Looking Beyond the Aesthetics of Sustainable Fashion

By Nicole Oliviera

Given increased concerns about climate change and the speed at which humans are quite literally destroying the planet, many are looking for eco-friendly or low-impact alternatives to otherwise damaging products in our environment. Clothing has not escaped this, and within the past year, “sustainable fashion” has been everywhere from Youtube hauls to print magazines like Vogue. 

Many “affordable luxury” brands pride themselves on being sustainably made. In the context of neoliberal capital, however, what exactly does this mean? Does it refer to the use of sustainably sourced materials in the production of garments, paying workers living wages, buying less, or a bit of everything? Better yet, what does it look like in practice? Is it possible to truly be sustainable in an economic and political system that prospers with increased consumption?

I have thought about this a lot over the last couple of months, and it seems others have too. A quick search on Google Trends reveals that the term “sustainable fashion” has piqued the interest of Americans in the last year with notable peaks during Fashion Month(s), such as September and February. More immediately, however, it has been a burgeoning topic on campus. Just this semester senior designer, Regina Mun, created a collection for the 35th annual show of the Cornell Fashion Collective, entitled Full Circle, which featured pieces that were wearable and completely made of upcycled fabric (let’s be real––the cowboy hats were a nice touch, too). More regularly, though, student organizations like Cornell Thrift and Ezra’s Closet have hosted a multitude of events from mending workshops to clothing swaps to help contribute to a larger cultural shift away from viewing garments as disposable and towards a mindset of using and loving goods to their fullest potential. This is definitely not an easy undertaking. On campus and beyond, we have made some progress on acknowledging and acting on the intersections between climate justice and fashion, but we can do better. 

emma goldenthal_ sustainable fashion.png
Art by Emma Goldenthal

At the moment, I understand sustainable fashion as an industry that produces “clean” garments (i.e. no synthetic fibers, use of green energy, upcycled or recycled fabrics) and supports its workers with living salaries and safe working conditions. In practice, however, it seems that both retailers and consumers are still navigating this newfound space with some on both sides hesitant to label their pursuits as inherently conscious of social and/or political issues. It’s no secret that items of clothing have been used as tools of resistance. Sustainably made clothing is no different. It may not have provocative slogans emblazoned everywhere, but its sheer existence is inherently political––especially when you consider that most of the people making these items, for example, are women of color who are disproportionately affected by climate change. 

Even 20-30 years ago, the idea of vertical integration or repurposing fabric scraps was unheard of in the larger retail sector, as most of these practices were associated with handmade/homemade clothing or small mom and pops. By producing clothing that is ethically made, fashion companies are taking a stand on environmental issues, whether their motivations are morally or economically motivated. On the same token, consumers who choose to buy these items are making a statement with their money. Perhaps our generation, which lived through the Great Recession, truly is becoming more aware and actively using their purchasing power to support brands who address issues important to them. I can’t necessarily say the same for contemporary brands, because it seems the industry is picking and choosing what it pays attention to. To some extent, this is a result of consumer pressure and profit motives, but sustainable fashion cannot be another trend. 

The clothing we wear is ultimately an outward expression of ourselves––it says something. Therefore, we can change what we say by what we wear or do not wear. One of the observations that led me to write this article in the first place was that it seems that companies on the market right now are using similar models to those employed by fast fashion. If you think about it, are the Instagram-worthy brands you follow really doing anything remarkable to change how we think about fashion and our consumption of it? Are their seasonal collections or aesthetically pleasing marketing campaigns challenging you to think more critically of the institution or simply enticing you to buy into the vision they’re selling you? Don’t get me wrong, I love shopping. I have a closet so full of clothes that it sometimes doesn’t even shut, but I haven’t shopped at a traditional retailer in over a year and a half, opting for second hand garments because of cost and general disapproval of fast fashion. I am not saying I am perfect. I still have a long way to go, because minimalism has never been my forte. If Marie Kondo saw my closet right now, with all of its haphazardly strewn shoes and miscellaneous clothing items, she would be horrified. That being said, if we adopt the mindset that the fashion industry will do what it wants and our input doesn’t matter, then that is exactly how things will play out. Some of the most well-known “sustainable brands” foster misguided ideas about how we can actually mitigate environmental degradation as a collective. Buying more clothes made of upcycled fabric, for instance, doesn’t exactly equate to being sustainable if it means you are disposing of previously owned clothing that may have been purchased from a fast fashion retailer because you no longer use an item until the end of its life.

A report published by the University of Cambridge last year states that consumers place sustainability as their fourth concern when purchasing clothing, after fit, price, and style. With this in mind as well, can we genuinely say that we care about sustainability? It’s hard to definitively say. It’s a tricky question, because one of the biggest distinctions of ethically produced clothing is its cost. A dress at Reformation, for instance, can set you back anywhere from $80 to $500, which, for a working-class student like myself, is more than I can spend, even on the lower end of the spectrum. Perhaps I can dream of one day owning a beautiful dress that screams #prairecore, but the reality is that well-made clothing costs money. This is not to say that price tags should be conflated as indicators of quality, because there are definitely designer items out there that are not worth the money (I’m looking at you, Off-White). The cost of garments reflects the labor and time a worker invested in it, but a high price tag should neither exclude those who are low-income from accessing sustainably made clothing, nor should it let brands off the hook in doing better and improving their practices. Only when they begin to do so will they start embracing their identities as socially responsible companies––which may not seem like much taken alone, but can certainly make waves in fashion that we have yet to see. 

There is still much work to be done beyond the politics and aesthetics of sustainability. Contemporary brands also share many of the same problematic behaviors of their less ethical peers, including lack of body, racial, and ethnic diversity in ad campaigns and limited selections for men. It’s well-known that many women often feel pressure from the fashion and beauty industry to uphold unrealistic standards or ideals. With this added pressure of living as close to zero-waste as possible, what does this say about our overall frame of thought towards climate change? Women, it seems, whether they are producing or buying garments, are pulling the majority of the weight. This inherently places an indirect burden on them to change their lifestyles in order to acquiesce to the pressures of “doing the right thing” without ever being given the space to understand the inequalities at play. There is a lot to unpack and unfortunately, it can’t be done overnight. 

Perhaps it’s not solely about doing the right thing, but about doing a better thing. Sure, most of us cannot afford to purchase an entirely new wardrobe (discarding of an entire wardrobe seems contradictory to the ethos of sustainability anyway), but we can find other ways to practice more ethical behaviors. Whether we choose to buy second-hand, swap clothes with friends and family, or mend our own garments, we do not have to compromise our personal style or shell out hundreds of dollars to make a difference in the environment or our mindsets. As students on this campus, we already have institutional and organizational support from our fellow peers to do better while we are at Cornell and in Ithaca (i.e. Ithaca ReUse).  We may not be perfectly sustainable all the time, but fashion is definitely one place we can be more conscious and caring about one another and the planet. It’s a process many of us are still working through, but knowing we have a community to lean on makes the journey all the more rewarding.

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