For the fashion industry, constant consumption and endless trends are the norm. This cycle is not sustainable nor is it ethical. However, big, bad brands polluting the planet and mistreating garment workers are not only to blame for sustainability and ethics issues visible in the industry—these concerns are also brought about by consumers who drive the demand for newer, cheaper, trendier pieces, and then proceed to send them to a landfill once they go out of style.
United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 12 – Responsible consumption and responsible production, aims to ensure sustainable patterns of resource circulation. By 2030, the goal aims to achieve efficient use of natural resources, environmentally sound management of chemicals, and substantially reduce waste generation.
SDG 12 is my favorite SDG; it might be nerdy to be fond of a certain SDG, but I cannot help it, nor do I have any shame or regrets. You see, Reader, I love SDG 12 because it holds both the consumer and the brand accountable.
Consumers are the driving force behind brands, but this is a two-way street: brands are also the drivers behind consumer demand. Trends are manufactured by designers and brought to life through production and savvy mass marketing strategies. This is how consumers who didn’t particularly need or want ripped jeans end up with them in three different washes.
So what should a consumer with concerns about fast fashion’s impact do instead?
- If you have the means and access, work on consuming responsibly and demanding more from brands. Not more clothes and styles, but greater transparency in their business practices.
- When shopping, ask yourself “Do I NEED this item?” Most of the time, the answer is “not at all.” Put it down, walk away. No puppy dog eyes either, it’s not happening. Only buy what you need, and even then you should check the garment tag to know more about the textile. I recommend doing a Google search on the textile you just bought and learning about its environmental impact, which will help you make more educated and responsible fashion choices.
- Try thrifting or second hand fashion! If you’re like me and you just needed to have a beret for Winter 2021, then you make your way down to the coolest thrift store in your town. I found my beret in a second hand shop but it was brand new with tags! Online second hand retailers, like ThredUP and The Real Real, are other convenient alternatives. Since it is commonplace for people to part ways with their fashion items before they even have time to collect dust, today’s second market has incredible access to items in great condition. People sell their gently worn or new items to make back the money they spent on the fashion pieces in the first place; it’s a true win-win. By shopping second hand and selling your clothes, you are participating in the circular economy. This will drive down demand for brand new items produced by brands.
- Sometimes you just can’t bring yourself to buy something second hand. Take undergarments, for example: there will come a time in your life in which you will need to replace your undergarments, but where should you buy them if you want to consume responsibly? You should shop for these items where they are at an affordable price point for you (organic undergarments are often pricey) and purchase them as you need. What you should not do is buy new undergarments everytime Victoria’s Secret has a sale, which happens as often as once a month… do not fall for the fast fashion undergarment trap!
- When feasible, buy garments from sustainable and ethical retailers. This is a great way to drive demand in the sustainable and ethical fashion industry and reduce the demand in the fast fashion industry. However, shopping something brand new should be your last resort, and only if you cannot find something you need second hand. It has become trendy for sustainable brands to take back their post consumer fashion items and repair them or upcycle them into new pieces, this is another avenue of second hand shopping.
- Borrow and swap! My cousin bought a black turtleneck from Primark ( I do not recommend shopping at Primark) almost 2 years ago, and every winter I end up borrowing it from her for weeks at a time because I can’t seem to find the turtleneck of my dreams at the price I want it at, so I just “borrow” her turtleneck for free! Sharing the turtleneck with my cousin brings us together by sharing life experiences in the turtleneck, sisterhood of the traveling turtleneck anyone? Having fashion swaps with your family and friends is a fun and no cost way of expanding your wardrobe.
- Finally, remember that an individual consumer’s actions are admirable and can help shift the tide of production with the power of your dollar, but they are not everything. Try not to scold the people around you for shopping at Urban Outfitters; direct that anger at the corporations responsible for the ease and access of poorly made clothes constructed in conditions of countless human rights violations. Not everyone has the access to time, money, and information to consume ethically. But if you can, it is a great practice in connection to your clothes and shifting the dominant culture.
As important as it is for consumers to consume responsibly, we should not forget about those who are the largest culprits of the fashion industry, brands. It is vital to hold corporations accountable for their environmental and social impact. The current profit making model of the fashion industry exploits the planet and people within the fashion supply chain. I have a few suggestions for those brands who are ready to reevaluate their priorities and have resolved to produce responsibly.
- Start at the design process. Designers must design fashion items with sustainability in mind. Designers should consider water usage, chemicals required for fabric dyeing and treatment, the source of the textile, and end of product life.
- Responsible production is not just an environmental issue, but also a social issue. Garment workers should be paid fair wages, and work in safe factories where they are free from workplace injuries, sexual harassment, and not at risk of having the factory collapse or catch fire and trap them inside, as such were the cases of The Rana Plaza and Tazreen Factory.
- The rapid pace of production must be slowed down. New trends do not need to hit the sale floor every two weeks. This will actually eliminate the fast fashion model, and will require a complete overhaul of the business model.
- Have a take back program in which the brand encourages its consumers to bring back worn down or unwanted pieces which the brand can mend, upcycle or recycle.
The application of SDG 12 will force brands to re-evaluate how they do business and also encourage consumers to really think before shopping for fashion pieces. Although the call to action here is for both parties of the transactional process, it is essential to remember who the true culprit of this unsustainable industry is: fast fashion corporations. It is brands who sell, sell, sell to consumers who are duped through copious amounts of advertising that they need new items every month. Brands have the ultimate hold on the way the industry functions; therefore, it is the brands’ responsibility to step up and rectify their mistakes. Everyone wears clothing; if brands produce responsibly, of course consumers will follow suit.