Ethical consumer or ethical brands?

Image Credit: Photographer: Eva Ní Chiarúain Model: Anna Ní Chiarúain Editing: Laoise Tarrant

Does the fashion industry’s journey towards sustainability lie with the individual consumer’s choices or those of major fashion companies? Caoimhe Mahon explores issues of sustainability facing both the consumer and big brands and where the responsibility lies.

When we consider fashion our minds automatically jump to the latest trends, the popular brands and what’s new and in style. However, what if we made a shift in how we think about fashion? What if we became more concerned with ethical consumption and sustainable clothing, and less concerned with providing a thriving market for ‘fast fashion.’ With a growing awareness of climate change and a desire to slow global warming we must begin to re-educate ourselves and make the necessary changes to play our part in saving our planet, including changing our fashion habits. However, if each of us has a part to play then surely the fashion companies and brands have just as significant a role, if not a more important one to play than the individual consumer.

Walking down any city high street or scrolling through an online shop, it is hard to avoid mass advertisements for new fashion trends, competitive sales and of course the, ‘last chance to buy,’ statements. As consumers, we buy into all of these sales tactics. However, not only are we filling our wardrobes more and more, but we are also filling landfills at unprecedented rates, with Britain placing a staggering 300,000 tonnes of unwanted clothes in landfill each year. As consumers, we are buying more clothes more frequently and cheaply making clothing which is essentially disposable to many. This is largely due to our growing accessibility of clothing, where often cheap clothes of poorer quality are readily available in highly stocked stores.

This easy access to fast fashion feeds the cravings to match the latest style trends and gives birth to a fashion culture where clothes are discarded after a few wears. This unhealthy culture is propped up by the media and the increase of fashion bloggers who feed into a culture of buying more and wearing less often.

Therefore, with these fashion habits in mind, it is clear that, as consumers, we have an important role in the ethical consumption of fashion. There are a number of steps we can take towards becoming more ethical consumers. Rather than purchasing a number of items which lack quality and necessity, a fashion purchase should be something that is viewed as an investment. Therefore, before we purchase an item we must consider if we need it, if we will wear it, and if the quality is good enough that it will last. By following this thought process we are purchasing fewer clothes less often and therefore, reducing the amount of waste from garments. Furthermore, when it comes to disposing of certain items, sustainable changes can also be made. Perhaps passing them along to a younger relative when they no longer fit or donating them to a charity shop to ensure that their use is prolonged even further. 

Of course, the biggest impact a consumer can make is buying sustainably from the outset and, therefore, beginning the fashion cycle of that consumer ethically. This may involve using charity shops, thrift stores or even sourcing items from sustainable sections of your favourite fashion company stores. However, if the consumer makes this ethical choice to shop in this manner, then it is the responsibility of the fashion company to continue the process by providing the consumer with ethical options.

As a consumer, I often find that many popular fashion companies lack sustainable options in their stores and online. Of course, fashion companies want to continue making a profit and growing their businesses, however, as distributors it is crucial that they play their role in ethical sales and sustainable fashion. Perhaps the biggest pressure placed on the consumer is the idea of the, ‘latest and hottest trends,’ which they feel pressured to keep up with.

What if fashion companies defined what it meant to be fashionable,  and thus, reverse this trend of buying and discarding fashion at unprecedented rates? Fashion companies could produce less clothing less often, reducing the amount of waste left on unbought hangers or in warehouses forgotten about. Consequently, there would be fewer trends for consumers to, ‘keep up with’ and therefore, less disposable clothing. Some stores are already making changes with clothing rentals now available on high streets and online alike. Clothing rentals allow an individual to mix up their wardrobe or rent an outfit for a one-off occasion without purchasing the outfit and, in turn, reduces the quantities that the garment is produced in. It is therefore crucial that fashion companies begin to prioritise the planet over monetary gain, as sustainable fashion must involve the entire supply chain.

Although there are some options available in popular fashion companies, many sustainable options within these brands are more expensive and thus act as a deterrent. In order to achieve the best results, a balance must be achieved between quality, cost and sustainability where the producer, company and consumer are all taken into consideration.

It is evident that changes need to be made within the fashion industry in order for fashion to become more ethical and sustainable. Of course, this responsibility must be shared between both the consumer and the company as a collective effort. Although the consumer must themselves make a conscious effort to shop ethically, this would be made a lot easier if there were more options available to the consumer, particularly in popular fashion companies like Topshop or Zara. Furthermore, if fashion brands were to become completely sustainable, fulfilling the responsibility of the company, then the consumer’s responsibility to be more ethical would be made a lot easier. Clearly, moving towards more sustainable fashion is a journey that must be taken collectively involving all in the supply chain and promoting ethical choices.