Can We Make Fashion Truly Sustainable?

The future of sustainable fashion is exciting. But the most responsible thing anyone can do is not buy new clothes, says our teenage correspondent.

Image courtesy of Depop

With the climate crisis upon us, now more than ever, it’s time to reevaluate our daily lives and focus on the impact we have on our planet. Working to lessen our environmental footprint won’t be simple, cheap, or fast. To illustrate that, I thought I’d look at fashion and attire. As a teenager, it’s something my peers and I spend plenty of time thinking about. And every time we pick out an outfit, shop for new clothes, or get rid of old ones we’re making decisions that have an impact on not just the fashion industry, but on the environment. The UN has reported that fashion production causes about 10% of humanity’s carbon emissions, and is also the second largest polluter of water globally. The attitude of today’s fashion industry is completely unsustainable, so we must all be willing to accept radical changes to combat climate change. (The recent United Nations IPCC climate assessment showed that the climate is getting worse even faster than we thought, and that if the world doesn’t take action immediately we all face a terrible and dangerous future.) Fashion is an industry that everyone participates in, and I hope, one we can all work to improve. 

Shopping sustainably turns out to be very hard to do, and it can get incredibly confusing with companies’ “greenwashing” advertisements and the expensive prices of supposedly sustainable choices. To start, let’s be clear: the number one most sustainable thing anyone can do is not buy new clothes. Throwing out a polyester t-shirt to instead buy one made from recycled plastic or seaweed is the opposite of sustainable shopping. Overconsumption and rapidly changing trend cycles are the biggest environmental problems that the fashion industry creates, and they won’t be solved merely by switching out the materials that our clothes are made of. However, there are many sustainable choices we can make. 

Second-hand clothing marketplace Depop is one example of a company offering a sustainable alternative to fast fashion that is immensely popular with Gen-Z people like me. It calls itself “more inclusive, diverse, and less wasteful.” Its popularity sky-rocketed during the pandemic, and so Etsy just paid fr $1.6 billion dollars for it this June. Depop calls itself a peer-to-peer social shopping app, merging a marketplace and social media platform into one. Sellers get profiles that display their number of followers and likes along with reviews and posts, to show the popularity and trustworthiness of a seller. Shopping on the app is just like scrolling through social media–you scroll through your feed and double tap to like items. It’s no surprise Depop has gained immense popularity with teenage audiences. 

Depop may be a good example of the potential for sustainable fashion, but it doesn’t come without its own issues. Many sellers take advantage of the fact that consumers like to buy second-hand items from popular fast fashion brands. So sellers desperate for a quick profit often buy new goods straight from fast fashion shops and up the price on Depop, undermining the effort environmentally conscious shoppers are trying to make. Many sellers also buy items in bulk from thrift stores to flip for a profit, raising prices and reducing the economic advantage that we need for sustainable fashion to succeed at a large scale. 

My friends and I think of Depop as “guilt-free shopping.” If we really want an item produced by a problematic fashion brand, but don’t want the negative impact or guilt that comes with such a purchase, we take to Depop. Brandy Melville is one example of a fast fashion brand that many buy second hand on the app–Depop prices for popular items are often more expensive than the retail rate. However, I worry that this “guilt free shopping” might just be in our heads. 

Thredup is another popular online consignment store that markets itself as environmentally-superior. “Thousands of brands you love. Zero guilt,” the site proclaims, along with “Have more. Waste less.” (That last slogan sounds a little suspicious, however.) Compared to Depop, Thredup definitely has a bigger impact on multiple generations and the fashion industry as a whole. It has partnered with many popular retailers including Walmart, Gap, Macy’s, and J.C. Penney to sell its second hand clothing. Unlike Depop, Thredup is not a peer-to-peer marketplace, so it isn’t plagued by many of Depop’s misbehavior issues. However, Thredup doesn’t really address issues of over consumption despite that “Zero Guilt” proclamation. Second-hand shopping is a step in the right direction, but telling customers that thrifting alleviates all environmental guilt isn’t right either. In fact, it’s ridiculous.

But despite these concerns, due to its large inventory and industry connections, Thredup can make second-hand shopping truly mainstream and accessible. It has ambitious goals for fashion’s future and I recommend everyone support the company– whether that means buying some stock or donating your old clothes! 

Second-hand shopping is, I hope, the future of fashion. But clearly not all “sustainable” practices are as good as they seem. Renting and recycling clothing has been shown to be less sustainable even than just throwing away clothes in landfills. A study done by Finnish researchers recently found that platforms like Rent the Runway, for example, create an immense carbon footprint through their shipping emissions by constantly transporting clothes between customers. With current recycling technology, recycling clothes was also shown in the study to be an unsustainable way to get rid of clothing. 

When it comes to buying completely new clothing, the options are more challenging. There are some great new companies and technologies being developed. However it is still necessary to be wary when reading a label saying “sustainable” or “green” on an item of clothing. Large fast-fashion companies like Zara and H&M have come under fire for misleading customers by labeling certain items “eco-conscious” without providing any additional information. Even if fast fashion companies do begin releasing truly sustainable clothing, the money consumers spend will still be going to unsustainable practices in the long run. 

Pangaia is one great example of an innovative company on a mission to save our environment. It is merging environmental science and fashion in fascinating ways that will hopefully transform the industry. (Techonomy recently wrote about Pangaia and also hosted its chief innovation officer at an online event.) 

The future of sustainable fashion is exciting and only getting better. But the most important step in creating a sustainable future will be changing our attitudes and individual behavior. Clothes should be cherished, valued, and fully used as long as they can be, not part of a harmful cycle of waste and overconsumption. 

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