The Uphill Battle: Trying to Buy Sustainably

Before returning to Fordham, I promised myself at the end of the summer to consciously buy sustainably this year. Last year, it was all too easy to justify an unnecessary purchase when shopping in the city. Along with buying second-hand clothing, I wanted to seek out brands that ethically sourced and produced their clothing. I looked into some of my favorite brands, an experience I do not recommend embarking on. Nearly all my favorite stores perform poorly when held to ethical and sustainable standards, such as Urban Outfitters and, to my extreme disappointment, Reebok. When did the fashion industry become so populated with unethical companies?

Fast fashion is a term that has rapidly become associated with the most popular clothing brands. This term refers to clothing companies that are constantly producing new items in order to stay on, and even set, the trends. However, the trend cycle moves so fast that this encourages re-wearing clothes to be viewed as a fashion faux pas and, “if you want to stay relevant, you have to sport the latest looks as they happen.” While there is nothing wrong with having a nose for fashion, many do not know the environmental and ethical implications of being an avid trend follower. Due to how fast trends change, “every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned globally.” 

Not only is this practice wasteful, but the negative effects permeate into these companies workforces. In order to have such cheap merchandise, the labor force is paid disparagingly low wages and often work in hazardous conditions. Ten years ago, a Bangladesh clothing manufacturing plant holding hundreds of workers collapsed, “killing over 1,000 workers and injuring over 2,500.” In 2014, the year after this tragic event, was the first time the world surpassed producing over 100 billion tons of clothing. 

Many turn to organizations such as Goodwill or the Salvation Army, which attempt to cut back on this waste by giving clothes to people in need. However, this only saves about 15% of textiles from ending up in the dump. The world produces over 92 million tons of fabric waste annually, with the United States being the country with the second-highest waste. To make matters worse, we are not even producing actual cloth for the clothes being made. Rather, 60% of new fabric is made out of plastic synthetic fibers, making it even harder to get rid of in landfills. 

In this age of constant advertisements and social media outreach, the fashion industry has the appearance of becoming more eco-friendly. Many brands, such as Lululemon, have sections on their websites dedicated to buying second-hand clothes at a discounted rate. This show of environmentalism is different from how the fashion industry actually operates. 

In all honesty, there is no such thing as sustainable fashion. Taking a macro view of the issue, what the popular brands and styles are right now will be different even next week. Being sustainable means “avoiding the depletion of natural resources to maintain an ecological balance”. Companies give a sense of false relief when labeling clothes as used with recycled materials or that the items were “made green”. Yet, it is oxymoronic to sway customers into believing sustainable practices are on the rise. The industry is an always-changing and growing entity which thrives off the constant creation of new styles and products. “Sustainable fashion” does not exist. Rather, companies should strive for “responsible fashion”, or a world in which all players take responsibility for their part in the supply chain and the creative process

The issue, at its core, is a problem of human awareness. Yes, these multi-million-earning companies should evaluate how their wastefulness affects the environment. Yet we are influenced by advertisements and fall victim to consumer culture, abiding by what the newest trend dictates. We constantly change our minds on what is ‘cool’ to satisfy the internal desire to be accepted by our peers or assimilate to trends on social media. Especially for the younger generation, the simplest way to accomplish this is by dressing in what is considered the most trendy. 

There are innumerable effects involved in the practice of fast fashion: resource depletion, environmental degradation, unethical labor, water waste, and many more. To combat this, companies based in countries such as Switzerland and Finland are developing methods of making clothing fibers out of waste in landfills (such as discarded clothing). While there are environmental initiatives aimed at making clothes sustainably, the problem of fast fashion has deep roots. It is impossible to remain oblivious to this prevalent issue. As consumers, we must demand accountability from clothing companies. In order to do so, we have to accept that we need to buy fewer clothes. Once people show that they will no longer tolerate unsustainable practices, then, hopefully, corporations and manufacturers will follow suit.


This article was edited by Blakely Kehl and Marielle Bianchi.