25th September 2020
MENU
LIVE
Sustainability in 2020: Where Do We Stand?
We like to talk but pledges to sustainability have mostly remained just that. Do consumer’s ethical sensibilities falter right before check out or are we just simply in over our heads?

It’s a question of routine: my boyfriend wakes up every morning, takes a shower, and goes to face a small pile of neatly folded shirts. A pile of 12 shirts to be exact, whose cumulated life spans could form a fully-fledged, thriving 100-year-old. In the office, his co-workers have become accustomed to seeing these same 12 shirts over and over, so much so that they’ve become part of his body – you couldn’t imagine him in anything else; the idea is almost off-putting. At the mention of shopping for something new for himself, he grunts disinterestedly that he knows what he likes and already has everything that he needs. Without realizing it, he is one of the most puritan practitioners of the sustainability fashion ideology that I have ever witnessed, without even really knowing what it means and why it’s needed.

In an exaggerated sense of course – the difference between nature lovers that go on the occasional hike and hardcore hermits that consider any kind of human footprint on nature an abomination. But taken in its very essence, what his lifestyle choices depict is someone entirely liberated from the buy-throw behavioral patterns inflamed by a system locked into a perpetual cycle of systemic overproduction and overconsumption. And yet, denouncing fashion with this ode to simplicity was somehow deeply offensive to the fashion community, ready with snarky remarks and looks of exasperated disapproval. It’s in these minute details that we see the treacherous workings of the fast fashion industry model, a dystopian reality for those accustomed to the kind of fashion that isn’t dependent on arbitrary consumption-related status considerations, novelty addiction, and herd mentality; that is independent, that lasts, that considers necessity and not only passing whims.

sustainability

Half of those shirts are polos that once belonged to his father, back when clothes were made well; classics with built-it durability. Clothes made in a way that clothes are actually meant to be produced, but that we would now say adhere to the tenets of sustainable fashion, so rare have such production methods become.

Half a century ago, the term sustainable fashion did not exist. It didn’t need to. But over the course of the last century, globalization, advancements in technology, and the advent of the hugely disruptive fast fashion model drastically altered our perception of and relationship with clothing, steadily bringing in a system modeled on hyperspeed and uninterrupted cycles of overproduction and overconsumption. With the fast fashion philosophy, the business of fabricating clothes became the business of fabricating desire; a toxic cocktail of relentless trendsetting, built-in obsolescence, and readily accessible, cheap clothing turning well thought out purchases into a string of impulses that we are urgently driven to satisfy. In 2014 we were globally consuming 80 billion garments a month – a 400% increase from just 20 years before that – and we were forecasted to keep going.

This wasn’t empty speculation: in 2019, the Global Fashion Agenda, Boston Consulting Group, and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) found that current positive changes are still no match for an industry that is projected to grow by 81% by 2030, totaling the same 102 million tons forecasted back in 2017. It’s come to a point that brands will have to act regardless of whether consumers demand it – even with all the hype and immense awareness accumulated over the past few years, updated reports still find that sustainability is still far from being a key consideration in purchasing decisions. We simply can’t help ourselves, indoctrinated as we are into a culture of showing off our carefully constructed lifestyles and individual style, spurred on by fast fashion’s over-zealous defense attorney – social media, ready with metrics and bursts of dopamine that perpetually legitimize and habitual the addiction.

At the start of the pandemic, expectations of catastrophic sales figures led brands to furiously cut costs in order to survive (read: salaries of already underpaid workers, fees to suppliers and marginalized communities in developing countries), but now, 6 months in, even if consumption in fashion has declined overall, online sales are still going strong.

It seems that closing down department stores and malls has been counteracted by an e-commerce boom. In recent months, the fashion media has been littered with articles on the current redirection to everything digital, advising readers to ride the new consumption wave and build an attractive online presence by investing in digital marketing and redesigning their UX’s and UI’s. Rather than put precious pennies aside, sitting bored at home has only added hours of disposable time to aimlessly browse through online shops and impulse buy.

And sure, yes, the industry has declined from $35.8 billion in 2019 to $31.4 billion this year  – which isn’t chump change – but the market is expected to recover once national containment measures loosen their grip, forecasted to make its way back up to $38.2 billion by 2023. Considering that not all is lost in fashion, intra-industry sustainability pledges have mostly remained just that. Corporate agendas may list sustainability as a top priority, but tangible, implementable actions have been much too slow, and enthusiasm, especially in light of 2020’s shit show, which has provided ample excuses to sit back and do nothing, already past its peak. 

But this was to be expected – it’s hard to turn back on what has been a way of life in the fashion industry for so long. In a short period of time, the fashion industry became the second most polluting industry after oil, hiding a hoard of environmentally and socially damaging practices. Rivers and lakes dense with toxic chemicals and dyes, overflowing landfills, unjustifiable levels of water depletion, and networks of complicated, opaque supply chains that avert our gaze from exploitation, human rights violations, and severe health issues plaguing garment workers are all just the tips of what appears to be a colossal iceberg that has mastered the art of hiding in plain sight. 

sustainability

That’s all become common knowledge, but what’s interesting to note is just how quickly this all happened. The devastating consequences of transitioning from amending, repair mentality to the mindless automation of buy and throw crept up on the world in no time. That’s not to say fashion and trends didn’t exist – it’s the setting in which they existed and the rules they abided by that drastically changed. In the early 1900s, fashion magazine pages were littered with reproducible pattern cuts. The idea was that you would either create your own garment or alter existing ones to suit modern fashions, which then remained as they were for a good decade, more or less. Before the 1930s there were couture houses, not brands, and they maintained their position atop the fashion hierarchy with a devotion to sartorial excellence that bordered on religion. The early editions of Vogue held eloquent, intelligent articles by literary greats such as Emile Zola and Aldous Huxley. Today, they talk of top 10 trends for fall in bite-size, digestible “info packets”. The message seems to be the same everywhere: don’t think critically, not even at all – just buy.

Iconic fashion houses have been bought and re-bought until they now form part of all-powerful international conglomerates directed by profit-hungry corporate tycoons. In today’s world, Coco Chanel would have held zero shares of the company, limiting her power to creative decisions – as long as they maintained expected profit margins of course. No designer could secure their position at 100% within a machine of such magnitude. Prodigies that are born once in a lifetime such as the infamous Charles James, artist and scientist combined than a simple couturier, would have had no place in today’s world – he was too capricious, too creative, too minute in executing the already infinitely complex details of his masterpieces. It is not created the fashion machine craves, but cheaply produced, standardized pieces bearing a thoughtless, clumsy mélange of trending visuals that can be vomited out into retail stores with the automated regularity of a bulimic high schooler. What’s leftover after the end of season sales is so worthless, brands don’t even think twice before setting them on fire to avoid tarnishing brand reputation.

Worst even, if you could find anything worst for a craft or industry than the death of the very things that defined it, fashion even lost the guiding force it used to hold for subcultures and individuals the world over. The art of dress was a way to distinguish very specific identities from the masses – zoot suits were for marginalized hedonistic youth of a post-war jazz era, flapper style signified an emancipated woman in a man’s world, and fishnet tops, ragged tees, and tattoos were the emblems of 70’s punks, the different aesthetics following very concrete and lived ideologies. If you dressed like a beatnik, you were beaten, with all the squatting, hitchhiking, and intellectual masturbation to go with it. Now we have an array of beautiful images, superficial shadows of their former glorious selves, washed clean of any of their dirty underpinnings – the very values and ideas that made them what they were. What we have now, within the directly accessible confines of what we call mainstream, are mere theme park novelties.

You could ask yourself that in a world such as this, how do you make your way back to a fashion that no longer exists? Would it mean having to stop indulging in the fashions we love, one of the few distractions we have left in a world falling apart at the seams? Well, if historically speaking it didn’t take long to get to this point, perhaps a couple of decades of dedication are perfectly able to reverse the damage. While it’s true that times of turbulence require to play to keep us sane, and that stopping consumption altogether is both unfeasible and could have significant negative repercussions on the economy of every nation down the supply chain (the recent scandal with major fashion brands halting or indefinitely delaying payments to garment manufacturers and the serious threat to survival that this has had on millions of garment workers is enough proof of this), what we need are ways to reconcile the two extremes, choosing where to spend our hard-earned dollar rather than stowing it away under the mattress – a little more manageable for lovers of fashion than what my boyfriend suggests.

sustainability

The alternatives offered by the recent boom of conscious consumerism are now plenty, and many of them are perfectly reachable online. Some focus on the sustainability of the raw materials themselves, others on the ethics with which they handle their business, paying workers a fair wage, and ensuring toxic waste is handled appropriately. Others still try to adhere to the tenets of the circular economy, recycling, repurposing, trading in second-hand markets, or adopting ‘on-demand’ sales channels. The more we not only demand it but show it through measurable actions that signal a dedicated and informed consumer, the more brands will shift their internal paradigms to better reflect a fashion industry that doesn’t jeopardize the environment, our values, and our sense of self, creating an immense number of alternatives for consumers to indulge in their favorite styles.

The choice is really a personal one – not everyone can or even should be like my boyfriend that runs for the hills at the idea of an afternoon of shopping. For me, it’s shopping exclusively second hand, whether its high-end vintage collectibles, thrift pieces at the dollar store, or scouring my extended family’s closets. If I destroy a piece on a crazy night out, I spend the next day mending it; if an item bores me to death, I attempt to rework it. What works for him doesn’t work for me and vice versa. The important thing is to bother to do the research, to stop and think before buying. To identify what matters to us and try and remember it the next day when the latest runway looks flood fashion e-commerce platforms at a fraction of the price, and gradually the impulses of mindless consumption will grind to a halt. Instead of talking about it, we could act. If we don’t live by our principles, then we have nothing, and that is simply a burden too great to carry. 

Sustainability in 2020: Where Do We Stand?
We like to talk but pledges to sustainability have mostly remained just that. Do consumer’s ethical sensibilities falter right before check out or are we just simply in over our heads?

It’s a question of routine: my boyfriend wakes up every morning, takes a shower, and goes to face a small pile of neatly folded shirts. A pile of 12 shirts to be exact, whose cumulated life spans could form a fully-fledged, thriving 100-year-old. In the office, his co-workers have become accustomed to seeing these same 12 shirts over and over, so much so that they’ve become part of his body – you couldn’t imagine him in anything else; the idea is almost off-putting. At the mention of shopping for something new for himself, he grunts disinterestedly that he knows what he likes and already has everything that he needs. Without realizing it, he is one of the most puritan practitioners of the sustainability fashion ideology that I have ever witnessed, without even really knowing what it means and why it’s needed.

In an exaggerated sense of course – the difference between nature lovers that go on the occasional hike and hardcore hermits that consider any kind of human footprint on nature an abomination. But taken in its very essence, what his lifestyle choices depict is someone entirely liberated from the buy-throw behavioral patterns inflamed by a system locked into a perpetual cycle of systemic overproduction and overconsumption. And yet, denouncing fashion with this ode to simplicity was somehow deeply offensive to the fashion community, ready with snarky remarks and looks of exasperated disapproval. It’s in these minute details that we see the treacherous workings of the fast fashion industry model, a dystopian reality for those accustomed to the kind of fashion that isn’t dependent on arbitrary consumption-related status considerations, novelty addiction, and herd mentality; that is independent, that lasts, that considers necessity and not only passing whims.

sustainability

Half of those shirts are polos that once belonged to his father, back when clothes were made well; classics with built-it durability. Clothes made in a way that clothes are actually meant to be produced, but that we would now say adhere to the tenets of sustainable fashion, so rare have such production methods become.

Half a century ago, the term sustainable fashion did not exist. It didn’t need to. But over the course of the last century, globalization, advancements in technology, and the advent of the hugely disruptive fast fashion model drastically altered our perception of and relationship with clothing, steadily bringing in a system modeled on hyperspeed and uninterrupted cycles of overproduction and overconsumption. With the fast fashion philosophy, the business of fabricating clothes became the business of fabricating desire; a toxic cocktail of relentless trendsetting, built-in obsolescence, and readily accessible, cheap clothing turning well thought out purchases into a string of impulses that we are urgently driven to satisfy. In 2014 we were globally consuming 80 billion garments a month – a 400% increase from just 20 years before that – and we were forecasted to keep going.

This wasn’t empty speculation: in 2019, the Global Fashion Agenda, Boston Consulting Group, and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) found that current positive changes are still no match for an industry that is projected to grow by 81% by 2030, totaling the same 102 million tons forecasted back in 2017. It’s come to a point that brands will have to act regardless of whether consumers demand it – even with all the hype and immense awareness accumulated over the past few years, updated reports still find that sustainability is still far from being a key consideration in purchasing decisions. We simply can’t help ourselves, indoctrinated as we are into a culture of showing off our carefully constructed lifestyles and individual style, spurred on by fast fashion’s over-zealous defense attorney – social media, ready with metrics and bursts of dopamine that perpetually legitimize and habitual the addiction.

At the start of the pandemic, expectations of catastrophic sales figures led brands to furiously cut costs in order to survive (read: salaries of already underpaid workers, fees to suppliers and marginalized communities in developing countries), but now, 6 months in, even if consumption in fashion has declined overall, online sales are still going strong.

It seems that closing down department stores and malls has been counteracted by an e-commerce boom. In recent months, the fashion media has been littered with articles on the current redirection to everything digital, advising readers to ride the new consumption wave and build an attractive online presence by investing in digital marketing and redesigning their UX’s and UI’s. Rather than put precious pennies aside, sitting bored at home has only added hours of disposable time to aimlessly browse through online shops and impulse buy.

And sure, yes, the industry has declined from $35.8 billion in 2019 to $31.4 billion this year  – which isn’t chump change – but the market is expected to recover once national containment measures loosen their grip, forecasted to make its way back up to $38.2 billion by 2023. Considering that not all is lost in fashion, intra-industry sustainability pledges have mostly remained just that. Corporate agendas may list sustainability as a top priority, but tangible, implementable actions have been much too slow, and enthusiasm, especially in light of 2020’s shit show, which has provided ample excuses to sit back and do nothing, already past its peak. 

But this was to be expected – it’s hard to turn back on what has been a way of life in the fashion industry for so long. In a short period of time, the fashion industry became the second most polluting industry after oil, hiding a hoard of environmentally and socially damaging practices. Rivers and lakes dense with toxic chemicals and dyes, overflowing landfills, unjustifiable levels of water depletion, and networks of complicated, opaque supply chains that avert our gaze from exploitation, human rights violations, and severe health issues plaguing garment workers are all just the tips of what appears to be a colossal iceberg that has mastered the art of hiding in plain sight. 

sustainability

That’s all become common knowledge, but what’s interesting to note is just how quickly this all happened. The devastating consequences of transitioning from amending, repair mentality to the mindless automation of buy and throw crept up on the world in no time. That’s not to say fashion and trends didn’t exist – it’s the setting in which they existed and the rules they abided by that drastically changed. In the early 1900s, fashion magazine pages were littered with reproducible pattern cuts. The idea was that you would either create your own garment or alter existing ones to suit modern fashions, which then remained as they were for a good decade, more or less. Before the 1930s there were couture houses, not brands, and they maintained their position atop the fashion hierarchy with a devotion to sartorial excellence that bordered on religion. The early editions of Vogue held eloquent, intelligent articles by literary greats such as Emile Zola and Aldous Huxley. Today, they talk of top 10 trends for fall in bite-size, digestible “info packets”. The message seems to be the same everywhere: don’t think critically, not even at all – just buy.

Iconic fashion houses have been bought and re-bought until they now form part of all-powerful international conglomerates directed by profit-hungry corporate tycoons. In today’s world, Coco Chanel would have held zero shares of the company, limiting her power to creative decisions – as long as they maintained expected profit margins of course. No designer could secure their position at 100% within a machine of such magnitude. Prodigies that are born once in a lifetime such as the infamous Charles James, artist and scientist combined than a simple couturier, would have had no place in today’s world – he was too capricious, too creative, too minute in executing the already infinitely complex details of his masterpieces. It is not created the fashion machine craves, but cheaply produced, standardized pieces bearing a thoughtless, clumsy mélange of trending visuals that can be vomited out into retail stores with the automated regularity of a bulimic high schooler. What’s leftover after the end of season sales is so worthless, brands don’t even think twice before setting them on fire to avoid tarnishing brand reputation.

Worst even, if you could find anything worst for a craft or industry than the death of the very things that defined it, fashion even lost the guiding force it used to hold for subcultures and individuals the world over. The art of dress was a way to distinguish very specific identities from the masses – zoot suits were for marginalized hedonistic youth of a post-war jazz era, flapper style signified an emancipated woman in a man’s world, and fishnet tops, ragged tees, and tattoos were the emblems of 70’s punks, the different aesthetics following very concrete and lived ideologies. If you dressed like a beatnik, you were beaten, with all the squatting, hitchhiking, and intellectual masturbation to go with it. Now we have an array of beautiful images, superficial shadows of their former glorious selves, washed clean of any of their dirty underpinnings – the very values and ideas that made them what they were. What we have now, within the directly accessible confines of what we call mainstream, are mere theme park novelties.

You could ask yourself that in a world such as this, how do you make your way back to a fashion that no longer exists? Would it mean having to stop indulging in the fashions we love, one of the few distractions we have left in a world falling apart at the seams? Well, if historically speaking it didn’t take long to get to this point, perhaps a couple of decades of dedication are perfectly able to reverse the damage. While it’s true that times of turbulence require to play to keep us sane, and that stopping consumption altogether is both unfeasible and could have significant negative repercussions on the economy of every nation down the supply chain (the recent scandal with major fashion brands halting or indefinitely delaying payments to garment manufacturers and the serious threat to survival that this has had on millions of garment workers is enough proof of this), what we need are ways to reconcile the two extremes, choosing where to spend our hard-earned dollar rather than stowing it away under the mattress – a little more manageable for lovers of fashion than what my boyfriend suggests.

sustainability

The alternatives offered by the recent boom of conscious consumerism are now plenty, and many of them are perfectly reachable online. Some focus on the sustainability of the raw materials themselves, others on the ethics with which they handle their business, paying workers a fair wage, and ensuring toxic waste is handled appropriately. Others still try to adhere to the tenets of the circular economy, recycling, repurposing, trading in second-hand markets, or adopting ‘on-demand’ sales channels. The more we not only demand it but show it through measurable actions that signal a dedicated and informed consumer, the more brands will shift their internal paradigms to better reflect a fashion industry that doesn’t jeopardize the environment, our values, and our sense of self, creating an immense number of alternatives for consumers to indulge in their favorite styles.

The choice is really a personal one – not everyone can or even should be like my boyfriend that runs for the hills at the idea of an afternoon of shopping. For me, it’s shopping exclusively second hand, whether its high-end vintage collectibles, thrift pieces at the dollar store, or scouring my extended family’s closets. If I destroy a piece on a crazy night out, I spend the next day mending it; if an item bores me to death, I attempt to rework it. What works for him doesn’t work for me and vice versa. The important thing is to bother to do the research, to stop and think before buying. To identify what matters to us and try and remember it the next day when the latest runway looks flood fashion e-commerce platforms at a fraction of the price, and gradually the impulses of mindless consumption will grind to a halt. Instead of talking about it, we could act. If we don’t live by our principles, then we have nothing, and that is simply a burden too great to carry. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *