oikos Vienna

students for sustainable economics and management

The big dilemma with sustainable fashion

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The Illusion of „fair, transparent and inclusive“

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June at oikos Vienna was all about sustainable fashion. A topic I have been passionate about for years and could hardly wait to discuss with my colleagues. The focus was on two expert talks. A talk with Klaus about his sustainable fashion brand Vresh Clothing and a talk with Jasmin from WeDress Collective, a platform for lending clothes. This immediately raised the question for me, what is actually more sustainable… supporting sustainability-oriented brands or avoiding consumption and instead borrowing, swapping and thrift shopping? Not an easy question, but I can anticipate that even after the two talks I still can’t answer it. Nevertheless, I have become aware of some more or less positive things about the (sustainable) fashion industry.

Circular Economy is in fashion

No matter where you look, the term sustainability is everywhere these days. It’s a social change that big corporations have to get on board with to avoid being forced out of the competition. Especially for sustainable fashion brands, the term circular economy is at the forefront. In the fashion industry, this stands not only for the selection of sustainable fabrics, but also for the reuse of materials. For example, recycled cotton or the production of fibers from old pet bottles. This form of circular fashion is not only found in small fair fashion start-ups, but has also gained a foothold in the high fashion industry. Stella McCartney, for example, relies on circular solutions for her fashion and is thus a role model for the luxury fashion industry. Ethical, circular, slow and conscious represent the new principles of some brands. But why doesn’t everyone just do it, if it fits the social requirements? Well, because it costs money and means more effort. For capitalist big business, maximizing profits at minimal cost is still the priority. And as long as consumers don’t notice the ethical and moral crimes of the corporate giants, everything is fine. Or rather, they pretend to fulfill the new expectations of society, although this is only more or less true.

Green washing is better than nothing

If I had been asked a year ago what I thought of Green Washing, I would have been outraged by this question alone. Green washing is fraud and can hardly have positive sides… can it? Just because H&M claims to use organic cotton for their t-shirts doesn’t say anything about the human rights conditions under which the cotton is harvested and the t-shirts are produced. In the same way, we don’t know what really goes on behind the scenes at Stella McCartney. We need to be able to rely on what is revealed to the public, but unfortunately in many cases we can’t. But what if the big brands didn’t even bother to make a lasting impact? They wouldn’t even bother to respond to societal changes and would continue to do exactly what they’ve been doing for the past 20 years. Consumers would have no choice anyway, because small sustainable brands are often too expensive and you have to get your clothes from somewhere, even if you reduce your consumption. So I see green washing as at least a step in the right direction. Recognizing what is important to consumers (namely fair, environmentally friendly and ethically produced clothing) is better than nothing, even if in many cases this can be interpreted as a marketing hoax.

Simply push it on the consumer

Of course, one could also argue that consumers should simply no longer support the fast fashion industry, which is based on the exploitation of people and nature. This is a difficult argument, because on the one hand it is correct that supply is based on demand, but on the other hand I think it is a wrong approach. Behind all the green washing campaigns, it is first of all difficult to even filter out what one is „allowed“ to buy and what not. This requires intensive research is therefore very time consuming and would simply overwhelm most people. In addition, consumers are extremely and intentionally influenced by marketing and advertising in their buying behavior, so the argument „people should just not buy it anymore“ is somewhere paradoxical, because companies make them buy things they didn’t even know they needed beforehand. Also, no one can be blamed for wanting to follow current fashion trends, as it creates identity and a sense of belonging. Moreover, only buying from sustainable fashion labels is beyond the budget of many consumers. Second-hand shopping has also evolved in recent years from a cheap, sustainable alternative to an expensive vintage trend. Of course, there are some alternatives to buying fast fashion, but simply blaming the problem on the consumer doesn’t cut it. The power lies with the big corporations and the only institutions that can change this sustainably are nation states and transnational organizations (like the UN or the EU) through stricter rules, laws, penalties, subsidies and appropriate controls.

Versace Spring/Summer 2021: https://www.versace.com/de/de-de/world-of-versace/stories/modenschauen/ss-2021-men-women.html

Timelessness is sustainable

That doesn’t mean it’s okay to shop without thinking and then wear the clothes only once or even never. Nobody needs a new pair of shoes or a new T-Shirt every week. In this sense, I can not take the consumer in defense, the mindful buying is everyone’s own responsibility. According to Global2000, every Austrian buys an average of 60 items of clothing per year, which is more than one item per week. 75.000 tons of textiles end up in the trash every year.[1] In our age of the 21st century, everything changes very quickly, including fashion trends. And if something is considered „fashionable“ for only one year and people therefore have to buy something new again the following year to follow the trend and let the „old“ things go to waste in the closet, you generate a buying behavior that wastes natural resources and drives climate change. Fancy colors, patterns and cuts often last only one season until they are eclipsed by the new collections. Even though the principle of sustainability has meanwhile penetrated the high fashion industry, and even there attempts are being made to implement its principles to a large extent, this sector is still largely concerned with very short-lived, expensive fashion trends. A somewhat pointed example, but if you look at a white T-shirt, on the other hand, it was worn 50 years ago and is still in fashion today. And depending on how it is combined, you can create an individual look from it just the same. This concept of the so-called „capsule wardrobe“ has existed since the 1940s and describes exactly the principle of being able to create individual looks from a few simple but well-matched items of clothing. If the fashion industry were to use this principle, we wouldn’t have to constantly follow the latest trends and buy new clothes at short intervals. Although the price of the parts would rise, but by the fact that you no longer buy so much, you do not spend more money on clothes in the end.

Nobody is perfect

Not all fashion companies try to deceive consumers with their marketing tricks. Many make very strong efforts to make their business, design and production processes sustainable. However, in many ways this is not as easy as it seems, and of course the public is taking a very close look. There are garments that are made of many different materials, for example a jacket. It’s made of a fabric, has a zipper, buttons, and may even be lined. Even for sustainability-oriented companies, it is often very difficult to be able to determine the origin of each individual component, especially for non-textiles such as the metal for the zipper. To trace that back precisely represents a huge effort and is not feasible for smaller companies. It should also be mentioned that many materials are not (or cannot be) produced in Europe, such as cotton, because the climate is not suitable. 

Quality seals also pose a certain problem. First of all, you can’t rely 100 percent on what the cachet says, but that’s relatively well known by now. If a garment does not have a cachet, it may still meet the criteria for it (for example, organic cotton, vegan, FairTrade, etc.). Indeed, quality labels must be acquired and in many cases are very expensive. Not every farmer who grows cotton, for example, can afford it. The cotton would then also have to be sold more expensively, which in turn small companies often cannot afford. They then use non-certified cotton, which was grown just as organically, but does not have a quality seal.

Pyramid of responsible consumption

Pyramid of Sustainable Consumption: https://blogs.hope.edu/sustainability-institute/community-knowledge/living-sustainably-less-stuff-is-more-sustainable/

This post certainly cannot offer a solution to the complex problems of the fashion industry, but I can give recommendations on how best to deal with them as a consumer. According to the „Pyramid of Sustainable Consumption“, which is based on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the first priority of a sustainable lifestyle is to use what you already have. As the „Capsule Wardrobe“ described above, it is possible to create individual looks even with a few simple pieces of clothing. For this, you don’t need new pieces all the time and you can work with timeless elements. If you need something extravagant for an occasion, which you will most likely not wear again, for example a ball gown, then you should simply borrow it instead of buying it and letting it gather dust in your closet. Either from friends and acquaintances or from various costume rentals or lending platforms. One’s own style is constantly changing, especially at a young age, and it happens quite often that one no longer likes a piece of clothing at some point. If they are still in good condition, it is a good idea to swap them at exchange events and take something else from there in return. Both parties profit from this. If you don’t find anything suitable at the swap or don’t want to give anything away yourself, second-hand shopping is a good option. There are now also a number of options for this: Flea market apps, vintage markets or second-hand stores. Often the price is even negotiable, so always ask. If something is broken, repair it or take it to a sewing shop or cobbler before throwing it away. The last option now is to buy new. Before doing so, you should think especially carefully about whether you really need a garment and will wear it regularly. In principle, nothing speaks against a well-considered purchase, but also always under the motto: Quality over Quantity. All these options of course involve more effort than simply shopping in the store on mood, but it is important in order to change the fashion industry in the long term and sustainably. Next time you’re shopping for a new piece of clothing, remember: also the little things make a difference.

Personal Tips for sustainbale clothing

Apps and Plattforms: Vinted, Willhaben, Shpock, Uptraded, Vestiaire Collective, WeDress Collective

Trading: Uptraded, Kleiderkreisel, Fesch’ Kleidertauschbörse, Kleidertausch Wiener Wäsch, Global2000. In general- check online regulary for upcoming Trading-Events in your area

Second Hand Stores: Uppers & Downers, Secondi, Humana, Carla

Fair Fashion Stores: Vresh Clothing, Kleider Machen Leute, Muso Koroni, Glein, Weltladen, Grüne Erde, Zerum, Anzüglich

by Lucia Mack


Sources:

Vresh Clothing: https://vresh-clothing.com/ [29.08.2021].

Global 2000: „Alte Textilien“ [online] https://www.global2000.at/alte-textilien [14.07.2021].

We Dress Collective: https://www.wedresscollective.com/ [29.8.2021].

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