Widespread misconceptions about ethical fashion and sustainability can sometimes keep consumers from taking meaningful action when it comes to their lifestyles. Here are some myths we hear over and over, that need to be corrected.
1. Buying from “eco-friendly” or “sustainable” brands is the best way to reduce your Fashion Environmental Impact.
The truth is that the best way to reduce your Fashion Environmental Impact is to buy fewer things. Get the most out of your current wardrobe by repairing or altering old garments, restyling tired pieces and trading items with friends. If you must buy a new item, try to find it second-hand. Researching sustainable brands is helpful, but buying something new should be the last option, not the first.
2. Fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world.
It’s actually the 4th most polluting industry on the planet if you are talking about carbon emissions.
3. The more expensive the garment, the less likely workers have been exploited.
Many mid-priced and premium labels actually produce in the same factories as discount and fast fashion brands. This means that everything from workers’ rights to the conditions in which they work in, can be exploitative, regardless of price point. What’s more, the price of a garment does not guarantee that workers were fairly paid, because the cost of labor only makes up a small fraction of total production costs.
4. Fashion made in China is low quality and cheap.
This used to be true. But not anymore. Wages in China have risen to the point where it’s actually mid-range. Upscale and luxury clothing is now being manufactured in China, which has invested heavily in the latest technology necessary to create quality garments and accessories. Yes, the environmental protections are still not great in China, but if you flip a tag over and see “Made in China” you can no longer assume that it represents the bottom of the barrel.
5. Donating old clothes is a sustainable way to clean out your closet.
While charities and thrift stores do give away or sell a portion of the clothes they receive, your donated clothes are likely to end up being shipped overseas to resale markets in developing countries, which can negatively impact their local industries, or in a landfill. Only 10% of clothing given to thrift stores is actually sold. The US alone ships a billion pounds of used clothing per year to other countries. Africa receives 70% of global secondhand clothes.
6. Your clothes are from the country listed on the tag.
Actually your clothes may be assembled in that country, but the tag can’t reveal the complex chain of labor that made them. The label won’t tell you where in the world the cotton was farmed, where the fiber was spun into a yarn, where the yarn was woven into a fabric, where it was dyed and printed or where the thread, dyes, zips, buttons, beading or other features came from. To encourage labels to be transparent about their supply chains, Fashion Revolution has been promoting the hashtag #whomademyclothes?, asking users to tag brands in selfies with clothing tags visible.
7. Most clothes can be recycled.
Clothing can be difficult to recycle, in part because of how it’s made. Many fabrics are made from blends (of cotton and polyester, for instance), which must be separated if the material is to be turned into a new garment. In the US, less than 14% of clothing and shoes thrown away end up being recycled.
8. If you donate your old clothes to the “right” charity, they will find their way into the hands of an appreciative low-income person.
Most people still believe when they donate clothing, they’re donating much-needed garments that people in need will gratefully take and wear with pride. But the fact is, Americans, for example, donate far too much clothing for the underprivileged in America to absorb, and much of it, as fast fashion has taken hold, is worthless and falling apart. Even homeless shelters don’t want your old clothing. They want bras, new underwear, coats, basic personal care products, and tampons. If you drop off a bag of your old clothing, it’s equivalent to you dropping off your bag of household waste. That is how worthless and disposable old clothing is at this point.
The way clothing charities work, they take in your clothing, and then extract as much value as they can from it in order to run their operations. They’ll resale about 20 to 40% of it to the public. The rest is bundled up and resold for pennies on the pound to a recycler who will downcycle some of it into insulation or wiping rags, and will send the rest to developing countries to resell for a couple dollars. Wherever you donate, it all goes through this exact same process. So whether your clothing finds a second life depends not on where you donate it, but the quality of the clothing itself. If it’s well-made, timeless, and in good condition, someone, somewhere, will wear it again. If you bought it for $15 originally or it has a stain, it will be downcycled.
So don’t worry about where you donate your old clothes – just pick a charity whose mission you support. And worry more about what clothing you’re buying in the first place, and whether it will have a long life.
9. Vegan leather is eco-friendly.
Not necessarily. It could be quite toxic, and is definitely synthetic in some way. There are some eco-friendly vegan options like cork, Pinatex, and waxed canvas. But always look closer and ask questions.
10. You have the power, as a consumer, to change the fashion industry for the better.
This claim assumes two things: That you are able to make the more eco-friendly and ethical choice, and that companies will notice that you are making that choice.
I think we’ve established already that we don’t, as consumers, always know the most eco-friendly choice. It’s hard to keep up with all the information coming out of the fast-moving industry. Is Nike good or bad? What about H&M? Wait, fashion contributes to rainforest deforestation? Vegan leather can be toxic? Natural fibers can be toxic? and the list goes on.
Plus, 98% of what we are presented with is not eco-friendly. We have to make ourselves unaffected by advertising and seek out the eco-friendly choice, which is a constant struggle.
Plus, how are brands supposed to know that you are avoiding them because they aren’t eco-friendly? you absolutely don’t walk in stores and complain about items being made in a third world country. Also, even if you ask a sales associate questions about where their clothes were made, she/he won’t care to get in touch with the CEO and explain what happened. Do you think Forever 21 notices when you leave a snarky comment on their Instagram, between a flood of 240 comments saying, “wooow” and “I NEED THESE PANTS.” No, they won’t.
The power, right now, lies with government and multinationals. The only way this will improve is if more companies join the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, the governments in Southeast Asia stop being so corrupt and invest in infrastructure and Western governments figure out how to stimulate and legislate sustainable fashion practices into the norm.
Which is all to say, this is not your fault, so do not feel guilty that you aren’t solely saving the world.
By: Hala AlZoubi