These are a lot of sustainable fashion myths that I’ve come across over the years in this space, so I’ve collected some of the most common ones here in one place for your reference. Some of these myths are ones that I’ve long cringed at and others are ones that I’ve believed myself until recently!
Myth #1: The first step to a sustainable wardrobe is doing a closet clean out.
This one drives me a bit crazy! Sustainable fashion is about making the most out of what we have. There is nothing sustainable about getting rid of perfectly wearable clothes!
A sustainable fashion mindset is about wearing what we have more and buying less. It’s about rewearing, outfit repeating, and mending/repairing our garments. Even if those clothes were from fast fashion brands.
While yes, there may be some pieces that you want to responsibly declutter, this is not a prerequisite to getting started with sustainable fashion.
Myth #2: Sustainable fashion is about minimalism.
Similar to the first myth, there are some perceptions that sustainability is about having a minimalist aesthetic or a minimalist closet.
In reality, sustainable fashion is not about a certain aesthetic.
That said, trendy fashion is not really sustainable because it can feel outdated so quickly, generally speaking. However, if you really love a trend and are happy wearing it after fashion magazines call it out of style, then go for it!
Sustainable fashion can still be fun and you can still express yourself while doing so mindfully — it shouldn’t feel like you need to sacrifice your style. While conscious fashion brands often are limited in the variety of aesthetics, you can always thrift something that fits your style better or just continue rewearing what’s in your closet!
On a similar note, while sustainable fashion is about buying less, you don’t have to only have a certain number of garments or pairs of shoes. If you’re keeping what you have and taking care of it, you actually might have a lot of pieces. And if you’re wearing all of them and it’s not making you feel overwhelmed, then there’s no problem with that.
If you do find that there are some pieces in your wardrobe that you’re not really wearing much or you feel stressed when you open up your closet, then you might consider giving them to a friend or family member or selling it.
But, be conscious of giving a huge trash bag of clothes away to the nearby charity store. Which brings me to the next myth…
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.
There’s also the inequitable global secondhand trade where countries in the Global North send vast amounts of unwanted clothing to the Global South, referred to sometimes as “waste colonialism”.
This has been one reason for the decline in local textile and garment production in some countries in the Global South, particularly those in Africa. (Though it is definitely not the only reason; there have also been exploitive trade agreements at play.)
Plus, this trading scheme puts the burden of textile waste on these countries that don’t 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.
The work of the OR Foundation also sheds light on the inequities in the global secondhand trade.
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 the previous myth talked about, sustainable fashion is not about buying new clothes. There are ways to get involved that don’t involve buying anything at all!
At its core, a sustainable mindset to fashion is about purchasing less. The current rates of consumption in the world will never be sustainable, no matter how many fabrics are recycled or organic.
And then when it comes to investing in pieces from sustainable fashion brands, here’s what to consider.
Even if the individual pieces you are purchasing might be more expensive than pieces from brands like Boohoo or H&M, if you’re buying fewer items, you may actually spend less overall on fashion.
I definitely have saved money since shifting to a sustainable fashion mindset.
While fast fashion looks cheap at first, it can be deceptive. It’s easy to pick up a few pieces here and there, and if it’s a habit to go shopping as a hobby or browse through for clothes online when you’re bored, that can add up quickly.
I had definitely underestimated how much I was spending on fast fashion.
Now, I don’t shop as frequently because I’ve developed a stronger “commitment” to my closet and wear what I have more. I also prioritize secondhand and am very picky about what I buy new. So, with these shifts, I actually end up actually spending less money overall than when I shopped fast fashion.
Another point on the expensive myth is that we 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 $1. If you buy a trendy $20 dress that you only intend on wearing once or twice, that cost per wear is $20 or $10.
*With that said, this reply to the expensive myth is not about shaming anyone who may rely on fast fashion’s accessible prices. It does require having a certain amount of money to make an investment upfront in a piece and it requires having a certain amount of clothing already to rewear what you have.
These tips are simply meant to be an encouragement for anyone feeling intimidated about the switch to more sustainable fashion habits. Quitting fast fashion is not possible for everyone and I definitely do not advocate for anyone taking out a loan or doing a payment plan to buy a more consciously made garment if it’s not affordable.
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. Are they overproducing and pushing overconsumption? (This would be a yes for any fast fashion brand!) Also check and see if the brand is transparency and can trace their full supply chain. If so, does that brand pay living wages and ensure safe conditions? What sorts of materials and dyes do they use and where are those sourced?
Myth #8 If a piece of clothing is expensive, then it was sustainably and ethically made.
Another myth that I wish was true, but unfortunately, is not!
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.
There are designer garments made from synthetic fabrics and many designer labels do not publish much information about their supply chain at all.
Myth #9: Made in the US, Made in the UK, etc. = Ethically Made
Again, wish this could be true but it’s not so simple. Sweatshop conditions do still exist in countries 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.
The answer isn’t simple, 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.
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 garment makers.
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 had to work in a dangerous garment factory at 12? If their daughter was experiencing harassment at work, working 80 hour weeks, and earning barely enough to survive?
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 — who are mostly women of color, largely in the Global South — less valuable? Are they less worthy of their dignity because they were born in a different country or 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.
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.
Myth #11: Factories are most responsible for poor conditions and wages.
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 their garments for as little as possible, forcing 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 (i.e. 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 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.
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 factories enough, then the factories can’t actually do what these codes of conduct require. They 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 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 make garment workers directly, they 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. They can’t just outsource and say that it’s someone else’s problem while they profit of off perpetuating these exploitive conditions.
Rather than more codes of conduct, we need to flip the script and demand that brands share what they’re paying suppliers and what sorts of commitments the brands are making to their suppliers.
Related to this myth…
Myth #12: Raising wages would increase prices for customers.
The truth is that labor is just a fraction of a brand’s overall costs and would likely 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 if the brand was willing to reprioritize.
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 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 Labor 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.
Okay wow, 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!