From forced labour tales to stories of monstrous levels of carbon emissions, fashion’s struggle with sustainability is well known. However, the rapidly growing sustainable fashion sector is often presented as a promising way forward. It may be a sector that has modelled itself to represent a kinder and greener future, but what are the pros and cons of sustainable fashion?
As the climate crisis continues to loom, sustainable fashion has increasingly been in the spotlight. Our desire to live and shop more sustainably is becoming well documented, particularly in younger generations.
Gen Z is the most willing of any generation to pay more for sustainable products. Interestingly, this has had a ripple effect, with this younger generation influencing their parents’ generation and increasing the willingness to pay more for sustainable products in Generation X.
Furthermore, the pandemic also increased our desire to shop sustainably. A study by Forbes found that the desire to shop from sustainable fashion companies rose by four percent from October 2020 to May 2021.
But, what are the key advantages of sustainable fashion and what are the problems that are plaguing this growing industry?
The Advantages of Sustainable Fashion
So, the good points first, and there are a lot of good points. The sustainable fashion sector is providing a key part of the solution to fashion’s sustainable struggles and is working to create a kinder fashion industry.
1. Saving Natural Resources and Lowering Carbon Footprints
Fabric production is responsible for 16% of the world’s pesticide use, contributes a huge 10% of the world’s carbon emissions, and consumes enough water to meet the needs of five million people. There is no escaping the fact that the conventional fashion sector is an environmental enemy.
However, sustainable fashion does things differently. Organic cotton, a textile commonly used in the sustainable sector has a carbon emission contribution 46% lower than conventional cotton. Similarly, sourcing from managed forests means that sustainable brands aren’t contributing to unsustainable deforestation.
Implementing recycling programs, a common aspect of sustainable fashion brands, also helps to reduce the mountains of waste the fashion sector produces every year
The sustainable sector promotes a circular system to lower waste levels, it uses eco-friendly fabrics to reduce its environmental impact and promotes an attitude of careful consumption.
2. Saving the Animals
We all love our furry friends. However, we have sacrificed a lot of them in the name of fashion over the years. Sustainable fashion works to protect people, the planet and all the critters that call it home.
Vegan leathers are becoming popular in the sustainable sector, with everything from apples to pineapple leaves being turned into animal-friendly leather alternatives. Fur is also rejected in the sustainable fashion market, and in truly sustainable fashion, products like wool are sourced ethically. To make sure a brand is acting with the best intentions, look for the PeTA Approved Vegan label.
3. Better for Workers
When considering the pros and cons of sustainable fashion, we can’t look past the fact that generally, sustainable fashion companies are better to their workers. From complying with independent audits to providing transparent supply chains, sustainable brands often do more to protect their workers’ rights and safety.
Campaigns such as #whomademyclothes have gone a long way in promoting a fairer industry, and for the most part, sustainable brands are leading this charge.
4. Better Quality = Money Saved
Now, sustainable fashion has a reputation for being pricey, and while there are some exceptions, it’s true that it often is relatively expensive. However, it is also often higher quality. While you may hand over more money in the short term creating a sustainable wardrobe, you may save money in the long run because your clothes will last longer.
Replacing a £20 dress every six months soon starts costing more than paying £100 for a dress that lasts ten years.
5. Second-Hand and hiring your clothes is Cool & Saves You Money!
Gone are the days when thrift shopping was seen as an undesirable option. As second-hand shopping has been growing in popularity, so has the availability to access the preloved or for-hire clothing market. A great way to reduce waste, promote circular fashion and even reduce microplastic shedding in your laundry cycle, shopping preloved or hiring that dress you can’t afford to buy is a sustainable way to score a wardrobe win.
Buying second-hand, or better yet, reducing consumption by buying less drastically improves the sustainability and affordability of your shopping habits. And showing how popular second-hand has become, quite a few brands are now even jumping on board and selling their own products second-hand!
6. Supports Fashion Innovation
There are some seriously clever people out there that are doing some incredible things in the sustainable fashion market. From creating leather from by-products of the pineapple juice industry to helping to solve ocean pollution by turning sea plastic into swimwear, cool things are happening.
Fashion is an industry built on innovation and the more we support sustainable innovation the more we foster sustainable solutions in the industry. The world needs innovation to solve the climate crisis and buying from innovative brands leads to more innovation in the marketplace.
7. Better for You
Some of the chemicals used in the fashion sector are harsh to say the least. More than 8,000 chemicals are used in fashion manufacturing and these chemicals have been linked to everything from allergy aggravation to cancer.
One common substance is AZO dyes which can cause skin irritations. While these chemicals are mainly used in the production phase, traces of them can carry over into the clothing that you wear.
As sustainable brands promote organic materials and the use of natural, gentler dyes, these products are not only better for the world but can be a healthy choice for you too.
8. Buying Less Makes You Happy
A foundation of the sustainable sector is rejecting fast fashion principles and simply buying less. One of the advantages of sustainable fashion that isn’t talked about as much as it should be is that buying less can make you happier.
Buying less allows money to be spent on experiences over things, helps to create a decluttered space and allows you to buy the things you really like rather than spending money on just a passing trend. Sustainable fashion supports this reduced consumerism outlook.
Learn more about the link between buying less and happiness in our article The cost of happiness: how buying less can make you happy.
The Problems with Sustainable Fashion
No industry is perfect, and this is an exploration of the pros and cons of sustainable fashion, so these are some of the drawbacks of the eco-friendly clothing market.
1. It Needs to Be Adopted Across the Market
The unfortunate reality is that while a few sustainable brands are making a difference, they are not going to save the world. For sustainable fashion to make a real impact it needs to be an industry-wide change.
The fashion sector, particularly the fast fashion industry, has been a booming business for decades. Unfortunately, a 2019 report found that the effort that fast fashion brands were making to improve sustainable production measures were decreasing.
For the sustainable fashion industry to be truly effective, all fashion sectors need to get on board. Volume-based companies can’t, and often won’t, easily transition into sustainable processes. Their dependency on growth for one is a big stumbling block.
2. Sustainable Clothing is often More Expensive
Generally, sustainable clothes are more expensive. While there is good reason for this (sustainable materials and fair wages cost more), it does price people out of accessing the sector. While higher quality clothing may cost us less in the long run, we don’t all have the extra cash to buy those quality items in the first place.
Until the sustainable sector can become more affordable, there will be people that simply can’t access it, despite a growing desire to.
3. The Danger of Greenwashing
We’ve all seen those pretty pictures of nature’s beauty enticing us into stores. A lot of us have also probably been burned by greenwashing. Brands presenting themselves as sustainable without the processes and policies to back it up are preying on conscious consumers and fuelling mistrust and misinformation in the sector.
And while certifications can be a good way to avoid greenwashing, most of us don’t know which certifications to look out for. Confusing names and a lack of information can make trying to decipher sustainable certifications a confusing process and leave us the victim of greenwashing scams.
For more information about certifications check out the section of our article Why is sustainable and ethical fashion important: what everyone should know. You can also read more about how to avoid greenwashing here.
4. Less Brands Means Less Choice
While it may be a growing market, the sustainable sector is not yet a giant one. This can mean that there simply aren’t the brands to cater to every style preference. The niche elements of the sector can leave people without the options to suit their taste and send them back to shopping in the mainstream fashion market.
Many brands also operate exclusively in the online market and don’t have physical stores, furthering limiting consumer choices.
5. It Needs to Be Supported at all Levels
For a sustainable fashion system to work, it needs to be supported at all levels. Brands need to be genuinely committed to changing their production methods and values. Governments need to implement policies and regulations to support brands to make these changes and to enforce companies to comply with these policies. The public needs to be willing to choose to buy from sustainable brands, even if that means changing the way we shop.
This level of cooperation across the market is difficult to achieve and thus far has not been implemented at the scale that will make a shifting industry possible.
However, bit by bit some governments are changing their policy to enforce change in the system, albeit slowly, and we review what’s going on in Fashion Rules: why we need tougher laws and regulations in the fashion industry.
6. We Need to Change our Mindsets, and buy less!
We live in a world built on consumerism and the fashion industry is a major contributor to this mindset. The world’s clothing consumption has increased 400% in the last two decades and three out of five of the fashion items we buy end up in landfill. Simply encouraging consumers to buy sustainable products still increases consumption levels. To truly create a sustainable industry, shoppers need to buy less.
To embrace a sustainable fashion industry, we would need to change the entire consumer mindset that is currently promoted across not just the fashion industry, but almost every industry.
Weighing Up the Pros and Cons of Sustainable Fashion
The sustainable fashion industry is complex, is growing and is still in some respects, finding its way. While it may not be perfect, it is a sector that is striving to make a real difference in the fashion industry. It is an industry that is supporting innovation and promoting a more thoughtful and sustainable mindset.
While sustainable fashion may still have a way to go, it is a sector that is worth getting behind and an industry that is showing the promise of a future that champions people, the planet and voguish style.
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