A sustainability expert explains that progress in the industry is canceled out by the rate at which the fashion economy is speeding up.
When you think of the words “ethical fashion,” or “sustainable fashion,” chances are you might envision some kind of ethereal, oat-colored, flowing linen fabric against a fantastically clean white background—on Instagram. There is a thin veneer of privilege that inherently accompanies being able to consume new ethical fashion garments. On the outside, it looks like an open window to a world of salvation where off-gassing is a nuisance of the past, and the only problem you’ll encounter is what special kind of detergent you’ll need to use for your expensive investment pieces. And, despite all the hype, the progress made towards sustainability within the fashion industry is actually being canceled out by the rate at which the global fashion economy—in other words, fast fashion—is speeding up.
According to Anika Kozlowski, a sustainable fashion expert and Assistant Professor of Fashion Design, Ethics & Sustainability at Ryerson University, the fashion industry should have started to make adjustments in terms of more ethical responsibility long, long ago.
“At the root, what we have is a consumption problem; we are just producing at a rate that is completely unsustainable, […] so resource-intensive, and then we’re not getting the proper use out of these products,” Anika says. Fast fashion clothing often ends up being disposed of quickly because it is manufactured cheaply and quickly (duh). Ethical fashion and sustainability may just seem like a trend that people will eventually forget about, but fast fashion companies should be taking more notice. “No matter what a fast-fashion company does,” says Anika, “unless they make truly, truly, truly disposable clothing out of paper that is really only meant to be worn one or two times—they have to change.”
Ethical fashion products and brands have been popping up quicker than flowers in springtime. By virtue of being thrust into the ecosystem of capitalism, however, many brands are actively taking part in an unethical culture of consuming.
“Most ethical brands are very, very expensive and it’s an extreme privilege to be able to buy a $300 sweater,” says Anika. Despite this, we actually have more money and discretionary income today than we ever before. “Now we spend so much more of our money on clothes proportionally than anyone ever used to historically,” Anika says, “and the clothes were more expensive, [but] people would buy a coat and they would have that coat for 10 years.”
In their influencer marketing report of 2019, Influencer DB states that the fashion industry is the most popular vertical amongst influencers, dominating 25% of sponsored posts. Influencers with a minimum of 10,000 followers have an engagement rate of 3.6% worldwide, though rather surprisingly, the fewer followers you have, the higher the engagement rate. Users with 5,000-10,000 followers have an engagement rate of 6.3%, and users with a mere 1,000-5,000 followers have an engagement rate of a whopping 8.8%. For some influencers, being in this range of fairly modest followers seems to be of benefit in gaining the trust of users. People are engaging in content that is less refined, more authentic and unique. Perhaps in some way, having less than five thousand followers ensures that the influencer hasn’t yet had their integrity brutalized by capitalism.
“Fundamentally, it is a business model that is flawed—capitalism is still functioning on the premise of endless resources […]…they didn’t realize that you can’t just keep taking and putting it in the garbage and expecting that your resources are going to stay there for you.” Anika says it’s great that global corporations seem to be taking the first steps to sustainability, “but at the same time, if you’re producing that amount of product all the time, and you’re not collecting it back, and you haven’t found a way to recycle it, are you really doing the world any favors?”
More and more influencers are starting to promote sustainable clothing alternatives, such as embracing ethical fashion brands and getting more wear out of the clothing already own. Instagram is also home to a number of influencers that champion sustainable fashion choices, such as shopping secondhand and consignment – a market that is estimated to reach $64 billion by 2030.
There are other ways that we can move forward with fashion sustainably that don’t sacrifice the joy and fun of creating. “We live in a world of commerce, but that doesn’t mean it has to be through the selling of goods – it could be through the selling of services like re-tailoring clothes and reconstructing clothes,” says Anika.
In the luxury goods market, ethical fashion concerns are becoming more and more prevalent for the public and in the past two years, numerous luxury brands have sworn off fur and animal skins. Brands are looking for ethical suppliers due to demand from younger generations it has been forecasted that Generation Y and Z will represent 55% of the luxury goods market worldwide in 2025.
But as you probably, hopefully, know by now, the term “ethical fashion” is an umbrella term and encompasses more issues than just animal welfare. Cotton fields are drying up and don’t even get me started on plastic. The chemicals used to treat, dye and distress many fabrics are often toxic to the people who create them (and sometimes those people are children). Combine those chemicals with long work hours and strict deadlines from global fashion conglomerates, and the results for garment factory workers are sometimes deadly. And to make matters worse, it’s available for literally as cheap as humanly possible. It’s an industry that sacrifices the rights, physical and emotional well being and even lives of garment workers for the bottom line—and we invite it easily and complicity into our lives. Yet, as I write this, the global fashion economy continues to grow at an alarming rate.
“150 billion garments a year are being produced – and [the numbers are] only getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger every year,” says Anika. Advances in fabric recycling exist, but they are not by any means on large a scale. “True fabric recycling, where you can break down the fiber into some form of pulp and then re-extrude it into a biosynthetic of sorts – those technologies are still nascent and they’re not to scale – they will be, but still, you’re dealing with impurities,” says Anika, such as different colour dyes, and blended fabrics, as well as contaminants like Teflon which is the chemical that makes fabrics stain-resistant or wrinkle-resistant, or anything-resistant. Ideas of circularity are all great, she says, but “there are just too many clothes out there.”
In the film Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, a gaggle of four teenage girls in muted pastel torment Romy and Michele during lunch hour, making fun of their “hideous” outfits. “I think they seem semi-interesting,” says Lisa, the meekest one, “they made them in home-ec from their own patterns,” she says. The girls gawk at her in abhorrent disapproval. “…In a freakish, off-putting sorta way— nevermind,” she adds timidly.
Later in the film, having “lost touch with the A-group,” she appears at the reunion as Lisa Luder, the beautifully formidable woman in a silky cream power suit who works as an associate fashion editor for Vogue.
And that’s ethical and sustainable fashion right now – a little lamb in the slaughter of current trends. She used to be part of the cool clique at school, holding a privileged guise, succumbing to peer pressure out of fear of appearing somehow different, but eventually, she’ll be setting the standards.
“The absolute best thing that anybody can do right now is to not buy anything new, use what you have, repair it, swap it, keep it local in your own region,” Anika says. She adds that at the end of the day, it all comes down to money. “The people have the power. If you don’t give your money to [brands], they’re going to figure out really fast what to do to get your money.”
But all her advice comes with a wise, practical warning: “You can’t shop your way to ethical fashion.”