Sustainability is a Journey: PART III: Who Bears the Burden of Demanding Sustainability?
Before I became an underwear intellectual, I used to work in the environment and human rights nonprofit sectors in Washington D.C. When I moved to NYC and started working in fashion, the issues of waste and bad labor practices were apparent to me immediately within the larger brands, and it's one of the main reasons I've since chosen to align my work only with brands who produce domestically within NYC, while anchoring my own brand here as well. It has also been interesting to be a participant and an observer in watching the industry come to terms with its own sustainability issues and searching for the best way forward. Below is part three of a three-part essay exploring some of these issues within the fashion industry.
PART III: Who Bears the Burden of Demanding Sustainability?
As we all know, sustainable fashion costs more than fast fashion because synthetic fabrics and cut and sew labor in countries that lack fair labor laws are cheaper by comparison. However, this growing awareness has had little impact on sales in fast fashion, and sustainable brands, though growing, often are not able to sustain themselves beyond a few seasons.
The food industry has successfully convinced us that healthier, sustainably-grown, organic food is worth the extra cost. Why hasn’t the same thing happened in the fashion industry? And whose responsibility is it to make this change: the consumer, the brands, or the government? While I believe the responsibility is ultimately a collective feedback loop between all three, we have been inordinately focused on consumer and brand obligation and need to put more effort into demanding government and policy legislation, as outlined below:
The majority of consumers already know the deal. They have been made aware of how to clean clothes using less energy (wash at low temps, line dry, use guppy bags in the washing machine to reduce microfibers, etc). They know to re-use and repair whenever possible. They know to avoid buying clothing of unknown origin or synthetic materials and support sustainable clothing brands. However, expecting the consumer to bear the entire burden of making fashion sustainable through their purchases alone is not only unfair, but unrealistic:
- The “buy less, buy better” trope is just as elitist in fashion as it is in food. If we think that the sustainable fashion problem can be solved alone from purchasing only $500 shirts from our indie designers, we aren’t really creating change at scale that’s accessible to everyone, but instead a fashion market that’s only available to those with privileged means, which right away means it fails.
- Even if I spent the rest of my life avoiding plastic bottles, my impact wouldn’t amount to a fraction of what a massive company could achieve by phasing out plastic or synthetics in a single year. Carrying a reusable bottle is one thing, but what I should be doing is demanding that more companies and brands source alternative packaging or can guarantee the recycling of the synthetic materials they already use. All this isn’t to say that the collective action of individual consumers doesn’t matter, because they absolutely do! But it’s only a first step—the action of the individual is at the beginning of a process that eventually brings awareness to society as whole, one that will ideally spur policy changes and industry reconfigurations down the line.
Many fashion brands have also freely chosen to lessen their impact, and here are a couple important actions brands can take:
- Avoid overseas manufacturing in countries that are the greatest contributors to marine plastic pollution, or audit factories to ensure they have strong waste management practices in place.
- Find ways to source recycled plastic, especially post-consumer waste (including marine plastic waste wherever possible). By acting as a demand champion for recycled plastic, brands incentivize countries to invest in improved waste management, recycling, and technological advancements in manufacturing with reclaimed plastic. It also creates an end market for all of the plastic that is in use today.
- Creating any options for the consumer to “buy sustainable” while also establishing a sustainability precedent for other brands to try to achieve as well is always helpful.
All this consumer and brand awareness and action is highly effective and necessary, but we need to advocate for better government policies too. Because here’s the deal—those demands of brand sustainability require significant resources—money, for one, and teams of sustainability experts among others. Perhaps the pace of progress has been so slow because companies aren’t willing to properly invest in new fabrics, conduct life cycle assessments, or develop technologies—but who can blame them? In this market-based economy it’s unfair not to mention unrealistic to expect brands to take the yoke of this on themselves, especially in such a slim-margined, highly-competitive world that the fashion industry is. And for many brands, spending these extra dollars on sustainability instead of marketing could mean the difference between life or death.
If we had regulations in place, like how textiles are finished or what materials are allowed to be spun into yarns, and universally regulated fair labor conditions, this would level a lot of the playing field between fast and sustainable fashion. Or what about government-implemented subsidies for sustainable fashion brands? Or policy that requires all washing machines to have a microfiltration system to protect our oceans (the technology exists!) just like all cars are required to have catalytic converters to protect our air? Or laws that prevent brands from burning unsold merchandise? These are just a few ideas…
We need to do our part on all fronts. Yes, we need to buy better and buy less and demand that our brands provide opportunities for us to do so. But we also need to use our voices, and this means writing to policymakers, standing up for change, and making sure that we get legislation that makes sure fashion doesn’t cost the earth. We have done a great job so far mobilizing the consumer and the brands, now let’s get to work on demanding the policy changes that will support these efforts.
There are already some great organizations out there that are working towards this end, below are just a few. What are some of your favorites?
- The Ellen MacArthur Foundation works with city, regional, and national governments, as well as international institutions across the foundation’s geographic focus areas. The foundation engages with institutions, governments and cities in a number of ways, like advocating for policymaker engagement in the circular economy transition and developing public-private partnerships with like-minded organizations to amplify their impact.
Zero Waste International Alliance operates at the international, national and local level and involves all sectors of society. It holds information for communities, businesses, and policy makers to build capacity to effectively implement Zero Waste.
- Fashion Revolution mobilizes citizens to demanda better fashion industry, by building awareness of fair labor and sustainable fashion practices.Direct action postcard and email templates can be found at their website.