Sustainability has become somewhat of a buzzword in fashion. Brands and companies have realised that they need to be committed to reducing their environmental impact in order to survive today’s business landscape. With Gen Z spearheading this movement, calling for increased transparency and sustainable practice within fashion as well as prioritising thrifting and resale markets, it seems that brands are eager to create initiatives (and advertise them) that highlight the work they are doing to be more ‘sustainable’. But is this actually just an oxymoron, and can fashion ever be truly sustainable?
Well, in short – no. Despite the fashion industry being one of the most vocal about sustainability, it actually has a massive waste problem. Production has doubled in the last 15 years, but the time between buying a piece and chucking it has decreased by 40%. What’s more, once thrown away, over 73% of the waste is burnt in landfills, and staggeringly – only 1% of all waste fabric is reused to make new clothing.
For the most part, this can be put down to overproduction, which is caused by a number of factors. Primarily, demand has increased: fast fashion companies have set the precedent of supplying a huge variety of readily available garments, leading, in turn, to an explosion of microtrends that consumers can buy into at any given time. Take the resin ring trend, or the infamous green House of Sunny dress: from the height of their popularity (pictured on Kendall Jenner) to their relegated status as ‘uncool’ (see any ‘trends I wish would die’ TikTok) took a little over 3 months. In those 3 months, fast-fashion copies sprung up everywhere, no doubt catalysing their demise due to how oversaturated the market quickly became with them.
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Zara releases 24 collections a year – which seems absurdly slow in comparison to Shein’s pace, a fast-fashion retailer that adds tens to hundreds of new designs to its site daily. But whilst high fashion likes to separate itself from this overconsumption-waste-landfill cycle, is it much better? The pressure of fashion weeks (twice yearly, mens and womenswear) mean presenting brands are always striving for the ‘next big thing’ – once they’ve shown chunky knits for AW in Spring, the more delicate, sheer knit will be favoured by Autumn (and by which time, they’re onto crafting new florals for next year anyway). This is all without the other drops which come in the interim – couture, cruise and collabs, to name a few.
Because of this immense pressure and turnover, some brands are opting out and finding different routes of presenting. Jacquemus announced that it will not be sticking to fashion weeks’ scheduled proceedings, choosing to present as and when collections are finished instead. However, whilst demand for new trend pieces and scheduled collections continues to skyrocket, both high and fast fashion are set to continue to feed into the cycle.
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So, what can be done? Well, as Kenneth Pucker points out, “less unsustainable is not the same as sustainable”: the fashion industry may need to reframe its terminology and think differently about how to reduce its environmental impact. In essence, change will only truly come when legislated – which is a whole other can of worms. The projected worldwide shift into digital fashion will also start to address some of fashion’s sustainability concerns.
However, for the moment, consumers can shop with consideration: try resale sites, as well as rentals for one-time-wearing pieces. Whilst ‘green’ ‘eco’ and ‘sustainable’ fashion brands are pioneering change, they are often inaccessible at their current price point; perhaps contributing to resale sites such as eBay and Depop’s surge in popularity with environmentally-conscious Gen Z fashion consumers. It’s certainly got a long way to go, and while fashion can’t ever be truly sustainable in its current form, we can begin to highlight and prioritise avenues that lessen its harmful effects on the planet.