It all started with a pair of black jeans. High-waisted, made of thick denim, and reasonably priced, it felt a little too good to be true for a broke college student — but I caved. I had just bought a pair from Pull&Bear, a brand I had never heard of, and after thinking a bit I decided to do some research. I wanted to know if there was actually any merit to its “Concept” page that reads: “Pull&Bear started … with a clear international mission and with the intention of dressing young people who are engaged with their environment, who live in the community and relate to each other.” When we are constantly inundated with ads about “sustainable brands” and ‘“ethical” fashion, and greeted with sleek websites that tout their commitment to the environment, was there any evidence to suggest that these brands were taking steps to reduce their carbon footprint and promote fair labor?
Unfortunately, had I bothered to read a few lines further on the website, in the same breath the company states that not only do its stores receive new inventory twice a week, but that the company belongs to Inditex Group, which also owns Zara, a brand I avoid. Zara is known for its “fast fashion” business model that is predicated on rapidly changing current fashion trends. The industry is responsible for excessive water and agricultural pollution due to mass production of toxic synthetic dyes and for unethical international labor practices that have seen young people’s preferences trend away from cheap distributors such as H&M and Forever21. It seemed that a simple rebranding trick was sufficient to pull the “non-ethically sourced wool” over my eyes, and I wondered about the practices of popular brands among the college population.
Goodonyou.com is a brand ratings website that breaks down sustainability into three categories of impact: people, planet and animals, from which I learned a few things. Unsurprisingly, brands like Uniqlo and Urban Outfitters were grouped in with other fast-fashion culprits and received a low overall score. But what surprised me were the equally low ratings for brands like Madewell and Everlane, which are both priced higher and have commitment to transparency. Even more surprising were the practices of expensive outdoor brands such as Marmot and Arc’teryx, which “do not take adequate steps to reduce textile waste or minimize packaging” or “manage greenhouse gas emissions” despite coasting on a brand identity that wholeheartedly supports environmental initiatives.
The appeal of fast-fashion is mainly price over quality. But it turns out that more expensive brands that wear sustainability-driven practices on their sleeves do not fare any better under closer inspection. These brands have managed to capitalize on the millennial desire to shop ethically while wearing Allbirds and drinking green smoothies — there’s even a term for it: greenwashing. But what often goes unsaid is that behind the muted color palettes and minimalistic designs, clothing brands are inherently bad for the environment. The sheer volume of clothing output far outweighs any “organic-cotton” or “clothing recycling” initiatives that are often greenwashing PR. The biggest problem isn’t that we can’t afford expensive clothing that tracks its production to the first step or supports fair wages, but that we are simply consuming too much altogether.
During quarantine, I’ve been thinking a lot about trimming excess during a time when everything is being performed at a minimum level. With our reliance on single-use plastics on the rise, historic wildfires blazing through the West Coast and Australia, and the continued rolling back of key environmental regulations, climate change is never far from the collective mind. What I’ve learned from this short forray into the world of sustainable fashion is that it is an ironic phrase at best. Will I still wear my Pull&Bear black cutoffs? Regrettably, yes. But before succumbing to the pull of the next ‘sustainable’ brand, I’ll be sure to stop by the nearest thrift store first.