Jamey Heron-Waterhouse looks at whether increasing the sustainability of the fashion world requires ditching consumerism entirely. Consumerism is the notion that buying goods and services is desirable, benefitting both the economy and the buyer. Buying products makes the buyer happy and sustains their needs whilst driving the economy forward by funding companies so that they can make more goods for the buyer: a symbiotic relationship.
The aim of sustainable clothing brands seems to be to reduce fast fashion and unnecessary consumption, or over consumption of clothing and accessories. Sustainable brands tend to promote the recycling and upcycling of clothing as well as finding sustainable methods of farming and making materials in a way that does not harm the planet. The quality of sustainable clothing is usually more durable as this lessens the number of items that are thrown away due to rips and tears or other damage to the clothing.
They had paid an average of 59% more for products that were labelled sustainable
However, sustainable brands still need to promote their products, and convince you as the buyer to purchase their clothing.
So, are these two concepts polar opposites? Or can they survive together ethically in the fashion industry?
Consumption of sustainable goods
According to the IBM institute for business value, in 2022, 49% of consumers said they had paid an average of 59% more for products that were labelled sustainable and socially responsible. The IBM data also suggests that three out of every five consumers’ last purchases were at least half comprised of socially responsible or sustainable products.
So, consumers are interested in buying sustainable and socially responsible products and are even willing to pay more for them. Brands pushing consumerism by promoting their sustainability is obviously a successful method of increasing sales.
But does this then promote overconsumption? As sales increase, the need to purchase goods unnecessarily and in excess is also increasing.
Are sustainable brands affecting the planet in a positive way?
Essentially, is it even worth it?
The Harvard Business Review claimed that ‘the sad truth however is that all this experimentation and supposed “innovation” in the fashion industry over the past 25 years have failed to lessen its planetary impact’. This comment was made in part in reference to clothing waste – with 73% of clothing ending up burnt or in landfill.
It has ultimately been a fruitless campaign
This suggests that despite sustainable brands championing lower waste and sustainable resources in their clothing production, it has ultimately been a fruitless campaign.
However, this is only one view on the subject. Looking towards Levi’s and their 2013 Waste<Less campaign, we have an example of sustainable clothing reducing plastic waste that would have otherwise negatively impacted the environment. Levi’s Waste<Less clothing was made from recycled plastics and repurposed over 3.6 million bottles and food trays that would have otherwise been in landfills or burnt in incinerators. So, we can see that using recycled materials can at least reduce some of the waste that contributes to global warming.
Is this effective enough?
In a comment to The Guardian about Primark’s public dedication to sustainability, UK retail research director at GlobalData Patrick O’Brien claimed that consumers were still focused on price. He claimed this announcement was aimed at the investors who want to push sustainability.
This then means that sustainable brands would have to push consumerism more to compete with the price of unsustainable good. They must convince us as buyers that the costs are worth it for the planetary impact. What will it be? Price or planet?
Ultimately, it seems that sustainable brands are a viable alternative to regular fashion brands. Using Levi’s as an example, we can see that changing the way that you shop does really make a difference. That said, it seems you have to dedicate more money to your clothing budget if you plan to shop sustainably (unless you stick to the charity shops, a perfectly cheap and sustainable option).
It seems that sustainable brands and consumerism can coexist
Overall, it seems that sustainable brands and consumerism can coexist. It even seems that a brand’s sustainability will likely boost consumer interest anyway as the looming global crisis haunts us all. But it is possible that the sustainable aspect of these brands could make buyers feel less guilty about the overconsumption of goods?
At the end of the day, you are not responsible for solving the climate crisis, its up to bigger corporations and governments to make the choice to be sustainable and socially conscious. Nonetheless, you can reduce clothing waste and overconsumption by not shopping till you drop – perhaps just shopping until you have everything you need.
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