Why is it so hard to find sustainable clothes that genuinely excite us? Yes, there are designers creating beautiful clothes that don’t compromise on ethics, but the list is small. Beyond that, we’re left wanting more. So much of what makes fashion great is that inspirational, aspirational, have-to-have-it feeling, yet somehow, sustainable fashion has developed a patina of sluggishness in the style department. Surely the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive?
And what will it take to get to a place where sustainable fashion is just fashion?
Let’s start with the why. First, and perhaps most obviously, sustainable fashion is about taking a slower and more measured approach to clothing production. Eschewing trendier designs in favor of clothes with longer lasting wearability makes sense in this context, but there goes a lot of the !!!!! factor. Trends excite us because of their novelty and because of how they speak to how we want to feel at a particular moment in time. It’s a tall order to expect sustainable fashion to satisfy our desire to consume of-the-moment items and simultaneously taper our consumption by encouraging us choose more timeless pieces.
Second, to produce clothing in an environmentally and socially sustainable manner is challenging given the complexity of the apparel supply chain and the speed of the fashion cycle. Production-wise, the supply of sustainable materials and components is still relatively limited. Designers who prioritize sustainability inevitably face tradeoffs, sometimes requiring compromises on design, cut, and material in order to uphold sustainable standards.
Remember that for the majority of its history, sustainable fashion has been a niche industry catering to a niche clientele. As the industry moves closer to the mainstream, designs will start to better reflect the needs and desires of a broader fashion market. This shift is already underway, thanks to newer brands and designers entering the sustainable space with a fresh perspective. Change will also come from within the fashion industry, as established labels begin to gradually adopt more sustainable practices. Brands like Stella McCartney and holding companies like Kering are demonstrating that sustainability and fashion can stylishly (and profitably) coexist.
We can discuss and debate the whys at length (and I hope we do in the comments below), but to me, the really interesting question is: how can we encourage the shift so that sustainable fashion is exciting? So that feel-good sustainable fashion is just good-old fashion? For this, I think it’s useful to refer to the often-used parallel drawn between fashion and food.
We’ve undergone a dramatic change in our eating patterns over the last decade in America. Whether we read the label, pass on sugar, buy organic or skip fast food, we are more aware than ever of the impact that our dietary decisions have on our health. Through this increased attention to food, we are reestablishing our relationship with what we put in our bodies (and with our bodies themselves). The real power of sustainable fashion is to do the same—to reconnect us to our clothing and in so doing, to invite us to approach choosing what we wear from a deeper place. And ultimately, isn’t a deeper connection with what we wear and why we wear it the essence of really good fashion and the foundation of authentic personal style? If so, sustainability, rather than a sacrifice of style, might be just the opposite: it’s a mindset we can use to hone our style. I think that alone makes sustainability one of the most exciting things to happen in fashion in some time.
So how do we put this into practice? Of course, it’s great to buy sustainable clothing when and if we can. Yet, in the same way that we don’t have to buy organic food to be healthier eaters, we don’t have to buy sustainable clothing to have a healthier relationship with fashion. This might sound crazy but if that sustainable thing doesn’t excite you, I say buy only the clothes that do. We’ll only get closer to cultivating a more sustainable relationship with fashion if we genuinely love (and therefore respect) what we’re wearing.
Nadine Farag is an ex-PhD student living in New York City where she is working to fuse her love for fashion with her interest in sustainability. Nadine researched and authored Zady’s New Standard, which examines the social and environmental issues associated with apparel manufacturing.
Collages by Ana Tellez and Lily Ross.