How Sustainable Fashion Is Ruining the Industry

fashion designer working

1 Granary, a print and online publication out of Central Saint Martins University of the Arts in London has launched a series of articles on ethically-made fashion. But their first interview subject balked at the title they had in mind for the section: “Sustainable Fashion.”

According to Orsola de Castro, a leader in sustainable fashion, labelling garments as such does not benefit designers who create their pieces by hand, carefully source their fabrics, and utilize every last piece to avoid waste. These are all sustainable practices, and she argues that they should not require a special label because it is simply fashion. The fashion industry should focus on identifying those who produce an excessive amount of clothing without consideration for the impact it has on the environment, and those who do not practice sustainable methods should be given a special label.

The reality is that the industry completely lost touch with its main values ever since it’s only been about rapid growth, mass production, fast fashion, and disposable luxury. It so detached from its origin that it then had to go and create a shit name so that people could be stigmatised. The reality is that sustainable fashion really is fashion. It’s everything else that isn’t sustainable that should be called as such. Choose whichever name you like the least, such as ‘unethical fashion’ or ‘unsustainable fashion’ to describe the way that the industry operates.

We have such a label in “fast fashion,” (though maybe that's too benign-sounding) and thanks to publicity like this reality show out of Denmark and a new generation of twenty-somethings who want to avoid supporting sweatshops. But de Castro is also right that “sustainable fashion” has become synonymous with boring design that's too expensive. And the moniker has created a polarized issue—either you choose to consider how your clothing was made or you say screw it, there's nothing I can do to change an entire industry.

It's an excellent point from de Castro that designing and making clothing thoughtfully is fashion, and it's the giant fast fashion clothing manufacturers that are outside of fashion. And as bloggers, perhaps we should consider what we're celebrating: fashion, or something else?

Also, 1 Granary was left wondering what they should call their special series on responsibly-produced fashion. De Castro's suggestion: “Anything but sustainable fashion.” So that's exactly what they're calling it. You can follow along here.

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About The Author

In addition to being editor at IFB, Kristen writes for Forbes, Eat, Sleep, Denim, and her own blog, Stylenik. Previously, she served as the San Francisco editor for Racked, covering the intersection of retail, fashion, and technology. She has written about everything from human cloning to luxury shopping for publications including Wired, Gizmodo, Refinery 29, and the San Francisco Chronicle. She lives in a '70s house in '70s clothes on the Northern California coast. 

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15 Responses

  1. Bike Pretty

    That is fascinating. I have to say, I completely agree with Orsola’s point. Systems of abuse are definitely hidden by the euphemisms that we use.
    As a small designer/producer, I definitely balk at the term “sustainable” myself.

    But I never thought to turn the moniker around. Maybe we should call it “blood fashion” similar to “blood diamonds” and the evil mining practices.

    Whatever we call it, we should know that when we buy cheap, new clothes. Someone else has paid the price.

    • Jennifer Nini

      Yes I agree with what you say but like I mention in my point: we label organic food because we need to inform consumers. Once upon a time all food was organic much as sustainable fashion was just fashion. Unfortunately industrialisation has wreaked havoc in our industries making everything fast, robotic and thoughtless. If we ever get to the point where we wouldn’t need to differentiate using terms such as ‘sustainable’ and ‘ethical’ I would love it. But this is not our reality so, using labels is as close to relaying the message as we can get. For now. Thanks for contributing to this important discussion! x

  2. Brooke Vlasich

    As a supporter and blogger for sustainable fashion I found this post very intriguing, because I too feel the industry should define what they mean by “sustainable,” since there are so many categories including: eco-friendly, ethical, fair trade, and fair wages. It is confusing to people what the movement supports. I also think that in order for the sustainable fashion movement to succeed it does need to look at trends in order to avoid being seen as “ugly” “hippie” or “over-priced.” I also like the point made at the end that knowing where your clothes are made and producing with respect to the environment is fashion and that anything outside of it is fast-fashion and does not include the goals of fashion. If “sustainable fashion” continues to separate itself and instead of integrating with society, it will not succeed and will continue to confuse those who don’t understand the meaning behind it.

    • Jennifer Nini

      Looks like we’re on the same page lovely! Read my comments further down and you’ll know where I sit on the matter xx

  3. Lauren Smith

    I have been thinking this for quite some time now. We all buy things that are made in other countries. And they are made quickly and cheaply in these countries because the working conditions are so bad, it would be illegal to have such conditions in the US. Yet we complain when fashion is expensive. Just something to think about, great article!

    • Jennifer Nini

      Great that is has caused you to think about these things – the more people that do the better off the world will be. But please don’t just stop at thinking. Beliefs aren’t what change this world, actions do xx

  4. Mariana

    What an interesting viewpoint on sustainable fashion, which now I must admit I have to rethink. Great article.

  5. Alisha Trimble

    I think it is slightly petty to balk at name calling but I do like that it points awareness: we need to differentiate who’s legitimate and who is creating global strife and pollution to compete unfairly in the free market. That said, I’m more interested in setting my own standards and being a positive example as you can see by viewing my work. Whatever labels or categories apply matter less to me.

  6. Susie

    As ‘Fashion Revolution Day’ is approaching this topic will be discussed more. Fortunately more people are made aware of what really happens behind the scenes of fashion but there is still a long road to go. Ethical fashion brands have to start to cater to an audience with different budgets and not not high-end. I’m very optimistic that in the years to come things will change in the fashion industry!

  7. Jennifer Nini

    In the years since I have been writing about this (since about 2008 and publicly blogging about it since 2010) I have heard this argument raised time and time again. The terms ‘ethical’ ‘sustainable’ ‘eco’ are interchangeable and depending on a persons individual reference points and ethics we could argue this all day. It is just semantics at the end of the day and it appears when it comes to these words, perhaps a global transparency system is in order so producers/consumers/governments stop are all on the same page. I’ve often said in my blog and to the people I have had many discussions with that one day I wish not to be writing about ‘ethical’ or ‘sustainable’ fashion because the hope is one day ALL fashion will be such. As this is not our current reality I disagree with Orsola de Castro in that we DO in fact need some sort of labelling that is transparent. You may disagree with such terms as ‘sustainable’ ‘ethical’ and ‘eco’ to describe fashion but these labels are merely a starting point and as consumers/and or producers it is your role to investigate/or promote transparency in your entire production process including farming/sourcing/manufacturing/care. The same can be said of the food industry. I am establishing an organic food business and we are spending extra dollars to ensure that we comply with the strict organic food guidelines and it is a 3 year process to call ourselves ‘certified organic’. We are only at the early stages and already we have to be transparent about everything we do on the farm. If we applied Orsola de Castro’s non-labelling argument to food, than we wouldn’t know what was ridden with synthetic fertilisers, pesticides or GMO produced. Thus we have to differentiate ‘organic food’ otherwise consumers wouldn’t know the difference. So again going back to the earlier point: perhaps then as with organic food, there needs to be an agreed consistent global use of the terms ‘sustainable’ ‘ethical’ ‘eco’ but as you can imagine this is a time consuming costly exercise that would take some of our leading fashion/government/industry organisations to get their act together. Or you could just call it ‘socially responsible and environmentally friendly’ fashion if you don’t like the sound of ‘sustainable’ fashion. Anyway, if you wish to explore this subject further, feel free to email me – you’ll be able to find my details on hello[at]ecowarriorprincess[dot]com[dot]au Keep these discussions coming! x

  8. Style Eyes

    I can kind of understand Orsola’s point of view but unfortunately unless consumers care to find out more about their clothes, how they are made and whether they are ethical or sustainable, then they are not really going to change their buying habits. Sustainable fashion, ethical fashion, whatever you want to call it, is just a label and it often takes a little more research to find out whether a brand really fits with you values regardless of the label. But grouping together brands that are at least making an effort with these label, it does make it easier for those that do care, to find what they want. I definitely disagree that sustainable brands are expensive or unstylish. I feature lots of fresh and stylish brands on my blog with prices comparable or only a little more than fast fashion chains. The quality is usually much better though. Great to see IFB featuring more great posts to raise awareness!

  9. Simone

    Interesting article and comments. As a consumer there has to be a way to distinguish between products, so that I can make an informed decision. We need a label, don’t mind what it’s called. In terms of sustainable fashion being expensive, that’s the same argument as free range chicken being too expensive. We need a mind set shift, we need to wear our clothes more than a handful of times, consume less meat (food in general) and care about how what we consume/wear was produced. Less greed by the individual/share holders, a fair price to the producer and care for the planet which supplies the raw materials.

  10. OC

    I think the term “ethical fashion” and “sustainable fashion” have been thrown around too much that they have lost the very meaning they set out to have. It’s become just throwaway terms that companies are using to promote sustainable fashion as a business model to attract consumers without care for what it really entails (ethical production, certified organics, strict labelling?). What we need to do is look beyond these terms and start to form our own ethical standards of buying clothing, such as researching brands, reading the label carefully and being aware of which materials are more eco-friendly.


  11. Jo

    I think you make some great points here from a very different perspective, but sustainable fashion brands are still doing something as opposed to nothing, even if it is just raising awareness. This article I was just reading gave another perspective on high street stores like Zara and the aspects they’re taking and how it could actually be counter-intuitive. https://www.businessleader.co.uk/hm-and-zara-the-sustainable-fashion-brands-killing-the-environment/56166/