There is no one way to define sustainability, the sexiest buzzword of socially conscious businesses and consumers in 2019. Sustainability is many different things to many different people. For some, sustainability is fabric made from recycled plastic bottles. For others, it’s only natural textiles like cotton or wool. Some prefer organic cotton. It can also mean paying fair wages to workers, limiting or eliminating pollution, and lowering carbon footprints.
But what if I told you that none of those things will save our planet and the creatures we share it with?
The whole point of sustainability is, ostensibly, to protect the environment and the many creatures we live with here on the third rock from the sun (if not to create a sexy marketing campaign to boost profits for companies). But have you ever stopped to think about what exactly it is that we are all trying to sustain?
This wasn’t something I even realized until I started writing the first paragraph of this post. I set out to say “it doesn’t matter how you choose to do sustainability, do whatever works for you, everything helps, shop a bit less and we’ll be fine.” But then as the word sustainability and its root word- sustain- rolled around in my head, I thought What is it exactly that we are sustaining?
Let me tell you, it’s not the health of our planet or the animals, although that’s what companies, especially fashion brands, would like you to think. The real thing we are sustaining is our compulsive and gluttonous shopping habits and their profit margins.
Cotton is actually not a very “sustainable” crop. It wrecks the soil when it’s grown continually and it requires so much water to use. And animal fibers like wool and leather are even more resource-intensive. Using recycled plastic bottles from the ocean or wherever to make clothing doesn’t make sense either when you realize that there shouldn’t be so much damn plastic floating around in the first place! This is what so many people get wrong about sustainability and why companies use it. It’s a marketing tactic at best and blatant greenwashing at worst. And neither is helping our planet or ourselves.
The word “sustainability” is so watered down that I feel I needed to put it in quotes for the title of this post. The true meaning behind the word is actually pretty disgusting when you think about it. Why on our green earth would we want to sustain our current shopping habits as a society? Our collective credit card debt alone should be enough to give us a wake-up call. I’ve decided to substitute “sustainable” with responsible. Often times, it’s easy to hear sustainability and to think about what it is that companies and brands need to be doing in order to be sustainable. People talk about sustainable brands but we never view individuals as sustainable. But everyone can take responsibility. Everyone has a responsibility. Brands and companies would not exist without us as the consumer spending our hard-earned coin. It is my sincerest hope that we have not lost the ability to examine our own personal responsibilities rather than jumping to pointing out what the other party needs to be doing.
Of course, companies and brands have responsibilities and they should be held accountable by the law and by us as consumers if they fail to meet their responsibilities. Of course, textiles should be produced without harmful chemicals and rampant pollution. But a small amount of synthetic material being produced in factories isn’t going to kill the planet. Neither will a small amount of organic cotton totally deplete the soil and start the “Water Wars” if grown responsibly and crops are rotated. The problem is, however, that we are not producing a small amount. We are producing erroneously excessive amounts.
Throughout the majority of human history, textiles, all of them from cotton to silk, were considered a luxury. Clothes were EXPENSIVE and by comparison, today’s clothes are cheap as dirt. Working in retail, I overhear customers scoffing at the “ridiculous” price of $39.99 for a jacket. Yes, it’s a cheap jacket with cheap fabric made by a worker who was likely not paid nearly enough and who had to endure hazardous conditions, but let’s get one thing straight: $39.99 for a jacket is cheap. I know affordable and expensive are relative terms but I will say unequivocally that $39.99 will get you nothing but a cheap jacket made with cheap textiles by likely underpaid and overworked employees in dangerous conditions (if they weren’t trafficked into working and we can even call them employees).
Let’s say that this jacket was made responsibly. First off, that means taking care of our fellow human beings and paying workers fairly and giving them safe, healthy working conditions. I can’t even begin to estimate how much the cost would increase for our hypothetical jacket. But let’s pretend that it adds $5, about the price of a pumpkin spice latte. Now this cheap irresponsibly produced jacket is a bit more responsible and $5 more “expensive.” Even with the cheap, questionably produced textiles and unknown environmental ethics of the manufacturers, this jacket now costs $44.99 instead of $39.99. Most customers would leave the jacket on the rack at this point. If you add $20 for higher quality textiles that won’t fall apart after two washes and produced without nasty chemicals, either natural or synthetic, the jacket is now $64.99. Then let’s say that this manufacturer isn’t dumping their fabric dyes into waterways or letting it seep into the soil and they actually have it properly disposed of. We can add $15 for that. Now the jacket is $79.99 and I don’t even want to buy this jacket…
…unless it’s super cute, just my style, fits beautifully, and I know I’ll keep it for a good long while and wear it often, with multiple outfits.
And that’s the point!
Clothing, especially well-made and responsibly produced clothing, is supposed to be expensive. I don’t think we’re supposed to have as much of it as we do. As I’ve said before, we own too many clothes and as per the 80/20 rule, we wear 20% of our clothes 80% of the time. But brands and companies that produce cheap things need us to constantly be buying new things so that they can keep up their cash flows. There’s nothing wrong with companies making money, we all need to get our coin and businesses means job opportunities. It’s about how companies make their money. There is only one of two strategies that companies can take right now in fashion. They can either produce cheap things with a low-profit margin and sell a ton of them or they can produce high-quality things with a larger profit margin and sell fewer of them. The latter is what’s best for our planet and all its inhabitants, ourselves included. Also, this is why mid-range department stores like Sears and J.C. Penney are disappearing so quickly. More and more consumers are expecting bargain-basement prices or they’ll ball out occasionally for designer brands. This is why I see people shopping for clothes in Target wearing Gucci accessories.
I know not everyone can afford our hypothetical $79.99 jacket, and certainly not multiple jackets or a new one every year. Wages have not kept up with inflation at all and our grandparents had more buying power than we do now. In no way am I saying that clothing or style shouldn’t be accessible. Of course it should! Clothing is a necessity just as much as food, and like food, the healthiest stuff costs more. Few things, if any, are infinite and the planet has a finite amount of resources, that’s just how things are in this world. But that doesn’t mean that your only options are McDonald’s or Whole Foods. While they may not be USDA organic, there are still plenty of healthy food choices that are affordable. But with the disappearing of mid-range stores, this is sadly not the case for clothing.
So what do we do? Well, if you want organic produce but don’t want to or can’t afford to shop at Whole Foods, the cheapest solution would be to grow your own food. You can also learn to make your own clothes. Honestly, I think everyone should learn to sew clothing; it should be taught in high schools. Maybe you can’t afford to keep up with the latest fashions or buy responsible, expensive clothing. But seriously, fuck fashion- style is a skill. And skills can be learned. Please don’t make excuses for it. In the spirit of our recent Thanksgiving holiday here in the U.S., excuses were not allowed in Jamestown or Plymouth. And if you’re not down with that Euro-centric view of American history, I know for damn sure that the American Indians didn’t make excuses, they would make their entire houses and clothes from a few dead buffalo. Be resourceful.
Even if you don’t want to sew garments from start to finish, sewing skills can go a long way for taking old, thrifted pieces and transforming them into something new, as well as maintaining the clothing you already do have. Thrift stores are almost like the farmer’s markets of the fashion world. They do have their flaws but like the farmer’s markets, they offer inexpensive, local items that are healthier and more responsible. I feel like once upon a time, perhaps for my parents’ generation, thrift shopping was looked down on. Shopping at the Salvation Army or Goodwill was for “poor folks.” But then, sometime in the late 90s and early 2000’s, people caught on to the goldmine thrift stores were for inexpensive, well made and stylish clothes. And Macklemore came out with that song in 2012, the same year Elizabeth L. Cline’s Overdressed was published. I think that’s about when the gold rush was over. The sad part about thrift stores though is that the quality of clothing is usually just as bad as fast fashion stores since that’s where everyone sends their two-week-old Forever21 purchases, and the stores often just throw out or “recycle” their old inventory.
Anyways, as I said, few things in our world are infinite and our planet’s resources are not one of them. Neither my bank account balance nor my credit limit is one of them. I don’t think our current rate of consumption is sustainable at all and I despise the notion that it can be, which is why I hate the word so much now. And it’s not just fashion and clothing- it’s everything. It’s toys and home goods and makeup products that we don’t use and electronics and disposable plastic water bottles and straws and everything. Eventually, something’s gotta give; I just hope it’s not our ozone layer or the ice caps or biodiversity or an endangered species or whatever. I want the thing that gives to be our consumption. If not for the polar bears or the sea turtles, for our wallets and our personal style.