There’s a reason sustainable clothing sounds like an oxymoron — because it is one.
Despite the claims made by the fast fashion and so-called environmentally-friendly clothing brands in your Instagram feed, the sad truth is that they’re all contributing to the effects of climate change.
The Truth About Sustainable Clothing & Greenwashing
To understand why sustainable clothing is a myth, you need to understand that the entire apparel industry is broken. A single cotton t-shirt, which many brands will market as made from “all-natural materials,” takes 594 gallons of water to make AKA the amount of water you drink in two and a half years. Over 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the apparel industry. And that doesn’t even cover the waste generated by the more than 100 billion garments produced each year.
The reason why sustainable clothing is a sham is because nearly all apparel companies’ primary goal is profit. When increasing revenue is more important than eco-friendly policies, the planet will always come last. Instead of focusing on sustainability, most of these brands incorporate recycling schemes or false advertising to sell more clothes through what’s known as “greenwashing”.
Greenwashing is when a company spends more money to market itself as environmentally friendly than they spend to minimize its environmental impact. Many countries, like the US, lack any dedicated agency focused on regulating environment-focused claims. As a result, brands are able to trick consumers into thinking they are more sustainable than they really are by incorporating faux sustainability terms like “sustainable,” “non-toxic,” “natural,” and “environmentally-friendly”.
Brands can also get away with providing little to no transparency or making blatantly false claims. As far as they’re concerned it’s up to the consumers themselves to fact check.
How So-Called “Sustainable” Clothing Brands Stack Up
You might be wondering about your favorite “sustainable” clothing brands and whether or not you can trust them at this point. Luckily, there are tools you can use to find out. Good on You is a site that uses 50+ independent sources to compile scores for brands’ sustainability efforts on a scale from 1 to 5.
Check out how some of your favorite brands scored below:
Rating: 2/5 – “Not Good Enough”
Despite the website’s claim of “radical transparency” relating to its sustainability efforts, there is no evidence the brand minimizes textile waste or water reduction initiatives in its supply chain. Instead, Everlane relies on misleading sustainability terms like “organic cotton.” To put it in perspective, H&M ranked better than Everlane did. Yikes.
Rating: 4/5 – “Good”
Reformation is known as the go-to sustainability brand for every “it” girl in LA. But the brand didn’t receive an all-clear rating. Overall, it ranks better than almost every other mainstream brand but shows that even labels marketed as the most sustainable option still have improvements to make.
Rating: 3/5 – “It’s a start”
H&M attempted to win back consumers wary of fast fashion brands with a recycling program and “Conscious Collection.” It’s better than nothing but they are still producing over 600 million garments annually. The global brand set a science-based target to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, but there’s no evidence it’s on track to meet this target. [Related: H&M Releases Beautiful New Sustainable Collection — But How Sustainable is it Really?]
Tips on How to *Actually* Shop Sustainably
For those of us who are passionate about both fashion and the environment, it feels like you’re forced to choose. But there are ways to reduce your impact.
First, give up on the idea that you’ll find a go-to brand for all your needs. Instead, adopt a purchasing process based on how long and how often you’ll wear what you buy. This means more research on the manufacturing process, product materials, and lifespan of the clothing. But apps like Good on You help make it a little easier.
Second, restrict impulse buys to vintage stores and pre-owned online stores. A cheap shirt might seem like a good idea, but it will have drastically different impacts on the environment if it was produced via fast fashion vs. recycled at a secondhand store. [Related: 4 Places to Shop For Vintage and Recycled Clothing Online]
Lastly, rent when you can. More and more brands are providing full wardrobe rental options. If you’re only planning to wear something once or a handful of times, it’s more sustainable to rent and return.
Caring about the planet shouldn’t disqualify you from loving fashion. While making truly sustainable purchasing decisions will take more time and energy, I think we can all agree that it’s the least we can do for our planet.
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Shannon Vize is a freelance writer and content strategist living in Brooklyn, NY. Her writing has been published by Elite Daily, Taylor Magazine, CIO, and Forbes. When she’s not hate-binging the latest episode of The Bachelor franchise, she’s busy trying to dismantle the patriarchy by dissecting the latest anti-feminist theme in pop culture to anyone who will listen.