Can ‘fast fashion’ retailers really sell sustainability as well as cheap clothes? Sure retailers like H&M, Zara and Primark are all seen to be doing their part in the name of the environment but can retailers that sell the idea of mass consumption sell sustainability as well? So the big picture is no matter what retailers do to reduce their environmental and ethical impact, how on trend and design focused collections become, a sustainable fashion industry is in the hands of the consumer. Sustainable fashion is a tale of two halves; even if garments are sustainably produced their environmental impact will always be dependent on their rate of consumption.
But lets face it, the idea of high street stores asking shoppers to slow down their level of consumption by buying less is highly unlikely and so it seems that they are using a different tactic. Fashion retailers peddling their sustainable wares may be luring consumers, even conscious consumers into a false sense of sustainable consumerism and be deceived as to what sustainability really is. The sustainability effort from high street brands is commendable, but they will always be what they are, still always do what they have always done like H&M, which is design, produce and deliver garments to 2,200 shop floors worldwide in as little as three weeks. Yes, buying a fair-traded organic cotton t-shirt is much better ethically and environmentally, but buying five of them is missing the point entirely. It turns sustainability into a paradox.
Spending keeps an economy moving and growing and the fashion industry is a giant economy, one that’s valued at £21 billion a year in the UK. So with all the bad press that circulates around fast fashion retailers and their unethical production practices are their ‘sustainable’ collections just another marketing tool to keep tills ringing and attract a new customer base? When consumers start to place their trust in retailers to look after their environmental conscience they take ‘ethics’ and the ‘environment’ out of their shopping equation making it easier to keep buying, if not buy more than usual.
The UN estimates that by 2050 the global consumption of natural resources is set to triple to 140 billion tonnes a year from its current rate of 59 billion tonnes. Retailers may be starting to conserve resources, and luxury fashion designers are starting to implment sustainable design and innovative production practices, but if the rate of global consumption keeps rising as it is doing, it seems that all the work on the part of the environment that is currently being done by the industry will be cancelled out.
“Our experience of fashion today is so dominated by buying stuff that it’s almost impossible to imagine fashion in any other format”, according to Kate Fletcher, sustainable fashion scholar. Fashion is so wrapped up and imbedded in going shopping and buying that it’s impossible for people to imagine or re-imagine it in any other way. We are living in a global society of have and have not, of too much and too little, while all the time becoming entrenched in own consumption patterns and waste. Those with insatiable consuming habits are drowning in stuff, debt and bad health, and those that are not, are being poisoned by the waste and by-products of it. This is a global suffocation at both ends of the spectrum with no middle ground.
“We must realize that prosperity and well-being do not depend on consuming ever-greater quantities of resources,” said the said last years UN report. For example one of Zara’s key marketing strategies is a rapid turnover of merchandise to play on consumers insecurities, so if they don’t buy when they see it, chances are it wont be there tomorrow. Are we all living in a state of psychological anxiety and stress of the ‘have not’, of being less then him/her, of not being more because of having less? This is one of the strongest arguments of the detrimental affects of consumerist fashion and what is contributing towards the very undoing of fashion itself.
So what really is the future of sustainable fashion and consumption? Well for one it does not lie with the trusting retailers to ease your eco-consumer conscience so you can keep on buying. It must be design focused and desirable to consumers whilst implementing the best ethical and environmental production practices. However the real future of a sustainably fashion industry is in educating consumers and developing new habits and ways of using our clothes, and by slowing down the rate at which we buy along with buying second hand, recycling and mending our garments.
We’ve fallen out of love with the very essence of fashion and need to overhaul our relationship with it and develop a more meaningful understanding of what it really is all about. True fashion after all has nothing to do with incessant buying and following trends whether it’s high-end or high street. Mademoiselle Chanel famously put it, “Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live and what is happening”.