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An Unsubstantiated Opinion: Optimism + Doubt

Updated: Mar 30, 2022

In an attempt to ditch perfectionism and face my need for infallible primary sources, I'll be writing more blog-esque pieces. I'm calling the series 'An Unsubstantiated Opinion' to warn readers that whatever thoughts lay below are original — or as original as thought can be —for better or for worse.

Third only to perhaps cooking and prostitution, fashion is one of the oldest industries in the world, starting with the Neanderthal’s cape (or Adam and Eve’s nudity imbroglio, whatever you believe).

Clothing is one of many central tools in the construction of human development to date. Separating us from other animals, allowing us to farm, explore, survive harsh climates, attract mates, etc. It’s easy to forget just how deeply entrenched the fashion industry remains in not only our daily lives, but our cultures, our economies, our gender roles, our displays of socioeconomic status, our beauty standards.

So perhaps unsurprisingly, there is comically little online and even on social media about sustainable fashion specifically (but this is growing rapidly). On instagram, #sustainablefashion has 13.9 million posts (which I have personally watched grow from 10m a year ago) #slowfashion has 12.4m, #ethicalfashion lands at 5.6m, and #conciousfashion comes in at a whopping 1m. #fashion on the other hand as 1 billion posts, #zara has 43.9m, and #hm has 12.6m posts. Try googling ‘sustainable fashion careers’ I dare you. (If you find anything, call me. Seriously).

All this to prove how new this faction of fashion rebels really is. While we have seen badass women like Livia Firth, Orsola de Casto, Christina Dean, and Clare Press fighting for sustainable fashion for 10+ years, the movement as a whole only grew exponentially last year. Cheers, @GenZ. Standing in the monstrous shadow of the fashion industry, sustainable fashion is new.

And, as such, it’s currently something of a scattergun movement. ‘Sustainable fashion’ is an umbrella term for a kaleidoscope of perspectives on how to fix fashion. Each has a roughly similar goal — placing a consideration for people and the planet at the core of the fashion industry’s products and practices — with a different methodology.

Circular fashion aims to restructure our consumption and economic systems away from a linear slide of products to landfill; slow fashion is a movement about intentional purchasing, moving away from the hyper-production and disposability of fast fashion; ethical fashion focuses on free trade and just global relationships; conscious fashion works to aid garment workers exploited by fashion conglomerates; intersectional environmentalism fights to elevate and prioritize BIPOC voices and crucial indigenous knowledge on how to live sustainably; others focus on development of bio-based materials; thrifters make use of what we already have; vegans emphasize cruelty free; zero waste is a design practice. The list goes on.

Because it’s so new and diverse, sustainability developments in/for fashion happen regularly. Like LVMH announcing a new center for sustainability, Ganni and Oscar de la Renta ditching leather, dresses made from biodegradable algae.

‘Development’, in a very Western sense of the word, and especially scientific development, is propelled by doubt. Hear me out: we need constructive criticism, peer reviewed articles and clinical re-trails to weed out bona fide progress stripped of bias and agenda, personal or corporate. In this way, doubt is constructive.

So it’s to be expected that any sustainability developments in fashion will be met with scrutiny. Especially in a space so wrought with greenwashing. Any hardened sustainable fashion aficionado is the first to rip apart sustainability claims and sniff out a plastic lining, tree-planting-for-every-order scheme, ‘ocean bound’ plastic, or organic cotton-polyester blend. We’ve all had our hearts broken a few too many times by seemingly eco-conscious brands to not be distrustful. At this point I look at the sustainability page before the products to avoid the heartache.

Plus, inter-faction critique is standard for a movement with quite so many groups with varying priorities.

But to what extent is criticism (or cynicism) useful? When does it become detrimental? This is a balance I struggle with, and don’t have a definitive answer for.

The primary issue is that each sustainable fashion faction measures development by different value systems. The H&M x PETA collaboration would be hailed by vegans and ethical fashionistas as a major step in the right direction, while those more focused on the ecological impacts of fashion would argue the opposite; that leather alternatives are fossil fuel derived and only further drain the planet of nonrenewable resources.

Each facet of the sustainable fashion movement developed for a reason: every single aspect of the industry needs to be reconstructed. It’s easy to criticize new developments in sustainable fashion as ‘not enough,’ falling short of the seismic changes we need to see to save the planet and industry. Especially when we have dozens of groups judging scientific and systemic change with different yardsticks.

But on the other hand, doubt of sustainability developments in fashion has proved crucial with greenwashing and intentional misinformation becoming common practice. For example, H&M has recently come out with ‘circular collections,’ yet when we look more closely H&M can’t actually be circular until they reduce their output by 80% and pay their garment workers fair wages (while CEO Stefan Persson is worth 18 billion…). Or our political leaders signing non-binding agreements flaunted as more impactful than they are; companies signing pacts and promises only to break them (i.e. the Bangladesh Accord); and the obfuscation of garment worker exploitation for the continued aggregation of wealth and power of corporate billionaires.

We have to hold these people and companies accountable and make the truth of their detriment known — which can only be done by doubting their claims.

Doubt is useful in finding the truth and maintaining accountability, but becomes detrimental if wielded as a stifling tool of unrealistic standards. Not every step in the right direction is going to be a step for every aspect of the industry. But it’s still a step! If we continue to shut down any progress according to a different value system, we risk stagnating any progress at all to infighting.

Is it so bad to celebrate the tiny successes we have in overturning an industry 200,000 years in the making? Do we do harm by celebrating interim successes?

I’d argue, for the time being, we should celebrate what we can. No, rPET is not circular, biobased leathers have plastic in them, and organic cotton won’t save us. But those are all better than fossil fuel fabrics, dead animals (/financially fueling the livestock industry) and carcinogenic chemical coated materials, are they not?

As long as we maintain the truth and don’t blow tiny progressions out of proportion or perpetuate greenwashing, celebration is a display of hope and commitment to the cause. Especially when we take the fight of sustainable fashion into the context laid above: fashion is a sequoia in the oak grove of industry. Uprooting such a mammoth is not going to happen overnight.

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