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It’s Not Easy Being Green: Let’s Not Gatekeep Sustainable Fashion

During the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve had a lot of time to lie at home, sitting around in the same ten pieces of clothing, and reevaluate my clothing purchases. With no grand occasions to look forward to, many, including myself, are spending quarantine purging their closets and moving toward a lower-waste lifestyle. But as we conduct our quarantine cleaning, we should take the time to think about the issues of intersectionality and classism in the sustainability movement and building a sustainable closet. 

We all know the harms of fast fashion. We know that fashion’s use of cheap textiles and toxic dyes pollute 80 billion gallons of water every year. We know that annually, North Americans send almost 10 million tons of clothing to landfill. But if we know this, why do we continue to shop? Even in our eco-conscious society with our paper straws and Hydroflasks, clothing purchases haven't tapered off. Instead, the average person buys 60 percent more items of clothing than they did 15 years ago, with that clothing being kept only half as long.

The truth is, the fashion industry profits from un-sustainability and our culture of consumerism. Topshop features 400 new styles every week, while Zara releases 20,000 designs annually. After all, their paychecks benefit from young women purchasing their eighth crop top or seventh pair of white sneakers. 

But I’m not going to claim that it's inherently our fault for being duped. Fashion powerhouses like H&M and Zara spend millions each year on marketing campaigns to convince you to buy more. We are bombarded with advertisements, whether it be Facebook’s ad recall campaigns or social media influencers flaunting the newest wardrobe must-have, feeding us messages that we need the latest style to be “fashionable.” Emerging fashion brands likeH&M and Zara spend millions each year on marketing campaigns to convince you to buy more. We are bombarded with advertisements, whether it be Facebook’s ad recall campaigns or social media influencers flaunting the newest wardrobe must-have, feeding us messages that we need the latest style to be “fashionable.”

Emerging fashion brands like BooHoo and Fashionnova feed the mantra that their clothes give us the opportunity to showcase our individuality and female empowerment for cheap. Limited quantities and one-day sales emulate our psychological need to buy a piece now if we like it, or it’ll be gone forever.

These ads campaigns get us to forget the consequences of our actions. Yes, your brand new graphic tee might’ve been only fifteen dollars, but with that low price point, the cost of the shirt lies elsewhere: a worker’s abysmal salary, the quality of the materials, or the environmental impact. 

According to the UN Conference on Trade and Development, the fashion industry is the second-most polluting industry on Earth, only outdone by oil. It takes 2,000 gallons of water to make one pair of jeans, leading the industry to produce 20 percent of global wastewater. Additionally, clothing prices can be as low as they are because of worker exploitation through outsourcing to other nations with no or low minimum wage, such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka. In order to maximize company profits, these garment workers are barely paid, with less than 2 percent making a livable wage. Women make up the vast majority of these employees, whereas most management positions are male-dominated. This hierarchical power structure creates environments where physical, mental, and sexual harm against women is commonplace.

But some companies are getting greener and taking action for climate justice. For one, Patagonia has been a strong advocate for environmental activism and purchasing less clothing, even if that means a loss in revenue. 

However, now that companies know some consumers are willing to pay more for environmentally friendly alternatives, more and more companies are turning to greenwashing.

Greenwashing is when companies trick consumers into thinking that their products are more environmentally friendly than they actually are to increase sales. In many cases, companies will focus campaigns on highlighting small actions and ignore underlying systemic issues. A company might focus on transitioning from synthetic fabrics to organic cotton while disregarding the water stress cotton places on cotton-producing regions in countries like India and China.

Even so-called “sustainable” companies have major problems. Their price points are frequently upcharged, but that higher price tag is not necessarily reflective of actual production and supplier expenses. Rather, the price is often due to the premium people are willing to pay to look “sustainable,” similar to a luxury brand’s profit model. Sustainability is becoming more of a trendy fashion statement and less about environmental impact. This business model is detrimental because it gatekeeps the ability to be green, making sustainability a symbol only for the elite and privileged. It isn’t enough to be sustainable if you shame those who cannot afford to spend hundreds on a single piece of sustainable clothing. In addition, many sustainable clothing lines are not size inclusive, barring many people’s ability to shop sustainability even if they have the financial freedom to be sustainable. That option is an unrealistic lifestyle for most women to maintain, and a classist way to view sustainability. 

Frustratingly, sustainable companies are not without their own faults. Many sustainable fashion companies have problems of lack of racial representation and discrimination within their ranks. Reformation ex-CEO Yael Aflalo resigned after being accused of racist treatment of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) employees in June 2020. Having racial injustices occur in a primarily women-led movement is simply unacceptable, especially because Reformation and other sustainability companies’ supply chains are run by primarily BIPOC workers. 

Clearly, intersectionality needs to be at the forefront of the sustainability movement. The “modern” sustainability movement has become whitewashed. Black and brown communities have been shopping second-hand for decades and were treated negatively because of it. However, now that thrifting is considered “cool” due to white influencers promoting it and “dispelling the stigma,” many who frowned upon the practice now flaunt their $2.99 vintage jeans. Many of the most sustainable procedures come from Native American and Asian Pacific Islander traditions, but they are ignored in favor of more prettily packaged mainstream, white-dominated alternatives. This environment marginalies many BIPOC women who are looking to have a greener footprint. 

Now I know how complicated and potentially frustrating it can be to try to navigate “sustainable” fashion, especially considering the massive intersectionality faults in the movement. But at the same time, being sustainable looks different for everyone. You don’t need to buy solely from “sustainable” companies or completely stop buying fast fashion. Sustainability isn’t an issue about fast fashion and class, but rather it is a fight against materialism. At its core, being sustainable is a change in mindset: a promise to try to buy greener and love your pieces for longer. You have the means to make a difference and to create an intersectional, sustainable, green, future.

The waters are murky, but we can get through it—together.

Original article from Forbes.


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