact’ in August 2019. At the centre of this pact lies the commitment of a coalition of companies in the fashion and textile industry to tackle various environmental goals. Many brands have signed the pact, including luxury brands such as Chanel and Ralph Lauren as well as high street retailers such as H&M and the Inditex group (consisting of Zara and Mango). However, the effectiveness of the Fashion Pact remains questionable. The pact is both non-binding and suggestive, instead of obligatory: this leaves the companies a lot of room for interpretations and does not motivate them to take any specific action. Each brand can choose which actions and commitments to make and if they decide to make any at all. I would even go as far as suggesting that the pact has so far worked counterproductively. It lets brands claim their sustainability and improve their marketing image while not taking significant action. 

When examining some of the brands which signed the ‘Fashion Pact’, it becomes evident that most of them are not committed to sustainability. Nike has, for instance, signed the agreement, and upon closer examination, it becomes apparent that there is a lot left unchanged. The website ‘Good On You’ is committed to examining brands and their effects on the planet, people and animals: they found that Nike cannot be considered a sustainable brand as it has no transparent approach to the use of hazardous pesticides and herbicides. Additionally, while it has set itself a target for greenhouse gas reduction, it has failed to provide any evidence for actually reducing its greenhouse gases. Moreover, Nike has spent around 1.2 million dollars on lobbying for politics and free trade at the expense of the environment, animal welfare and human rights. Additionally, Nike has failed to improve its labour conditions and allegations of forced labour in connection to the Uighurs from the Xinjiang region in China still remain. Therefore, the ‘Fashion Pact’, just like Nike’s ethical code, is a mere marketing tool and displays no real commitment to sustainability. Among others, brands guilty of this form of ‘greenwashing’ are also the luxury brands Chanel and Ralph Lauren, failing in the same categories as Nike. 

Besides luxury brands, high street retailer Inditex has also signed the ‘Fashion Pact’. It is the third-largest clothing company in the world with one of the fastest production lines, which has encouraged other companies to increase the pace of their own production. A change of the Inditex groups’ behaviour would, therefore, majorly alter the fashion industry. So far, they have promised to make 90% of their raw materials organic or recycled by 2025. They also vowed to end the use of plastic bags across the company and making stores more ecologically efficient. However, up to now, they have not made a commitment to sufficiently slow down their production process. In a Vogue interview from 2019 with three Inditex executives, it seems like Inditex is selling a romanticised image of their changes towards sustainability, whilst the brand is itself unwilling to commit to slow fashion or real change. Moreover, even with those preliminary commitments, Inditex is not taking any action to minimise its textile waste and its greenhouse gases. Many critics have pointed out a case of ‘greenwashing’ rather than any true commitment to sustainability. I worry that the attempts of major brands to promote sustainability will distract the consumer from brands that are actually committed to sustainable fashion. While brands such as Inditex are keeping their prices low and just marketing their commitment to sustainability without any real change, sustainable brands are forced to keep their prices high due to low demand. Inditex cannot solely focus on marketing its environmental intentions but has to work towards change in its supply chain. 

Instead of having high street brands investing everything into growth and overproduction, brands have to shift the focus to ethically, sustainably functioning supply chains. This, however, is unlikely to occur if there is no increase in demand for sustainable fashion.  Sustainable fashion not yet being mainstream is the main reason why it is still unaffordable for the average consumer. As soon as demand upsurges, the volume of production will increase, and prices will go down. At the moment while 50% of consumers would be likely to buy fashion from a more sustainable brand, only 32% are willing to pay more for sustainable clothes, according to Nosto’s sustainability report. A consumer change of behaviour is also essential to stimulate the sustainable fashion market. Buying less and more ethically would be a necessary change so that mainstream and highly influential brands change their behaviour in response, making sustainable clothes more affordable in the long run. 

Still, it is elusive to believe that all power lies with rational consumers. Even the knowledge that most clothes are being produced under inhumane conditions has barely deterred anyone from continuing to buy clothes for low prices. Ethical consumerism requires rational actors within our economy; yet, the majority of consumers do not act rationally. Everyone is highly influenced by their surroundings, advertisements etc. The fashion industry claims that the ethical consumer within everyone has to be ‘awoken’ for the industry to become more sustainable. But, this claim is the easy way out. It is unlikely that the majority of people on our planet are going to act like rational ethical consumers all of a sudden. Most do not have the time and resources to actually engage with the topic. I think the fashion industry needs to act and not wait around for consumers to become more rational. Technologies have to be reformed, virgin materials need to be minimalised, and most of all, investment in growth has to be redirected into sustainable supply chains. However, simultaneously we as consumers, as long as it is within our ability, can no longer turn a blind eye and disassociate. We have a duty to our planet to educate ourselves. Not all sustainable brands out there are unaffordable. If we change our behaviour, consume less and invest in the right companies, the fashion industry will be forced to change, and sustainable fashion will no longer be a luxury. 

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