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The Emergence of Sustainable Fashion

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A clothes rack filled with blazer shirts of multiple different types of colors in a clothing store.

Fashion is an inescapable industry. We inevitably participate through the clothes we buy and wear, no matter how mindless that action may be to us.

Recall that iconic blue sweater scene from “The Devil Wears Prada.” Miranda Priestly, portrayed by Meryl Streep, ruthlessly demonstrates how her assistant’s choice of a blue sweater is not autonomous.

“But what you don’t know about that sweater is that that sweater is not just blue. It’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis, it’s actually cerulean,” she said. “That blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs. And it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry.”

Similarly, our consumerism manifests in such ways that the clothes we routinely buy are telling of more than just style. It is also irrevocably impacting the environment.

What the fashion industry and us, as consumers, are forced to grapple with is fast fashion and its environmental consequences.

Fast fashion refers to the accelerated cycle of creating clothing and selling it at an extremely affordable price point. It allows for runway and designer trends to promptly land in the closets of the larger public.

Lower prices have resulted in a 60% increase from 2000 to 2014 in the number of garments purchased, yet consumers keep their clothing half as long as they did 15 years ago.

Despite these capitalist gains, fast fashion is known to ignore environmental responsibility and encourages consumers to follow suit, whether or not they are aware of it.

According to research compiled by the World Resources Institute, making one cotton shirt requires 2,700 liters of water, the amount one person would drink in two and a half years.

Synthetic fibers, though using less water, emit around double the greenhouse gases per kilogram than cotton, further catalyzing climate change.

As environmental concerns rise in urgency and regularly make headlines, pockets of the fashion industry have begun to take note. The emphasis on sustainability and transparency by both companies and consumers has recently surged.

For instance, Reformation, a women’s clothing brand, declares sustainability as their priority, even marking each article of clothing with the amount of carbon dioxide, water, and waste saved.

There are also measures that seek to keep companies accountable and shoppers informed, including the Higg Index, by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and Good On You, an ethical shopping app that rates brands through aggregated data.

Sustainable Apparel Coalition sign in black text with a dark blue infinity logo to the left of it.

Source: Sustainable Apparel Coalition

Furthermore, thrifting has become especially popular—whether in the form of Goodwill, curated thrift shops, vintage clothing, or resell apps like Poshmark. Influencers have embraced secondhand clothing and YouTube has since been saturated with videos on thrifting, such as hauls and amusing challenges.

All of these approaches and the mindfulness it promotes will ultimately improve upon the rampant issue of fast fashion. Viv Zhu, studying fashion at New York University, explained how even in the academic spheres of fashion, sustainability is salient:

“Even though NYU doesn’t have a course in sustainability, many fashion professors and people in the field talk about it. I definitely believe that they will have one in the future.”

Zhu is also currently an intern at RELOVV, a resell app geared towards college students, which is a tangible expression of her advocacy for secondhand clothing. According to Zhu, in addition to helping the environment, thrifting specifically carries perks like affordability and uniqueness.

“Shopping for secondhand clothing is kind of like digging for treasure. Most of the clothes I get are things I doubt I’ll ever find again,” Zhu said. “Not only that, but it can also really help form your own individual style. It’s one of the best ways to experiment with trends.”

Zhu, however, admitted to thinking that sustainable fashion could be a trend itself. She reflected on how widespread interest in the environment tends to be short-lived.

Yet she remained optimistic with a call to action:

“[Sustainable fashion] is a trend, but it’s a trend that is educating others. Although people may just be following the trend, it’s definitely going to leave an impact on the industry regardless.

However, to make sustainability here to stay, it’s up to businesses to really implement it into their practices. As consumers, we play a super important role in affecting how companies change.

Buying from ethical, environmentally-friendly stores and thrifting can enforce other companies to follow that same motto, creating lots of change.”

By: Janice Lee

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