What Really Matters in the Fashion Industry?

There has been a lot of press given lately to innovation in the fashion world. A recent article in the Guardian raved about a dress covered in carbon-sequestering sequins made from ocean algae that captures enough CO2 to “fill 15 bathtubs.” From athletic wear made from coffee grounds and biodegradable beechwood tanks, to peace silk underwear and pineapple leather, fashion is awash with clever, groundbreaking inventions that all claim to make the industry more sustainable.

These are well-intentioned projects, but sometimes I wonder if they distract from the few, much simpler solutions that could reform an industry considered to be one of the most polluting on Earth. I spoke earlier this month with journalist Elizabeth Cline for a story I was writing about the #PayUp fashion campaign and she said something that stuck with me:

“I do not care whether we are all wearing sweatpants or 3D printed clothes in the future; what matters is that all human beings in the fashion industry are paid a fair wage for a fair day’s work and that factories and garment workers are equal partners in fashion. That would be a truly innovative change.”

This got me thinking about what does matter when it comes to fashion that’s truly sustainable and ethical, and I’ve come up with a list of three actions that I believe would make a difference. These are less exciting than trends and innovations, but they have substance and sticking power and are accessible to all.

1. Wear Natural Fibers

The problem of plastic microfiber pollution will continue to grow as long as people keep buying synthetic clothing. Every time these items are washed, they release tiny plastic fibers that are too small to be filtered out. An estimated 40% of plastic released in washing cycles goes directly into rivers, lakes, and oceans. 

Once there they absorb pollutants like tiny sponges and transfer these to any marine wildlife that ingests them. To quote The Story of Stuff, which released an informative video on this topic, “They’re like little toxic bombs full of motor oil, pesticides, and industrial chemicals that end up in the bellies of fish” – and eventually our bellies if we eat those fish. 

As Rebecca Burgess of Fibershed once explained in an interview, recycled plastic has no place in clothing. It is a quick fix that perpetuates the ubiquity of plastic and is arguably the worst way to reuse plastic because it “creates plastic lint faster than any other material on Earth.” She urges people to think of their clothing as an agricultural choice between the biosphere and lithosphere (Earth’s crust from which fossil fuels are extracted).

The solution? Stay clear of synthetics whenever possible and opt for natural fibers instead. This is getting easier as textile sciences improve, and materials such as merino wool can replace stretchy athletic wear. (Smartwool and Icebreaker are doing cool things with wool.) Linen, hemp, cotton, silk, alpaca, and other forms of wool are all excellent choices. These fabrics last better, feel better on the skin, and age more beautifully than synthetics. 

2. Wear Clothes for as Long as Possible

My friend has a Patagonia down-filled vest that her uncle bought in the 1970s. That vest is still going strong and she wears it everywhere. Talk about well-made, long-lasting clothing; that kind of longevity is what we should strive for in everything we buy and wear. In reality, however, 60% of clothing nowadays is discarded within a year of purchase, which generates vast quantities of waste that global landfills are struggling to absorb.

If the priority shifts to choosing long-lasting clothes, it addresses two key issues at once – overconsumption and the declining quality of many clothes in stores these days. A focus on quality would make us inclined to pay more for better-made items, which would reduce the desire to keep shopping, while slowing demand for fast fashion overall. 

You could buy secondhand clothing, too, as a way to extend the lifespan of items already created, but I’ve come to think that whether you buy new or used matters less than if you commit to keeping clothes in use for decades. The same goes for ethical production and natural fibers; these qualities matter, of course, but they count for little if you toss the garment within a few months or even a couple of years from time of purchase. The most important thing is to make it last.

3. Advocate for Garment Workers

Garment workers need our support more than ever. They are essential workers, creating the clothing we need to cover and adorn our bodies, and yet they’re among the poorest, most vulnerable workers in the world. They earn poverty wages, work in unsafe conditions, have no job security or secure contracts, and are exposed to toxic chemicals. Eighty percent of the approximately 40-60 million garment workers worldwide are female, subjected to gender-based discrimination in the workplace, and often forced to live apart from their children, with no maternity leave or child care and inadequate travel allowances.

Consumers have clout with brands and, thanks to social media, it’s easier than ever to reach out and request more information about whether or how a brand supports its own garment workers. Ask questions, be vocal, do your research, and seek out certifiably ethical production. Dig into companies’ explanations of how they source clothes; it’s easy to see what’s greenwashed and what has substance, once you start examining claims closely. 

Add your name to the petition asking companies to pay up for clothing orders they “canceled” due to COVID-19. Cline writes, “Continue to tag brands on social media who have not agreed to #PayUp and demand they do so. They include Kohl’s, JCPenney, Sears, Topshop, Urban Outfitters, Bestseller.” A full list is here.

Join the #10CentsMore campaign asking brands to pay a tiny bit more per garment in order to build a safety net for workers. Follow the Clean Clothes Campaign for regular news and updates. Donate to organizations such as the Awaj Foundation that advocates on behalf of garment workers. 

These three actions, if used together, could make far more of a difference in the fashion world than developing obscure materials to make headline-grabbing garments that are impractical for daily use. We don’t need innovation; we only need simplicity, quality, and a rejection of fleeting trends.