green is the new black: shifting to sustainable consumption habits in a consumerist world
These past weeks consumers have been bombarded by ads regarding Black Friday, a day which diametrically opposes the environmental and social justice movement. While activists fight for the reduction of waste and struggle against its impacts on the environment, capitalism perpetuates consumerist/toxic practices, fuelled by a simple element: absurdly low prices.
This unsustainable model entails people valuing the products less, as a smaller amount of money or capital was spent. The step of simply throwing an item away becomes a very small step and is thus easily taken. The consumer, often middle to low class with limited capital, is caught in the cycle of fast fashion.This is partly caused by societal pressure to have trendy things, forcing one to repurchase many times a year, which the average consumer cannot do if the apparel prices are high. Thus the only option is resorting to low priced, fast fashion items.
In the U.S. alone, an estimated 164 million people shop between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, as warned by the U.S. National Retail Federation. The overconsumption entailed by these days means that an excessive amount of electronics, plastics and fast-fashion apparel detrimentally impact our planet. Contrary to what is shown by social media and the catwalks, fashion’s hidden side is unglamorous and unethical: workers are exploited as not only business enterprises but also States disregard human rights standards: employees more often than not work in precarious conditions and are vulnerable to modern-day slavery, with virtually inexistent wages or with no remuneration for working exhaustively. For instance, Animale, a Brazilian brand, was exploiting Bolivian immigrants who received approximately R$ 5 a day to sew pieces sold for up to R$698.
Amidst a week that is “engulfed’ in excessive overconsumption, have you ever stopped and contemplated why some products are so cheap? Have you ever, when buying a piece without necessarily needing it, thought about the cost of the production process for such low-priced items? Have you ever questioned yourself if the person who produced what you are wearing was paid? Have you researched about the (un)sustainable and (un)ethical practices of the brand? These are some questions that, unfortunately, many of us do not ask before we buy a product. These essential questions ought to be answered in order to understand the processes that take place behind the production chain, and to reflect on the environmental (and social) price of consumerism and binge shopping.
THE HIDDEN AND UNETHICAL SIDE OF FASHION: THE CASE OF FAST FASHION AND HOW CLOTHES FUEL THE ENVIRONMENTAL CRISIS
The unrestrained pace of production reveals a typical behaviour of shop window lovers: compulsively buying pieces they will rapidly dispose of because they are no longer “in style”. Customers buy, get sick of the items, discard them and buy again, stimulating the vicious cycle of fast fashion. In addition to the price paid by exploited workers, the exhaustive routine of designers, who run after fashion calendars and need to build innovative looks in a short time, causes what is coined as ‘creative burnout’. Maison Gucci, directed by Alessandro Michele, was one of the brands that did not appear at Milan Fashion Week this year, precisely to have more time to produce their long-awaited pieces. “I will abandon the worn-out ritual of seasonalities and shows to regain a new cadence, closer to my expressive call. We will meet just twice a year, to share the chapters of a new story,” said Alessandro Michele in an official announcement. by Gucci on Instagram, in May this year.
Fundamentally, what is fast fashion after all? And most importantly: why is it so harmful?
Fast fashion is part of everyone’s daily life. It is integrated in the linear economic system which rotates around the capitalist socio-economic rationales. This industry produces apparel according to specific rules, which must be based on recent trends, meaning that the items produced change constantly as well as the materials entailed in the process. The industry is mainly focused on manufacturing with high speed and low costs. Fast fashion has established a toxic customer mindset by means of which the normal is for clothes to become disposable. When the new trend is inserted in the fashion market, the old one becomes nothing but waste and thus unwanted clothes end up rotting away in landfills or being burned to the ground releasing greenhouse gases into the air.
The fast fashion industry counts for 10% of all carbon emissions, making the industry the second largest carbon polluter. This percentage is increasing evermore and if this path continues, predictions indicate that by 2030, this industry will account for 50% of all carbon emissions. As elucidated by the sustainable shoe producer Womsh, CO2 emissions are skyrocketing due to the lack of suitable technology that produces with lesser carbon emissions and is as affordable as the ones in use now. According to Gianna Dalla Mora, founder and CEO of Womsh, is that many apparel producers are willing to produce emitting less carbon, however, the fact that it is expensive and the market is competitive it makes it hard to actually achieve. The fashion industry exacerbates global warming, as the effects of extreme weather changes are increasingly evidenced in events such as the Western Wildfires in California that started in July 2020, and the melting of the polar ice caps which makes the sea level rise, threatening laid countries, such as The Netherlands.
On top of this, the fast fashion contributes to the water crisis, as it is the second-largest polluter of water globally according to the UNEP. Textile dyeing and its impact on water are denominated as the biggest offender in the fashion industry. Once the dyeing process is done, the unfiltered wastewater is simply discharged into waterways. This means that water with hazardous materials end up in rivers and thus in the soil surrounding the rivers, and seas as well as oceans, killing and disturbing the underwater life as well as human food production on these polluted soils.
Last but not least, a very high amount of landfill is created. As has been aforementioned explained, due to the industry’s character, the items produced and sold are often worn less than 5 times and kept for roughly 35 days before simply throwing the item out. According to the Pulse of Fashion Industry 2018 report, fashion generates 4% of the world’s annual waste, which adds up to 92 million tons of garba
ge. This in turn releases harmful gases like CO2 or methane and pollutes the soil and its nearby waters.
These alarming facts reveal the urgent need to reduce excessive consumerism and dismantle this industry that corrupts the value of clothes. It is imperative to stress the importance of fostering a sustainable product life cycle in order to reduce the environmental impact caused by the textile industry. After all, it is not because a garment does not suit you or does not please you more that it becomes unusable. Promoting circularity is one of the most effective ways in the race for healing our planet.
Even though many have a negative view on the fast fashion industry due to its polluting characteristics which creates long-term crises, it has benefited the consumer in the short-term. Herein lies the root of the popularity of fast fashion. Nevertheless, these benefits do not weigh up against the environmentally damaging character of the industry. Simplicity, accessibility and affordability in alignment with environmental awareness and circularity should be part of a new solution. However, the low environmental performance of fast fashion is not the only issue, there is a societal problem attached to the industry as well.
GREEN IS THE NEW BLACK: HOW TO SHIFT TO SUSTAINABLE CONSUMPTION HABITS
This unsustainable model entails people valuing the products less, as a smaller amount of money or capital was spent. The step of simply throwing an item away becomes a very small step and is thus easily taken. The consumer, often middle to low class with limited capital, is caught in the cycle of fast fashion. This is partly caused by societal pressure to have trendy things, forcing one to repurchase many times a year, which the average consumer cannot do if the apparel prices are high. Thus the only option is resorting to low priced, fast fashion items.
As highlighted by Nicholas Ashford, a professor of technology and environmental law, “for people who don’t have purchasing power, the ability to be able to buy something that is a necessity at a discounted price is obviously a benefit.” It is therefore important to not name and shame those who cannot afford the higher prices of sustainable pieces. Fundamentally, we must denounce the gentrification of second-hand stores, as these are key sources for people to shift to more sustainable fashion choices. Changing the availability of sustainable apparel and changing the societal pressure to always have the newest thing could be a golden combination, though not the easiest to achieve.
One of the main factors of keeping fast fashion in business is, apart from obviously the producers, the consumer. The consumerist/materialistic mindset has to be shifted. As an individual consumer, one might think not to have a very big influence. There are nevertheless many ways in which an individual consumer like you and I can become proactive agents of change, making a difference for the better.
Ethical consumerism is on the rise this last decade. The demand for apparel produced in a sustainable way is growing. This growing demand is a stimulant for producers to change steps in their production chain. Thus, one could show this demand by buying sustainably produced apparel or participating in a circular economy. This last option is rather important.: it entails that consumers, after wearing a product, return it to the store or other return point. This is one of the main ways to start recycling and re-upping clothes or use materials from the older apparel in order not to use more raw materials than before and thus prevent producing waste. If products are returned in order to be recycled, landfill is reduced as the ‘old’ materials are being re-used. Beneficially, this hinders pollution and textile waste. Additionally, raw materials will not have to be additionally used as old materials are being used. The consumer is the most important factor in making this system work as without the returns, a producer’s hands are tied.
A simple way to participate in a circular economy nowadays is by virtue of apps such as Depop or Vinted, designed to resell the clothes one does not wear anymore. People can continue buying ‘new’ clothes without contributing to the toxic production process. The need for new items is stilled without wasting resources and extra pollution. These apps work best if a big group of people participates thus every individual consumer could help.
A threat to sustainable fashion and the ethical participation of consumers is greenwashing, which consists of misleading advertising of green credentials. This means that an organisation, apparel producer or sales-point with a poor environmental performance advertises their products as environmentally aware. Thus consumers that think they are ethically engaging in consumption might not be. One of the main things consumers can do is to properly research what they are buying. For example H&M states to have a conscious line, notwithstanding, a simple google search reveals that the company is far from being sustainable or “conscious”. Therefore, rather than simply settling for a brand that claims to adhere to sustainable guidelines, look up what you are buying as there are plenty of brands that sell sustainable apparel which are transparent and present evidence on their environmental impact . Earlier mentioned shoe producer Womsh explains on their website how their shoes are produced of apple skin, what they do against greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution and how they try to stay circular.
This growing demand will stimulate sustainable innovation amongst producers as producers produce for the consumer. Though, a decline in demand for non-sustainable fashion plays a major role as well. As long as there is still a high demand for unethically and unsustainably produced pieces the environmental and social impact of the industry will remain high. Therefore a a major overhaul is due within the fashion industry. Economic systems must support and subsidise sustainable enterprises, thus acting as incentive for ethical apparel to become more accessible. Furthermore, producers ought to invest in technology to produce sustainably which will make sustainable apparel more affordable as well.
Fast fashion is predicated on the exploitation of human labour and environmental degradation. It is imperative to hold businesses accountable for their human rights abuses and the environmental destruction caused by their activities. As highlighted by Jason Mark, editor of the environmental charity Sierra Club’s magazine, “the personal-responsibility mantra… obscures the culpability of the fossil fuel giants and other industrial actors in fuelling the crisis”. Nevertheless, individual changes in consumption, travel, and eating habits “are not only righteous but required.”
With a burning passion for the arts for as long as she can remember, Thaís is an eternal dancer who loves listening to music, traveling and collecting stories. Graduated in Journalism from the Pontifical Catholic University of Paraná, she is co-author of the book “Look do Dia: Politics”, in which she approaches fashion as a tool for social transformation, alongside politics and sustainability. The Aries is producer of the biggest fashion and lifestyle magazine in Southern Brazil and a sustainability collaborator at Harper’s Bazaar Brasil, an area where she conducts research and expands her love for fashion, in search of positive changes for people and the planet.
Yael has always had an interest for fashion and the elegant things in life. This shows through her love for travelling, designing, different cuisines and getting to know the world. She has graduated in the bachelor European Studies with a main focus on economics and is currently studying sustainable innovation and management. Combining the element of sustainability and fashion is one that interests her very much and is thus broadening her horizon by writing articles on this particular topic, continuing to learn and show her passion for fashion and its sustainable options.