Why Sustainable Fashion Does Matter
We live in a world of contradictions. For example, while climate change has been described as one of the most significant challenges in the 21st Century, social media platforms such as TikTok and Instagram are overwhelmed by video influencers showing their new outfits and new full shopping bags.
Why is this a contradiction? Fashion is among the most polluting industrial sectors in the world. Between 2000 and 2014 the production of clothes more than doubled. Nevertheless, the use of clothes has decreased by almost 36% in the last few years alone.
We buy more clothes, and we wear them less. 'Fast fashion' is the business model based on clothing made and sold cheaply, produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends so that people can buy new clothes often.
This system encourages more frequent collection launches, overproduction, under-consumption and consequent increasingly invasive and large-scale impacts on the environment.
Indeed, the fashion industry contributes to 10% of annual global carbon emissions, "more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined". Moreover, its impact is estimated to increase by more than 50% by the end of the current decade.
In this respect, all of us as consumers can do something in our daily lives to contribute to a change of course. For example, in the TED talk "A future sustainable fashion system", Malin Viola Wennber explains how prolonging the life of each garment contributes to reducing its environmental impact.
For example, it has been estimated that each T-shirt is used about 30 times before it is thrown away. By deciding to use that T-shirt another 30 times (so 60 in total), its environmental impact decreases by 49 %! In general terms, it has been estimated that by extending the use of our clothes by just nine months, we can reduce our environmental impact by around 20-30%.
This relationship between garments and the number of times we wear them brings us to another crucial concept that it's helpful to know when discussing sustainable fashion: 'cost-per-wear' (CPW).
CPW is the ratio between the cost of an item and the number of times it has been used. For instance, if you pay 100€ for a shirt and you wear it 20 times, its CPW is 5€, while if you buy a sweater for 20€ and you only use it twice, its CPW is 10€. According to this example, the first "expensive" shirt costs relatively half as much as the second "cheap" shirt.
How often have we bought new clothes to wear only for a specific occasion because they are "cheap"? Replacing the simple idea of "cost" that we are used to with the concept of CPW helps us be less subject to this logic and allows us to value the quality of the clothes we wear more than their easy availability. As a result, we will buy less in the long-term and wear more by applying this way of thinking.
Not only will we buy less, but we will also buy better, and the environment will thank us. For example, consider that it takes about 3,781 litres of water to make one pair of jeans, the equivalent of what humans drink on average in four years.
Do we want to keep buying several pairs of jeans for 20/30/40€ that get ruined after a few months and make the world thirsty? Or do we want to spend around €130-150 on a new pair of jeans made from sustainable, durable cotton that will last for years?
Continuing in this vein, we see the starting point of a broad debate about the sustainability of big fashion brands that manage to offer clothes at low prices. Who pays the excess cost? The environment as briefly explained above, but not only.
The workers in the fast-fashion world pay the cost that we save. 93% of brands surveyed by Fashion checker are not paying decent wages. According to surveys by Clean Clothes Campaign, the salary paid to a Bangladeshi worker is one-fifth of what he needs to live; in India, it's one third, while in European countries like Serbia, Croatia, Ukraine and Bulgaria is about a quarter.
When we talk about sustainable fashion, thus, we are not only referring to environmental sustainability but also human rights and social justice.