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The Hollow Promises of Sustainable Fashion

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Delhi South chapter.

When you click on the ‘Join Life’ section on the Zara website, it takes you to a page with a clip of a model turning a pair of jeans inside out and folding it. The clip might baffle a person(at least it did baffle me), until your go further and find out that the page is for Zara’s sustainable clothing line. ‘Eco-friendly’, ‘sustainable’, ‘ethical’, and ‘green’ are the new buzzwords in the fashion industry. I doubt there is anyone who talks about their sustainable practices more than fashion brands do.

Fast fashion is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the 1990s, brands started producing cheap clothes of poor quality at a faster pace to meet the shortening trend cycle. In recent years, the production of clothes has roughly doubled, overhauling consumer habits. These brands currently dominate the fashion industry.

The rise in sustainable fashion came mainly as a response to criticism of the negative environmental impact of fashion. Reportedly, it requires about 3000 liters of water to produce a cotton shirt. 20% of the wastewater worldwide is attributed to the fashion industry. To lower the price, brands use low-quality materials- like polyester, which consist of plastic and tend to release far more carbon emissions than cotton.

As a response, these brands have introduced sustainable measures in the company. They have introduced eco-friendly fashion lines, which they claim are made of recycled or leftover material. They claim that the waste generated at their factories and stores is recycled. Zara has committed to 100% of its cotton, linen, and polyester being sustainable by 2025 and 100% viscose by 2023. H&M has committed to 100% of its materials and products being recycled or sustainably sourced by 2023. However, a lot of these claims are just surface-level. Most of these brands have been repeatedly accused of ‘Greenwashing’, which allows these brands to market themselves as way greener than they actually are. A deeper reading of these claims can show us that most of these claims are incredibly ambiguous and have a lot of loopholes.

It is interesting to note that these schemes do not focus on reducing the number of clothes bought. The H&M scheme of giving a 15% discount on returning old clothes, in fact, encourages consumers to buy more, which seems, evidently, antithetical to the entire idea of sustainability. The common thread between these brands’ ideas of sustainable practices is that you could still save the planet by buying as many clothes as you want. You just have to choose where you buy them, the answer to which is always “us”. However, there is a limit to how sustainable you can be by producing and consuming at such a large scale. It was reported that 62 million metric tons of apparel were consumed globally in 2019. Fast fashion is there to meet this excessive demand. The very basis of fast fashion is to produce more, quickly, shortening the months-long production cycle to a few weeks. Zara offers 24 new collections each year and H&M offers 12 to 16 and refreshes them weekly. The affordability of these brands and the shortening of the trend cycle due to social media, convince consumers to seek out more and dispose of the ones they already own sooner than they otherwise would. 85% of textiles go into landfills each year.

The term sustainable fast fashion is in itself an oxymoron. In an Instagram post to accompany her appearance on the cover of the first issue of Vogue Scandinavia, climate activist Greta Thunberg wrote, “Many are making it look as if the fashion industry are starting to take responsibility, by spending fantasy amounts on campaigns where they portray themselves as ‘sustainable’, ‘ethical’, ‘green’, ‘climate neutral’ and ‘fair’. But let’s be clear: This is almost never anything but pure greenwashing. You cannot mass produce fashion or consume ‘sustainably’ as the world is shaped today. That is one of the many reasons why we will need a system change.”

It is, however, hard to not go into those sleek stores and try on that T-shirt that is well within your budget. And seems like every day you are being asked to give up the next thing you like to protect the environment. However, the solution to this particular problem is quite easy. You just need to hold on to clothes a little longer. Holding on to an item of clothing for 9 months can reduce your carbon footprint by 30%.

It’s hard to resist the urge, though. Before writing this article, I was looking up a dress on the Zara app. Maybe it’s a good thing it was out of stock.

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Vanshika Ahuja

Delhi South '24

an Economics major at Maitreyi College and an editor/writer at the Neeti Magazine, the annual economics magazine of the college. She is also an avid reader and a movie buff.