Pros & Cons Of Sustainable Fashion

This guide outlines some of the potential pros and cons of sustainable fashion.

We cover current issues, forecasts for the future, what different numbers and statistics indicate, as well as key topics like recycling fashion items, ethics, and more.

We consider this more of a ‘summary guide’ and encourage you to do more specific and more detailed research on each individual point and issue identified in this guide. 

 

Summary – Pros & Cons Of Sustainable Fashion

Pros

Consumers have some direct control over their fashion related sustainability footprint

The market for rented clothing is expected to grow in the future

The market for secondhand clothing is expected to grow in the future

Subjectively, is appears public awareness about sustainable fashion is growing, and/or is becoming more consistent

Some brands are making an effort to increase sustainability, and there are noticeable results from this effort

More clothing utilisation options are becoming available

Public figures and influencers might have some power to start trends and change across some areas of more sustainable or ethical fashion

Solutions to more sustainable fashion may exist in trying to align with humans’ psychological side and ultimately primeval behaviors

 

Cons

Recycling textiles and ‘circular fashion’ has major challenges and isn’t effective in a number of countries

Fashion may have a ‘good data’ and misinformation problem regarding sustainability statistics, trends, and data

There can be issues with awareness, transparency and tracking/tracing in the supply and sourcing chain

Fashion might still need improvement across several key sustainability and even ethics indicators

Several key sustainability indicators have questionable forecasts for the future

Despite supposed increased awareness about sustainable fashion, consumer actions might be classified as unsustainable according to some metrics

The burden to increase sustainability in the fashion industry might be unequally left to the smaller companies

Some sources point out that human psychology and behavior may be a permanent barrier to achieving certain levels of sustainable fashion

More information on sustainability in fashion can lead to complexity and conflict in information, which can ultimately lead to the consumer doing nothing or ignoring sustainable fashion

More sustainability related marketing terms are being used by fashion brands, but there can be uncertainty about what terms mean to consumers and others, and also in relation to the certifications they supposedly meet

Some argue sustainability is ‘too broad’ of a term, has ‘too loose’ of a definition, and different sustainability metrics can’t be agreed upon

Improving sustainability can be a long term commitment

Some argue that the current systems in the fashion industry are inherently flawed

 

Summary

Sustainability in fashion is a generalised phrase, but might include environmental, social, economic, and ethics based objectives and factors to consider.

There’s several stakeholders in the fashion industry – from suppliers, to manufacturers, to brands, to sellers/retailers, to consumers, to resellers and waste management companies, and the government.

With this being the case, it’s accurate to say that sustainability in fashion involves many different factors, variables and considerations.

There’s also a variety of ways to assess or measure sustainability in fashion.

From looking at the reports, data and real life examples of what is happening in fashion – it might be reasonable to say that fashion has made significant progress in sustainability over the last few decades, but also has room to make more progress in the future.

What this progress looks like depends on many key factors such as the sustainability indicators that are pursued, the production and consumption rates into the future, producer behavior, consumer behavior, availability of accurate information, how we handle used textiles and textiles waste, investment by those with resources into key areas in the industry, and external factors like population growth.

 

*Note – These pros and cons are generalisations.

Obviously the final set of pros and cons of sustainable fashion will be dependent on the individual fashion products, processes, brands and life cycles being assessed. It also depends on factors like how sustainability is being measured, and the sustainability indicator being measured.

 

Pros Of Sustainable Fashion

Consumers have some direct control over their fashion related sustainability footprint

Irrespective of what brands and businesses are doing, consumers have direct control over some key sustainability factors to do with fashion, such as:

– Reducing their consumption rate of new fashion items, and keeping items for longer (and taking better care of them)

– Buying pre-worn and secondhand where possible (swapping clothes, renting clothes, buying from secondhand shops, and so on)

– Thoroughly researching new purchases before buying to get more clarity and certainty on the footprint of a new fashion piece

– Speaking with friends, and becoming a part of groups and communities that share sustainability tips, and organize together

 

The market for rented clothing is expected to grow in the future

The global fashion rental market is projected to exceed $2.5 billion by 2023 (vogue.com.au)

 

The market for secondhand clothing is expected to grow in the future

… the luxury resale market [will] soon outpace the new luxury goods market … [and this is fuelled by clothing swaps, clothing sharing, take back schemes and more awareness and information on extending the life of clothing] (vogue.com.au)

 

Subjectively, is appears public awareness about sustainable fashion is growing

Subjectively, this is the case in a number of countries worldwide

Some evidence of this can be seen during Fashion Month, where there is noticeable activism

– vogue.com.au

 

Some brands are making an effort to increase sustainability, and there are noticeable results from this effort

[Efforts from some fashion brands are resulting in a reduction in] water, energy and chemical use [as well as a reduction in the carbon footprint] (thefashionlaw.com)

 

… [recently companies have begun to quantify what is happening in their supply chains and try to improve it, and there are other areas that fashion brands are implementing sustainability efforts in too] 

 

[In the future, we may also be retailers and sellers have a far better understanding of labelling, what sustainability goals they are trying to achieve, and far better access to sustainability related data in the fashion products they are buying to sell to consumers. This may help both sellers and consumers take some of the guesswork and uncertainty out of stocking and shopping for more sustainable fashion items. Some retailers and sellers are already starting to do this]

 

Ultimately, there’s many individual examples of brands improving different activities and processes in their business to impact sustainability in a positive.

 

More clothing utilisation options are becoming available

[In addition to renting, subscription based services when it comes to clothing is an example of a clothing utilisation option that has developed] (vogue.com.au)

Clothing repair services are also something can be looked into more in the future

 

Public figures and influencers might have some power to start trends and change across some areas of more sustainable or ethical fashion

[Public figures wearing sustainable or ethical brands or fashion items has in the past lead to increased sales and economic growth for these brands, which suggests public figures and influencers have the power to help with sustainable fashion] (vogue.com.au)

 

Solutions to more sustainable fashion may exist in trying to align with humans’ psychological side and ultimately primeval behaviors

Fashionlaw.com makes this point about trying to embrace emotional and egotistical consumer desires in fashion: ‘The desire for new clothes is something that may be impossible to changeSo instead of trying to appeal to the consumer’s supposed ethical streak, perhaps brands should aim instead to use new technology and business models to design products that can be recycled or re-engineered into new styles with minimal use of virgin materials, water, energy and chemicals’

Again from fashionlaw.com ‘… we would not aim to change thousands of years of evolution in the space of a generation, but use innovation and creativity to make industry bend to our inherent needs’

 

Cons Of Sustainable Fashion

Recycling textiles and ‘circular fashion’ has major challenges and isn’t effective in a number of countries

Less than one per cent of old clothing is currently recycled into new clothing … [and] blended fabrics remain notoriously difficult to recycle

[Each country has it’s own unique set of challenges with recycling textiles, which might include but isn’t limited to lack of government engagement in textile waste, no official data, no national investment in waste systems and technology]

– vogue.com.au

 

Nearly three-fifths of all clothing produced ends up in incinerators or landfills within years of being made (vox.com)

 

For more information on the recycling of clothing and textiles, you may like to read this guide

 

Fashion may have a ‘good data’ and misinformation problem regarding sustainability statistics, trends, and data

The vox.com resource listed has an extensive article outlining how the fashion industry may have a problem with having ‘good data’ available for many of the statistics quoted by and used by brands and media/content providers

The result of this is can be misinformation, but also, the question could be asked: how can we objectively and meaningfully try to improve a situation we may not accurately or clearly understand?

On the positive side, knowing this might be the case, we may know that we might need more public funding (or private funding) to get good data (good data is expensive) on sustainability statistics in the fashion industry

There are currently organisations like newstandardinstitute.org that are trying to provide  places to understand sustainability related issues better with consolidated, indepnde,t science backed information

 

There can be issues with awareness, transparency and tracking/tracing in the supply and sourcing chain

[At the moment, only certifications and labelling are thorough enough for companies to have a reliable guarantee of where their materials are sourced from. Many companies and consumers still don’t know where most of their fibres and fabrics actually came from, or don’t have a guarantee of what happened during the growing/production, processing and transport stages] (vogue.com.au)

 

Fashion might still need improvement across several key sustainability and even ethics indicators

[Even though progress has been made in some areas in fashion, other areas like worker’s basic rights in developing countries (having basic economic, physical and emotional security), and several areas of pollution could still improve further] (vogue.com.au)

 

[As recently as 2019] significant change throughout the [fashion] industry, coupled with mass consumer action, has yet to come (fortune.com)

 

[in some fashion sectors, progress on some sustainability indicators is slowing year on year, and environmental impact is getting worse. This is despite an increasing volume of production] 

 

Economic and production related growth can slow sustainability – [when brands grow too consistently or too quickly, they can struggle to keep their environmental impact down] 

 

Several key sustainability indicators have questionable forecasts for the future

By 2030 [water consumption, the carbon footprint, and waste generation are all forecast to increase in the fashion industry] (thefashionlaw.com)

What would be worthwhile though, is to compare these increases to the trends in overall production and population growth i.e. ask the question – is sustainability getting worse per capita, or simply because total production and consumption is increasing?

[Some figures suggest increased consumption, and the rate at which new fashion items are discarded by consumers is in fact increasing, in part because people are chasing the latest fashion trends … people are also buying new clothes more frequently, and letting their clothes sit in their cupboards without being worn] (thefashionlaw.com)

[Fast fashion as opposed to slow fashion may be the key cause for high consumption and disposal rates] (thefashionlaw.com)

 

A question to ask about the above trend is – what is the point in more sustainable fashion, if total fashion production and waste numbers are increasing, leading to a total overall higher footprint anyway?

 

Despite supposed increased awareness about sustainable fashion, consumer actions might be classified as unsustainable according to some metrics

[One example of this is] between 2000 and 2015, clothing utilisation (how long we keep garments in use) fell by 36% globally. In China, it was 70% … [which means] We’re buying more clothes and wearing them less (vogue.com.au)

 

… the growth of ethical consumption has not materialized in mainstream fashion. Ethically-minded brands believe the single biggest issue stopping them becoming more sustainable is the consumer; either through their lack of awareness of the issues faced by the industry or through an unwillingness to pay the premium for sustainable products (thefashionlaw.com)

 

The burden to increase sustainability in the fashion industry might be unequally left to the smaller companies

[Some claim that the burden to improve sustainability in the fashion industry is unequally left to smaller companies, compared to larger companies] (vogue.com.au)

 

Some sources point out that human psychology and behavior may be a permanent barrier to achieving certain levels of sustainable fashion

When posing the question of whether ethical consumption really exist in the mainstream fashion market, thefashionlaw.com makes this point: ‘Psychology and behavioral science may suggest that ethical fashion consumption is a pipe dream. We believe our purchasing decisions are based on rational, conscious and well thought out deliberations, but in reality, the complexity of human behavior and the fundamental nature of fashion implies that ethical consumption may not be an attainable goal’

 

Essentially, what people say and believe they will do, they may not actually do when it comes time to actually act.

Even we believe that human psychology and behavior is not the barrier some make it out to be, it might be reasonable to admit that irrational behavior, emotions, social drivers and biological drivers will always be present to some extent in humans’ relationship with fashion.

 

More information on sustainability in fashion can lead to complexity and conflict in information, which can ultimately lead to the consumer doing nothing or ignoring sustainable fashion

[more information on issues to do with sustainability in fashion can lead to complexity and conflicting information, and in this case] evidence shows this does little to increase ethical behavior [by the consumer, and in fact, it’s] easier for the consumer to turn a blind eye (thefashionlaw.com)

 

On the subject of conflict of information: [there can still be debate in the scientific community in relation to what types of fabrics and fibres are really best for the environment]

 

On the subject of complexity: [in past times, before globalisation and outsourcing, sourcing and manufacture may have been easier to track and may have been more transparent when it stayed with the country where th product was being bought. But, in modern times, big fashion chains might use thousands of suppliers, and these suppliers might have sub contracts, and there can be secrecy or an unwillingness to reveal suppliers because of a want to protect economic and practical advantages from the competition]

 

More sustainability related marketing terms are being used by fashion brands, but there can be uncertainty by consumers and others about what terms mean, and also in relation to the certifications they supposedly meet

[recently, the number of clothes described as sustainable has increased, and other terms like ‘eco’, ‘organic’, ‘vegan’, and so on, are used, but there can be many people, especially consumers, who lack an immediate and accurate understanding of what they actually mean, and what different certifications might mean]

Adding to the uncertainty of what a particular term might mean, some terms used by sellers and brands are unregulated in some countries, or can mean something different when used by each individual third party certifier.

 

Some argue sustainability is ‘too broad’ of a term, has ‘too loose’ of a definition, and different sustainability metrics can’t be agreed upon

Sustainability in general can mean different things to different people and organisations – there’s debate about it

There’s also debate about what sustainability metrics should be tracked, and what sustainability goals should try to be pursued

With debate and different opinions and priorities, it might be harder to get uniformity to make major progress on any one metric or indicator in some ways.

 

Improving sustainability can be a long term commitment

People may want complete solutions right now, and there might be some short term solutions available. But, in reality, to get lasting and worthwhile changes across an industry, it can take years, and even a decade or more when looking at the commitment and extent of changes required. Some people may not have awareness or understanding of this

 

Fashion sustainability organisations and governments don’t always agree

[This was the case the UK between the Environmental Audit Committee and the UK Government on fashion sustainability related issues] (fortune.com)

 

Some argue that the current systems in the fashion industry are inherently flawed

Some point out that it’s good that there is progress being made on sustainability in fashion, and that certain results are being achieved

However, companies still have a profit motive that relies on production, and eventually consumption

With this being the case, some argue that sustainability improvement on new products is not where the focus should be, but rather on figuring out how total production and consumption can be decreased, and how we can make better use of what we already have

This would of course mean that the fundamental systems and structure of the fashion industry would have to change, and not just the behaviors 

It’s worth point out though that this is more of a speculative point

External factors like population growth, economic sustainability, and other factors would have to be considered

 

Sources

1. https://www.vogue.com.au/fashion/news/7-critical-issues-affecting-sustainable-fashion-in-australia/news-story/8b46156f71c05a16aca0d949b43e0cbb

2. https://www.thefashionlaw.com/can-the-fashion-industry-ever-really-be-sustainable/

3. https://fortune.com/2019/12/26/fashion-industry-clothing-sustainability/

4. https://edition.cnn.com/style/article/the-problem-with-sustainable-fashion/index.html

5. https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2020/1/27/21080107/fashion-environment-facts-statistics-impact

6. https://www.newstandardinstitute.org/

7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sustainable_fashion

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