From “sustainable fashion is expensive” to “sweatshop jobs are better than no jobs”, I’m busting some of the MOST common sustainable fashion myths.
Something to keep in mind is that sustainable fashion is a journey involving unlearning, learning and perspective shifting. This episode is certainly not about saying that I know it all — I believed many of these myths and even promoted some of them before! And, I’m sure there will be more myths that I’ll unlearn on my journey too.
But these are some of the misconceptions that I’ve seen quite a bit that I wanted to clear up.
Prefer to listen? Check out the podcast version!
Myth #1: The first step to a sustainable wardrobe is doing a closet clean out.
I’m not sure how this one started but sustainable fashion is about making the MOST of what we have. There’s nothing about getting rid of heaps of perfectly good clothes that is sustainable.
While doing a closet assessment is definitely a great idea to get an understanding of your style and what types of pieces you like or don’t like so that you are very intentional about future purchases, you do not need to just like clear out your wardrobe.
Kind of related to this, you also don’t need to get rid of fast fashion pieces that you already bought to be involved in ethical fashion.
The best thing is to make the most of what you’ve already purchased, what has already been produced.
Some fast fashion pieces do fall apart quite quickly or pill easily or get tears and rips.
But, if you take care of them, washing less, washing on cold, not machine drying them, mending if something small does happen and so on, they can last fairly long.
Not generations like some really quality slow fashion pieces can, but certainly they have a much longer life in them than most people give them.
I have pieces from like 10 years ago from fast fashion brands that are still going strong and I still wear them along with my secondhand clothes and clothes from more conscious fashion brands.
Myth #2: Sustainable fashion is about minimalism.
And on this topic of a closet cleanout here, there are some perceptions that sustainability means you have to have a capsule minimalist wardrobe or a minimalist aesthetic.
While sustainable and slow fashion is certainly about buying less, you don’t have to only have a certain number of garments or pairs of shoes to get involved.
Some people approach their conscious fashion journey this way, with capsule wardrobes and I think that’s great.
For me, it kind of stresses me out. I’ve done capsule challenges for a limited amount of time that have been really fun, but to do that long-term, it’s just not for me.
I love color and prints and not all of my colors and prints work together. My purchases are certainly more cohesive now than they were in the past, but I also don’t want to give up pieces I love just because they don’t have 10 different possible combinations.
If you feel like having a minimalist closet with capsule collections works for you and helps you, then absolutely 110% go for it!
But also if you’re keeping what you have and taking care of it, you actually might have quite a few pieces, and that does not exclude you from the sustainable fashion movement.
Maybe you need to keep a few different sizes of garments on hand, maybe you live somewhere with four distinct seasons, maybe you just love mixing it up and keeping a larger closet actually helps you buy less.
We all have to find our own path when it comes to sustainable fashion. Curating our closets is a very personal journey I’ve found.
Also, on this note, sustainable fashion is not about a certain aesthetic.
While generally, I say that timelessness is preferable to trends, if you love a trend and are happy wearing it after fashion magazines call it out of style, then go for it!
I think the problem with the idea of trends is not that they aren’t minimalist or simple, because you can still have a classic style full of color and prints and unique touches. But the issue with trends is that they go in and out and make you feel like you have to buy more and more stuff just to keep up.
Sustainable fashion can still be fun and you can still express your style while doing so mindfully — it shouldn’t feel like you have to sacrifice your style.
So we can’t talk about minimalism or closet clean-outs without addressing where those pieces in your wardrobe actually go. Which brings me to myth number three…
Myth #3: The clothes you give away to charity shops are sold there.
This is a big one. Most people think that when they send their clothes to a charity shop, that shop sells those clothes. Actually though, the supply outweighs the demand and only about 10 to 20% of donated items get sold on the shop floors.
The rest is down-cycled (for things like housing insulation), landfilled, incinerated, or sent to other countries, primarily in the Global South. And a significant percentage of what is sent as secondhand clothing to other countries also ends up in landfills.
There is not much transparency in the secondhand clothing supply chain so it’s difficult to know where your donated clothes are actually ending up. The OR Foundation has done some incredibly important work on this that I highly recommend checking out. (Their Instagram account is @theorispresent)
Some better solutions?
- Swap your pieces with a friend or via an app like Swap Society
- Rent out your closet by lending items to friends or using an app like By Rotation
- Sell your items through an online peer-to-peer secondhand marketplace like Poshmark or Tradesy
- Or, donate it directly to an organization that will use that piece. For instance, see if a nearby refugee agency or homeless shelter needs clothing. There is far more transparency when you are donating directly to the organization that will utilize those items.
Myth #4: Secondhand is inherently ethical and sustainable.
I don’t want to take away from the benefits of secondhand here because there are a lot! What I do want to say though is that we cannot just put a blanket statement that the secondhand economy is perfect and 100% sustainable.
For instance, there’s the gentrification of thrift stores. This is when more affluent buyers start shopping at a thrift store, sometimes just to buy cheap items to resell online, and cause the prices to go up, making the pieces unaffordable for those that relied on the lower prices.
(While there is no shortage of supply of used fashion, the “best” pieces may be snatched up, leaving only lower quality pieces.)
For instance, we sometimes see that more affluent buyers will start shopping at a thrift store, perhaps where people rely on the low prices of that store and will just buy cheap items to resell online for more.
And then this can cause the prices to go up, making the pieces unaffordable for those that relied on the lower prices.
There’s also the inequitable global secondhand trade where countries in the Global North send vast amounts of unwanted clothing to countries in the Global South. People may think that when they give away their clothes, that it’s being given to people who can’t afford clothes. (And this is understandable since there is little transparency in the secondhand economy.)
This is far from the reality, though. This clothing actually goes through multiple layers of a reverse supply chain and is eventually sold in bales to secondhand sellers who sell this clothing to people. This trade is definitely not equal or just. (We will explore this in future podcast episodes in more detail.)
And, since not all of this clothing can be sold, there is a lot of textile waste in these countries that do not have the adequate infrastructure to handle that waste.
In short, this is a complex a lot of issues in the secondhand trade that we have to discuss, which an article by Emily Stochl for Atmos called “Gone Vintage” covers really well.
Myth #5 You HAVE to buy from sustainable fashion brands to participate in the sustainable fashion movement.
The sustainable fashion movement is not limited to consumption.
You can also participate by buying less, caring for your clothes well, mending and repairing them, or swapping clothes.
And, when you do want something new to you, you can browse secondhand stores. You can often find clothes that are higher quality for less money by shopping pre-loved.
All of these things are sustainable and are worth celebrating!
Also, getting involved with sustainable fashion doesn’t have to be about what you do or don’t buy at all! You can also be a consumer activist. In fact, I encourage anyone interested in conscious consumerism to explore how you can expand your power and push for larger changes by exploring consumer activism.
What is consumer activism?
This could involve emailing brands asking them about their supply chain, DM’ing or commenting on brand’s social media posts, joining and donating to a worker advocacy organization like Remake, Clean Clothes Campaign, and Garment Worker Center, and pushing your representatives to create stronger regulations for fashion brands.
Myth #6: Sustainable fashion is expensive.
As I just talked about, sustainable fashion is not only about buying new clothes.
There are ways to get involved that don’t involve buying anything at all: like swapping and borrowing or participating in fashion activism.
A sustainable fashion approach could also involve shopping secondhand. And you can often find high quality secondhand options that are cheaper than even fast fashion.
Finally, a more sustainable and slow approach to fashion is about purchasing fewer things. So, even if you are buying from an eco-friendly, fair brand and a piece is more expensive than what you’re used to buying, you may still be spending less overall on fashion than with overconsumption of cheaper fashion.
While fast fashion looks cheap at first, it can be deceptive.
It’s easy to pick up a few pieces here and there for $10, $20, $30 each, and then see that you’ve racked up hundreds of dollars on your credit card at the end of the month. I know that personally, I was definitely underestimating how much I was spending on fast fashion.
We also have to consider the cost per wear of a garment.
For instance, if you buy a $100 pair of jeans but wear them 100 times, that cost per wear is only $1.
If you buy a pair of pants from a fast fashion brand for $20 but only wear them 4 times before they fall apart, that cost per wear is $5.
Now with that said, I do want to acknowledge here that it is a privilege to be able to make an investment upfront in a piece. It does require having a decent amount of disposable income at any one time.
It is not something that everyone can do so it’s important to give yourself grace of shopping conscious brands is not accessible and of course give others grace and never shame anyone who relies on fast fashion.
Speaking of conscious fashion brands, let’s talk about the next myth.
Myth #7: If a brand says they are sustainable, then they are.
If only it was so simple! But, unfortunately, greenwashing is rampant in the fashion industry.
Greenwashing is essentially when a brand overstates or flat-out lies about their environmental or social sustainability with green marketing.
There is no standardization or regulation of the use of the words like sustainable, ethical, conscious, and eco-friendly.
So, you can’t necessarily trust these words alone.
While these words might help guide you towards brands aligned with your values, it’s more important to look at the specific practices a brand is using.
Instead, look at the specific practices a brand is using.
What sorts of materials and dyes do they use? What sort of traceability do they have of their supply chain? Are they paying living wages and ensuring safe conditions? Are they powering their operations with fossil fuels or are they using wind and solar energy? Do they take responsibility for their waste? Are they overproducing or are they producing in small batches?
Myth #8: If a piece of clothing is expensive, then it was sustainably and ethically made.
Again, it’s unfortunately not so simple!
Paying more does not mean that more money is going into the hands of the makers behind that piece. And, expensive garments are not necessarily made from responsible materials. I’ve seen garments from luxury labels made from synthetic fabrics like polyester and questionable materials like untraced viscose that could have been made with the pulp of trees from endangered or old-growth forests.
There are designer garments made from synthetic fabrics and many designer labels do not publish much information about their supply chain at all.
We can see from Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index that many luxury labels score lower than fast fashion brands on their transparency.
Myth #9: Made in the US, Made in the UK, etc. = Ethically Made
Again, I wish this could be true, but it’s not so simple.
Sweatshop conditions do still exist in countries in the Global North with stronger labor laws like the US and the UK.
The problem is not a few bad factories or poor conditions in a few countries.
The problem is that big fashion brands are hungry for profits and are in a race to the bottom negotiating prices with factories as low as they can go. In turn, factories pay workers very little and do not invest in improvements for worker safety.
And no matter where a factory is located, these factories always have a vulnerable population to exploit.
Often the sweatshop-like factories in places like the US employ immigrant women of color. This is not by chance.
The fashion industry as it stands today is so profitable because it thrives off of exploitation, racism, and sexism.
Myth #10: But what about jobs? Aren’t sweatshops better than no jobs?
This is one of the most common questions that comes up in conversations about buying less, quitting fast fashion, or fashion degrowth.
But here are some things to consider…
First, big fashion brands do not actually employ garment workers directly. Garment workers are employed by factories that supply these brands.
Brands are able to pick and choose which factory they want to work with based on which one can provide the lowest costs and quickest turnaround times.
Second, fast fashion brands are not interested in investing in garment workers or their communities. As soon as wages go up or enforcements of labor standards get stronger, brands are quick to flee to the next country.
We also have to acknowledge that these aren’t “good” jobs.
According to Fashion Revolution, Remake, and FashionChecker.org, garment workers in Bangladesh earn about $3 per day and 93-98% of brands cannot say that the people in their supply chain earn living wages.
Not to mention, workers may face abuse, harassment, or even risk their lives for this work. (The Rana Plaza factory collapse was the most infamous disaster, but building failures and fires are not uncommon in the garment industry.)
In short, these are jobs that exploit, endanger, and keep women in a cycle of poverty.
Finally, we can’t ignore that automation will threaten garment worker jobs, whether we support fast fashion brands or not.
According to the ILO, up to 90% of garment and footwear workers in south-east Asia are at risk of losing their jobs to automated assembly lines, or so-called “sewbots”.
Buying from fast fashion brands has clearly not been a path to sustainable employment or good livelihoods for these women.
Instead of excusing sweatshops and fast fashion brands because they “provide jobs”, let’s center garment workers in building a better, more equitable future for fashion.
I also want to take a moment to acknowledge how harmful this rhetoric that fast fashion brands are somehow doing something good by providing these exploitive and dehumanizing jobs.
Would people really defend fast fashion brands if their own daughter or if they had to work in a dangerous garment factory at 12?
If their daughter was experiencing harassment at work, working 80 hour weeks, and still earning barely enough to survive and provide for her family?
If a person wouldn’t want to work at these factories themselves and wouldn’t want their own children working there, then you have to ask how they are okay with other human beings being subjected to those conditions?
Are these garment workers less less worthy of their dignity because they were born in a different country or in a different situation?
Are they less valuable just because they have been marginalized by an unjust system?
Sweatshops are NOT necessary. They only exist because brands have squeezed prices lower and lower in the pursuit of profit above everything else.
People sometimes act like since this is the way it is and the way it has been, that it’s the way that it always has to be.
But when you stop and think about it, it’s actually crazy that these brands worth billions of dollars with billionaire CEOs can somehow get away with paying starvation wages when they could very clearly afford to do more.
Myth #11: Factories are most responsible for poor conditions and wages.
If we’re believing the rhetoric of brands, we might think that brands are doing their best to source ethically, but factories are the problem.
Brands may sometimes put the blame on factories for not paying living wages. There are certainly issues with factories that have to be addressed and there is a power dynamic between workers and factory managers.
That said, brands have a lot of power.
And a major source of issues in the industry is that brands are able to aggressively negotiate with factories to produce garments for as little as possible. This forces a race to the bottom among factories in a particular area.
As Oxfam explains, buyers often engage in “underground bidding” to find the cheapest supplier. They will get price quotes from one factory in order to get lower prices from a different factory.
This pushes the prices paid to factories as low as they can go.
Sometimes, brands may even pay less than the production cost (in other words: brands are paying less than the factories have to pay for the materials and labor).
So, in this scenario, factory suppliers are forced to take orders from brands at a loss (so they are losing money overall from that order) just so they don’t lose customers.
According to the Center for Global Worker Rights, 65% of garment factories reported that brands demanded price cuts on new orders during the pandemic and on average, brands lowered the prices paid to factories by 12%.
The same report found that 56% of factories were forced to accept some new orders below cost.
Unsurprisingly, the Worker Rights Consortium found that garment workers experienced an average 21% decrease in their wages during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the market capitalization of the top 20 fashion brands increased by 11% during the pandemic, according to McKinsey.
There is clearly something very wrong with this picture.
The ironic part of all of this is that brands often have impose codes of conduct on their factories with a bunch of requirements.
But if brands aren’t paying high enough prices to factories — or they’re canceling orders like they did during the Covid-19 pandemic — then the factories can’t actually do what these codes of conduct require.
These factories can’t pay their workers living wages or enforce limits on working hours and they certainly cannot invest in improvements for worker safety.
This isn’t to say that factories all have great intentions and that there is no corruption happening at any factory.
This is to say that the power relationships are totally skewed towards brands. These huge multi-national fashion brands have far more money (billions of dollars more!) and far wider margins than factories.
And as the buyers, brands hold the power to pay suppliers more to ensure living wages.
While brands try to get off the hook by giving the excuse that they don’t employ garment workers directly, brands should be obligated to pay the factory enough so that the factory can pay living wages.
Brands must do their due diligence ensuring safe conditions, good wages and benefits, and reasonable working hours.
Brands can’t just outsource and say that it’s someone else’s problem while they profit off of perpetuating these exploitive conditions.
Rather than more one-sided — and often unenforceable — codes of conduct, we need binding agreements guaranteeing fair pay, protection for workers, and assurance of labor rights that hold all players accountable for their part.
When we talk about wages, another myth often comes up.
Myth #12: Raising wages would increase prices for customers.
The sad truth is that labor is just a fraction of a fashion brand’s overall costs when a piece is being mass produced.
So, increasing prices paid to workers would not meaningfully increase the prices of individual garments.
Clean Clothes Campaign calculated that wages for garment production are rarely more than 3% of the final retail price of a garment.
And a report from Oxfam found if brands paid garment workers living wages in the supply chain, it would increase the final cost of a piece of clothing by just 3% or less.
Or, it might not even have to increase costs at all for the final customer at all — if the brand was willing to reprioritize and put people over profit.
As of April 2021, the founder of Zara (Amancio Ortega) is one of the richest men in Europe with a net worth of over $74 billion and H&M’s majority owner Stefan Persson is Sweden’s richest man with a net worth of $22 billion.
Another stat to put this inequity in perspective: Four brands (Nike, UNIQLO, Primark and H&M) made more money in the pandemic than all of Bangladesh’s 4.1 million garment workers earn annually combined, according to PayUp Fashion.
Labour Behind the Label calculated that if H&M paid all of its garment workers in Cambodia a living wage, it would cost them just 1.9% of their annual profits.
In short, It’s not about the money not being there to pay garment makers living wages — it’s a matter of priorities.
These brands are prioritizing profit over people.
With that I will wrap it up because we just busted a lot of myths!
There are sure to be more so I will add to this list as I come across them. And, you can always DM me on Instagram if you think of another myth to add.