The Problem(s) with Sustainable Fashion

December 29, 2020

Me wearing a black turtleneck and black pants with a red button down

As a sustainable fashion advocate, I’m clearly passionate about the field, but I recognize that there are many issues with the movement—especially when it comes to accessibility, inclusivity, and lack of emphasis on garment worker rights.

In this post, I wanted to talk about these issues to hopefully reframe your approach to the movement.

If you’re a more visual or auditory learner, here’s the YouTube video version of this post:

“Sustainable Fashion is Classist”

Let’s first talk about the mainstream portrayal of sustainable fashion, which is incredibly flawed. Many people believe that sustainable fashion is all about purchasing from expensive ethical brands and is inaccessible or classist as a result. This is simply one of many sustainable fashion myths.

It’s true that some aspects of sustainable fashion aren’t always accessible, but there are other ways to participate. You absolutely don’t have to buy new sustainable clothing to be part of the movement. In fact, the most sustainable things you can do are to:

  • Wear what you already own
  • Buy less, and buy used if you need something (if you can)
  • Mend clothing when it breaks
  • Wear pieces multiple times before washing
  • Air drying your clothes to make them last
  • Repurposing ratty clothing as rags or something else

These are all things that low-income, BIPOC, and immigrant communities have been doing for years. Richer people love to use low-income people to say that sustainable fashion is classist, and use that as an excuse to keep buying massive hauls. But real sustainable fashion isn’t classist at all—most lower-income folks naturally participate in sustainable fashion due to their circumstances. 

I think this misunderstanding is in large part due to influencers, who will promote this superficial idea of sustainable fashion with their massive hauls from sustainable brands. The words “sustainable” and “haul” are totally contradictory, as true sustainability means buying less. (This isn’t the only way fashion influencers are problematic).

I also think people have a negative perception of ethical fashion because some advocates shame people for buying fast fashion. Not everyone can avoid fast fashion due to money, size options, lack of access to thrift stores, or lack of time. If someone buys fast fashion out of necessity, or only buys what they truly love, and then takes good care of it, I’m not going to judge that person. If they’re not overconsuming, they’re not the problem. 

Sure, there are many alternatives to fast fashion, but you also need to have the time and education to know where to look. I waited literally over half a year to find a specific pair of running shorts secondhand from a Facebook group. Some people simply can’t afford to wait or spend time digging like that. For example, someone could need something for a last-minute interview or hiking trip. 

wearing the white sneakers with pleated pants on a tiled floor

Lack of Representation and Inclusivity

If many BIPOC often naturally lead sustainable lives, why aren’t more BIPOC the face of sustainability movements? I do feel that things have started to shift, and that there’s better representation among creators at least, but maybe I just happen to follow more diverse creators as an Asian woman. In fashion specifically though, there’s still a lack of diversity in models and brand executives. Things are getting better, but I want to see real transparency from brands about their diversity stats in hiring. Girlfriend Collective is one brand that has actually shared and followed up on these stats

Size-inclusivity is another huge issue in sustainable fashion. Most sustainable brands only go up to an XL. This is actually a problem in the fashion industry in general—a lot of fast fashion brands are also not size inclusive, like Urban Outfitters or Topshop. But the major fast fashion brands like Forever 21 and H&M do have plus size options, and since there are more fast fashion brands, there tend to be more brands with extended sizing. We can’t expect a lot of people to buy from ethical brands if they don’t carry sizes that work for most people.

Even worse, many “ethical” brands are realizing the need for diversity, so they seek out BIPOC creators to promote their brand, but refuse to pay them fairly. I’ve had several sustainable brands reach out to me and only offer product as payment, but ask for a ton of content in return. Creating content is work and it should be paid fairly, especially by these so-called “conscious” brands. This feels more like tokenism and virtue signaling than true inclusivity. This happens in the plus size community as well—in 2017, Urban Outfitters included a plus size model in their campaign when they didn’t even offer clothing in the model’s size.

Greenwashing Brands

Greenwashing is when brands market themselves as eco-friendly when they actually aren’t. Many popular brands are guilty of this, including H&M Conscious and Everlane (see my article evaluating Everlane’s ethics and sustainability). 

More and more consumers care about the environment, but a lot of them don’t quite understand what makes a brand truly sustainable, so they can be easily taken advantage of. If brands say they use natural or deadstock material, people think that’s enough. 

It’s definitely not—for a brand to be sustainable, you need to consider their production process, certifications, labor practices, diversity and inclusion, and marketing. I have a whole post on how to tell if a fashion brand is sustainable, so check it out if you want to learn more.

Lack of Emphasis on Garment Worker Rights

Sustainable fashion isn’t only about the environment—it’s also about human rights. I had one person comment on a TikTok that they wanted to stop the overconsumption, but didn’t want to pay people more, and I was like umm, hello???

This is all interconnected. Overconsumption exists because of the low prices, and the low prices exist because garment workers are exploited and paid next to nothing. Basically, it’s capitalism for you. 

It’s no secret that garment workers are mistreated, but many people don’t understand just how horrible their situation is. Let’s take the example of the #PayUp movement: at the start of the pandemic, many major brands canceled orders and left garment workers without pay. 

Seventy-five percent of garment workers have had to borrow money to just buy food this year. It’s also worth noting that 80% of garment workers are women, and many work in developing countries as the primary breadwinners. Entire families and communities were suffering and continue to suffer. In fact, many brands, including American Eagle and Urban Outfitters, have still yet to pay. Even worse, many of these brands posted about BLM, but still have yet to pay their predominantly women of color garment workers. 

People love to say that fast fashion provides people jobs in developing countries, but these jobs aren’t stable or safe. Even if these jobs are “relatively” better compared to other options, they are still unacceptable, and we should be fighting for better, and supporting better companies if we can.

One way to help garment workers is to sign the petition over at payupfashion.com. The petition calls for fair pay, workers’ safety, transparency, and industry regulations. You can also donate through the website, and the money will go directly to garment worker organizations. I donated $50 back on Giving Tuesday, and hope you’ll join me in donating if you can.

These petitions do work, and the spring #PayUp petition successfully pressured many brands to pay for those canceled orders. 

If you know of other garment worker issues people should know about and ways to help, please let me know. I have another post planned on this topic and want to spotlight more of these human rights issues.

pile of clothes on a green chair

Balancing Individual and Systemic Change

Finally, I want to point out that fast fashion is a systemic problem. Like I said earlier, sustainable fashion is about way more than just conscious consumption.

The problem with every sustainability movement is green capitalism, or the idea that we can buy our way out of the climate crisis. When we focus too much on buying more sustainable options, we actually end up with more stuff we don’t need, and also take the focus off of systemic issues. 

That being said, I believe in finding a balance between making lifestyle changes and pushing for systemic change. After all, we as consumers fuel these corporations through our purchases. I’ve noticed that people love to use the phrase “there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism” as an excuse to continue their avoidable unsustainable behavior. They also love to use accessibility as an excuse, when they themselves actually do have access to better options. 

Yes, it’s impossible to be 100% ethical. I understand that—even thrifting isn’t totally ethical because some corporate stores mistreat their workers. But that said, some decisions are better than others. It’s better environmentally to thrift than to buy from SHEIN. It’s better to buy a used or refurbished phone than to buy a new one. Or you could still even buy a new phone or buy fast fashion, but just keep it and use it for years and years.

I will always encourage making better choices if they’re accessible to you. Luckily, buying less clothing should save you money and time, so it’s naturally more accessible. But if certain lifestyle changes are too burdensome, then don’t do them, and use that energy instead for actions with larger impact. 

For instance, I’m nowhere near zero waste, as it’s difficult for me to find package-free food. Rather than go out of my way to do that, I instead spend my time spreading awareness online about sustainable fashion and living. Or I’ll donate to environmental and social justice nonprofits, or phone bank for political campaigns.

In my opinion, it’s really all about finding a balance between realistic lifestyle changes and actions with a broader impact.

Final Thoughts

I think it’s always important to reflect on ways that environmental movements can be more inclusive and effective. I hope this post gave you a different perspective of sustainable fashion, and I’d love to hear from you on the aspects of the movement that you feel need to be changed. 

If you liked this post and want to support me, please feel free to share the link or buy me a virtual coffee. I’d truly appreciate it!

You may also like these posts:

9 Common Misconceptions About Sustainable Fashion
Is Thrifting and Reselling Ethical?
11 Ways to Get Rid of Clothes Responsibly

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4 Comments

  • Nina | Lemons and Luggage December 30, 2020 at 1:13 am

    Love, love, love this post, Lily! Especially the part about garment workers and can’t wait to read your next post on that issue.

    And you already know I fully agree on the issue of systemic vs. personal change. I once read an answer to that quote in a vegan group: “Yes, there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, but there also is no ethical exploitation of animals under any system.” So if we simply add the environment and specify humans as well then that pretty much sums it up. Yes, capitalism sucks, but while we live in it let’s do whatever we can to make sure the little money we do have goes to people who need it more or who do better things with it.

    • Lily January 1, 2021 at 2:13 pm

      I’m so glad you liked the post, Nina! And I totally agree with you. If we have the means to try our best, I think we should!

  • Amanda Wallman July 8, 2021 at 5:04 pm

    Hi, I really loved this response too fast fashion and the challenges that come with trying to alleviate these problems. My name is Amanda Wallman and I am a young designer, and aspiring entrepreneur of my own sustainable label, Pathos Trap. I am currently in the process of exploring sustainable fabric suppliers, conceptualizing my first collection, developing a formal business plan, and researching resources that operate to educate and assist young people like me, who are passionate about making a difference. I recently stumbled across this article, and I really appreciate the fresh perspective it brought to me about what “sustainability” really means. I am interested to know if you have done any research regarding the development and implementation of innovative textile recycling technologies that are made to sanitize, breakdown, and transfer unwanted garments into fresh, ready-to-wear pieces? Not sure if you have heard of G2G Recycling Systems, or the Loop machine introduced by H&M; I would love to hear your insight on if/how you believe this technology can be utilized to ultimately build a more sustainable future for fashion? A response of any kind would be immensely appreciate, thank you for your time!

    Best wishes,
    Amanda Wallman
    Pathos Trap

    • Lily July 18, 2021 at 9:34 am

      Hi Amanda! I think the technology is interesting, but I’m always suspicious of H&M’s sustainability measures since they are the ones creating the problems. Rather than focus on recycling, they should be focused on reducing production and fixing the ethical issues in their suply chain. I think recycling technology is awesome when we’re using it mindfully though and I hope we can have more circular brands in the future.

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    About Me

    I'm Lily, and I run races and go places (& blog about it). I also try to advocate for the planet & its people.
    Here is where I document my (mis)adventures and try to offer some helpful advice. Feel free to join me for the ride. Read More

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