As the threat of climate change becomes more and more real, green activists are often quick to scoff at efforts they see as “not enough.” It seems the days of “do what you can” are gone, as we’ve shifted from a mentality of personal responsibility to one of holding only our largest polluters, biggest corporations, and wealthiest citizens accountable. This attitude was on full display when Vogue Scandinaviaran a cover story on Greta Thunberg, who then posted on Instagram that the fashion industry’s movement toward sustainability was nothing but “pure greenwashing.”
To Greta’s point, the fashion industry is a sizable contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and pollution. The fashion industry as a whole contributes to a carbon footprint bigger than even the airline industry, accounting for approximately 8 percent of the global climate impact. That does not mean, however, that the industry’s sustainability efforts are moot. As Miranda Priestly taught us all, even the smallest choice from a major fashion house or publication influences the industry and forces creatives and consumers alike to rethink our “normal.”
Appearing for the cover of British Vogue’s January 2020 cover posed Taylor Swift in a tweed Chanel jacket. Casual readers may not have taken special note of the jacket, from a collection dating 2005/2006, but to those who caught it, this choice signified that perhaps the fashion industry is ready to turn over a new leaf.
Vogue editor-in-chief Edward Enninful commented on the jacket, “I wanted to put a vintage Chanel jacket on the cover of Vogue because I feel that, with the global climate crisis, we all have to do what we can to contribute to the conversation around sustainability.”
This shift towards sustainability was monumental from an industry leader such as Vogue, surely the most influential fashion publication in the world. Celebrities, such as Nicky Hilton, in and out of magazines are embracing vintage. As leaders in fashion set these signals, companies have begun to set their sustainability plans in motion, even those that have been climate’s most notorious offenders. From Madewell upcycling old jeans into housing insulation to Reformation declaring “carbon is canceled,” it seems, at last, the fashion industry may be trending green.
For years now, fast fashion trends have quietly increased our clothing consumption. In fact, according to the University of Queensland, as a planet, we now consume about 80 billion new pieces of clothing annually — 400 percent more than what was consumed just twenty years ago.
This is thanks in part to the rise of bloggers and “influencers,” who make their livelihood through the marketing of products and the appearance of a life that is both desirable and achievable if you only purchase what they’re selling. MediaKix reports that the influencer industry is projected to be a 5-10 billion dollar global industry in 2020.
For perspective: there exists a multi-billion dollar industry based entirely on appealing to people through the presentation of a perfect life and beautiful products. The pressure to keep up and have the latest styles is passed onto consumers, allowing fast fashion companies to ride the endless spending train by producing poorly made products, designed to go out of style just as quickly as they come in.
The rapid turnaround time creates a cycle for those who feed into it. First, consumers see an ad for something trendy. They buy it, wear it once or twice, snap a pic for social media, and then it sits in the back of their closet, never to be worn again for fear of looking like they are unfashionable or only own a few outfits.
Brands such as H&M, Forever21, and Fashion Nova are mainstream offenders of this cycle, but even sites once considered shady and unsafe which source their products in cheap factories overseas are becoming more standard shopping platforms.
While fast fashion offenders are easily apparent, high-end brands are not absolved from the negative environmental impact the fashion industry creates. You can find unsustainable practices with just a quick peruse through Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue, or Neiman Marcus (does Burberry burning their unsold merchandise ring a bell?)
We will always need clothing, textiles, and other goods, but being mindful of the impact left behind by our consumption goes a long way. The Huffington Post reported that the average woman has over $500 worth of unworn clothing hanging in her closet. Imagine the waste we could cut down on if these items had been purchased secondhand, or were donated to people who would wear them rather than sitting idly on a shelf.
As the vintage and retro look comes back into style, it’s easier now than ever to purchase secondhand without sacrificing personal style or aesthetics. Not only do consignment finds seem to be trendy, but they are sturdier and better-made than the retro and vintage “inspired” designs you find at retailers today. Instead of decrying all efforts from the fashion industry to be sustainable as greenwashing, as Greta did in her recent interview, we should be encouraging these new practices and voting with our wallets by supporting companies that do work on sustainability rather than those notorious for fast fashion. If Taylor Swift can wear secondhand clothing on the cover of Vogue, surely we can in our day-to-day lives.
Danielle Butcher is the executive vice president at the American Conservation Coalition (ACC)
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