Our world today is constantly threatened by environmental issues, often induced by climate change, and the fashion industry is one among many industries pressured to promote environmental sustainability as a core value. The upcoming generation of designers across the fashion world seem poised to do just that, embedding environmental awareness into all aspects of the industry including production, manufacturing, sourcing textiles, and waste disposal. Generation Z, the current youngest generation, is “expected to become the largest consumer market by 2020” as per Fashion United. This means the way Generation Z shops and consumes products will have a huge impact on the industry, and influence the part sustainability plays in consumer habits moving forward. Despite this positive expectation, the industry that we all know now and know well, needs to make changes now. As with any industry, it seems that despite this brewing change and demand for it, the industry is hesitant to make the larger more crucial changes. Keeping up with constantly shifting aesthetic changes and trying to balance this demanding pace with environmental awareness can seem impossible, but some fashion designers are placing a firm emphasis on sustainability in their practice.
Environmental Sustainability x Fashion
Creator and designer of Salt by Pepper, Pepper Bluhm, reflects on how the industry can best approach environmental protection. “Many people are finding ways to create fabric out of natural resources instead of creating synthetic fibers, such as leather made out of mushrooms.” This new and innovative approach to creating fabrics and textiles is one of the many encouraging leads that the industry has made in hopes of manipulating environmentally-friendly resources that are not only produced through sustainable processes but that also can be disposed of in a sustainable light. The concept of leather made up of mushrooms suggests a sort of biomimicry: this is the kind of sustainable change that the industry needs to capitalize on.
The best approach to long-term change is to target this issue at its start, by producing more sustainable, biodegradable, and or recycled materials instead of non-recyclable. Fashion can approach new ways of reclaiming waste, and methods for using alternative materials should be advanced for greater sustainability. There are challenges ahead: the downside is that processes such as mushroom leather, for example, are very difficult to mass produce. The benefits of such paradigm shifts as mushroom leather are tremendous, however, and prove to be a sustainable substitute benefiting the ecosystem on the whole.
Bluhm is a member of Generation Z, and puts strong emphasis on the need to embrace recycling within the fashion industry. She stresses that “recycling unwanted fabric and clothing items in order to be remade into other things is something that big-name, mass-produced companies such as Zara and H&M don’t do enough of.” She demands a re-evaluation of how new garments are created in fast-fashion, as old fabrics have the same potential as new ones. Today has seen the rise in popularity of re-worked styles, typically dealing with denim, as well as the concept of “thrifted” apparel. Companies can at least embrace the sustainable approach of repurposing recycled fabrics. Bluhm notes as a creator of her own brand, “as a small company it can be difficult to find a cheap solution to being environmentally friendly, as a lot of natural, degradable, and recycled materials are often costly.” Despite this, Pepper finds ways to simply recycle her own scraps as well as utilize any other material waste that she can repurpose, bringing her one step closer in constructing a sustainable fashion ethos.
Sustainability: Room for Improvement
Despite the efforts being made across fashion to embrace environmental sustainability, some companies are slow to take up the eco-friendly cause. One company with mixed eco-conscious results is Urban Outfitters, a leading American retailer working across lifestyle and fashion. who has struggled with the integration of sustainable methodology in their own approach. While their line “Urban Renewal” seems sustainable and thrifty, some items in this line by the company are up to ten times the original item amount. UO Renewal is a section of the brand that “sells reworked and vintage pieces bought by Urban Outfitter’s buyers at thrift stores,” says one company employee. In this case, the intentions of the company are what’s to be criticised. It can be agreed that rewearing clothing and buying second hand is a great way to be sustainable, however the way UO executes it exposes their priorities for profit and lack thereof for sustainable solution. Considering her experience as both the consumer, as well as the employee, Nina demands for a new approach to environmental protection from the Urban Outfitters corporation in terms of creating higher quality and more sustainable fashion. Isiah Magsino, Editor-in-Chief of Set My Soul Online, addresses the same kind of innate drive of the fashion industry to prioritize profit, reflecting on greed in the industry. “People are so focused on aesthetics and mass production that it makes it difficult to discuss environmental protection in the fashion industry.” A controversial issue that the fashion industry often faces is the ethical debate behind the use of fur and animal skin. In response to this, Magsino shares his own perspective on the role of fur and skin. “The use of animal skin and fur should cease to exist,” remarks Magsino. “I can’t say that I don’t love fur because I do, but I find that I can sacrifice my superficial wants in order to protect the existence of animals.” There is an ethical question posed here, and it is up to the industry to answer it as to whether they value aesthetics over ethics. Fortunately, brands such as Gucci, Burberry, Versace, and more have made it part of their brand’s mission to ban the use of furs and skins and transfer over to faux. Often times the resistance to faux-fur is that it takes away the luxurious feel that real furs or skins have, but brands like Stella McCartney find ways to consistently produce merchandise that uphold a luxurious vibe, while maintaining a cruelty-free mentality and approach.
Ultimately, it is up to the consumer to determine their own ethical priorities when consuming fashion. Magasino suggests just this, noting that the onus lies with the purchasing power the consumer holds. “People [can] do research on particular stores to get an understanding of where the store is sourcing their clothes and how this affects the environment. People always complain that money is an issue, as fast fashion brands are typically cheaper, but that’s why thrifting and consignment exist.”
As one can see, there is room for progress in how the fashion industry can best approach environmental sustainability, and the condition of the earth right now demands this progress. What people can do right now is, as the consumer, educate yourselves on where your products come from and demand ethical practices from the fashion industry!
Do you have insights into how fashion is embracing sustainability? Are you creatively embracing resourceful approaches to conservation in your own atelier? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!