Sustainability in Fashion: Where Do We Start?

The fast fashion model is built on trendy, cheaply made pieces that are only meant to last through a few seasons before being retired or forgotten. As a result, unprecedented amounts of clothing are ending up in landfills (or on bonfires) after being worn once or twice. We recently examined fast fashion brand Zara’s new sustainability goals, noting that while it’s encouraging to see a major brand step forward to start a conversation about sustainability and environmental impact, these goals will require enormous change within the fashion industry as a whole.

Faced with the need to make monumental changes, where do consumers and the fashion industry begin?

Innovation in the Fashion Industry

Within the last decade, the waste caused by the fast fashion industry has spurred environmentally-conscious consumers to seek out other options. Fashion innovators, sensing the need for ethical alternatives to fast fashion, were quick to find new (or old) ways to help consumers stay on trend without sacrificing sustainability.

Several major fashion and lifestyle brands have positioned themselves in direct opposition to fast fashion and made environmentalism central to their brand identity. Patagonia (one of the most transparent brands out there) has dedicated itself to using only organic cotton and recycled materials in its fabrication process, which also follows fair trade practices, pays manufacturers a living wage, and sources down and wool products from animal-friendly suppliers. Brands including Everlane, ABLE, and Outdoor Voices pride themselves on ethical manufacturing and complete transparency about their environmental impact.

The reaction against fast fashion is also a primary motivator behind the booming clothing resale market. The innovators behind platforms like ThredUp, PoshMark, and Tradesy have built on eBay’s resale success to give fashion-conscious consumers the ability to buy the trendy pieces they crave while feeling good about giving someone else’s purchases a second life. As Forbes reveals, this “$24 billion (resale) market is projected to jump to $51 billion by 2023,” comprising 10% of the fashion market as a whole.

Remaking Fast Fashion

But can existing fast fashion brands like Zara, H&M, and ASOS modify their current practices to create real change in their industry? Zara’s recently unveiled sustainability goals include eliminating hazardous chemicals from its supply chain, single-use packaging, fibers made from endangered materials, and landfill waste from manufacturing facilities. Is that enough?

UN Environment reports that consumers can “expect to see more development and wider adoption of more sustainable production methods such as waterless dyeing, using waste as a raw material, and development of innovative solutions to the textile waste problem” as fashion brands reckon with their environmental impact. Brands including H&M have instituted recycling programs that offer discounts for consumers who bring used clothing back to stores for recycling and repurposing.

Managing Monumental Change

Changes in manufacturing and sourcing can make a big impact, as can the wider availability of recycling and resale options for textiles, but fast fashion’s sustainability problem may run deeper. The industry has created a revolving trend cycle that encourages wasteful consumer behavior and props up garment sales. Breaking that cycle will require ingenuity, adaptability, and significant effort.

In the coming weeks, we’ll explore how brands can manage the process of tackling big changes like these. It isn’t easy, but it’s important – and consumers will reward the brands that take the lead.

 

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