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Sustainability In Fashion: Expectations vs. Reality

Sustainability In Fashion: Expectations vs. Reality

It’s in the news almost daily: The whole world is talking about saving the environment, and clothes are no exception! But how can we expect a sustainable fashion industry to spring from the soil if we still wear clothes made using unsustainable practices? This post will take a look at how expectations about sustainability in fashion vary from reality, why that’s a problem for sustainability (for fashion and for just about everything), and why it’s even necessary to call into question the entire concept of “sustainability”.

Expectation: You are aware of the facts about sustainability in fashion.

Reality: You're not as informed as you think.

Although the fashion industry has been working to green its production, efforts have been lackluster and slow. How are consumers reacting? In short, they’re not aware of what’s happening behind the scenes. What do sustainability in fashion critics really think is going on? We’ve hoped for great strides in sustainable design, reduced carbon footprints across the industry, and more transparency, but we’re still falling short. Are consumers ready to buy from sustainable brands? The jury is out on this point. You can make big strides in sustainability in fashion, but it comes with a price tag that is too high for most.

Understanding the effort that goes into producing, distributing, and selling clothes is only half the battle―having a realistic perspective on what we expect to receive and what products really deliver might be even more important. Creating clothes that are both produced sustainably and lives up to customers' expectations can feel like two competing goals. As it turns out, these two goals aren't as far apart as they might seem. Through the years, initiatives like Eco-Age, the Fashion Ethical Trade Initiative, and Sustainable Apparel Coalition have worked on raising consumers' awareness in regard to sustainability issues while also promoting higher standards within their industries. These initiatives hope to give us back control over our purchasing decisions by providing us with resources and labels that help us make informed choices about the brands we support. The trick is knowing which labels are legitimate or not. 

Expectation: You are happy to donate your old clothes to charity or the homeless.

Reality: 65 percent of clothing donations don't find their way to people who need them.

People believe charity is an effective way to help the environment via sustainability. They donate their old clothes to charities and orphanages assuming that people who need it will get some use out of them. The fact is that only a small amount of clothing donations have actually found people in need. It’s only about 35-40% of all donated clothing that ends up finding its way to those in need. This means nearly two-thirds of all clothes donated doesn't reach the hands of those who need it.

Expectation: You buy vintage and only shop ethically-sourced clothing brands.

Reality: Even some vintage and ethical brands are problematic.

I recently discovered that even some vintage and ethical brands have issues with their supply chains. It was extremely disappointing to find out that something which I tried to be so conscious about caused me to contribute to the same problems I was trying to fight. Sustainability followers are a very selective shopper who chooses pieces that are made from recycled fabrics, are handmade, are dyed naturally with non-toxic dyes, are locally-made by designers who pay their seamstresses a fair wage and have no mass production. Even I do my best when it comes to examining supply chains and finding ways to cut down on my consumption. I always ask questions about the materials used in products manufactured in the country and what steps they are taking to be eco-friendly or provide economic opportunities for people in developing nations. It's a process that has taken up most of my purchases for the last year. This is why this information about certain sustainable brands caught me off guard.

Expectation: The price tag is a good indicator that something was ethically made.

Reality: Price is no guarantee of quality or ethics.

Whether you are looking for clothing or food, our choices are often influenced by price. These two factors have a huge impact on our decision-making (in fact, as Humans, we love things that are cheap or free). For example: I’d love to pay $200 dollars a month to live in my own house, but $800 is a little more realistic and is usually what my roommates and I agree on. I’d also love to have unlimited burrito bowls at Chipotle on the daily and expect $7.50 per bowl anytime but logical Sarah says something like $5-$7 is reasonable and more sustainable. So, naturally, we expect the prices we see tag on products to be an honest reflection of quality, ethics and value. However, this just isn’t always true. In reality price tags can be very misleading (just look at the difference between designer brands & “private label” versions — not to mention the difference between retail & off-the-rack clothes).

Expectation: It's far better to buy new clothes than used ones because they're more comfortable, require less work on your part, and won't have body odors attached to them.

Reality Buying new clothes requires extensive washing before wear, too, and can contain similar chemicals as used items.

While used clothing can have its problems, new clothing can also suffer from issues such as wrinkles, odors, and dirt. As an item goes through the lifecycle of being used, wearers can start to notice problems with it. Wrinkled clothing may need to be smoothed out again and unpleasant body smells can appear. This is very common with used clothing but people don't always realize that their new purchases could go through a similar process. If a lot of people have worn an item but not cleaned it thoroughly first, this can lead to a poor quality product which might need more frequent washing. 



The fashion industry, like any other industry, is built around the bottom line and has little motivation to become more sustainable—unless the consumer demands it. Fashion consumers can use their purchasing power to make demands; whether they will do so remains to be seen. But considering the impact of fashion on our planet, it would be irresponsible not to make a personal stance toward sustainability in the way we dress. If you don’t want to keep buying clothes that were made using unsustainable or unethical practices, there are many ways you can avoid them. First and foremost, buy less new clothing—be mindful of what you purchase out of necessity rather than novelty.

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