So I’m starting to wonder if the “sustainable fashion” trend in the apparel industry is the gateway to unsustainable elitism in society. I mean everybody in the fashion industry these days is talking about “sustainability.” Everywhere you turn your head, the term is ringing in your ears. But is sustainability itself an unsustainable elitist pipe dream? I don’t know. Am just asking. If it is not just an elitist pipe dream, can consumers like me afford it? Because to me it kinda sounds like BIO food. Which is all good and all. But in the end, I just buy regular food because I find the BIO food is out of my budget a lot of the time. And if you look at the people who are buying BIO, you can see that they are all kind of elite. And they kind of look down their noses at the rest of us. Which, to be perfectly honest with you, I don’t really care. But fashion I care about. Is this sustainable fashion thing gonna be the same way?
Some brands, like LMVH and Kering have been at this sustainability thing a relatively long time, when the trend was still just a “niche” concept, if you will.
Other brands like Stella McCartney and Gabriela Hearst are relative newercomers on the scene who have successfully built brand identities around the concept. In a way, sustainability is their brand. It’s how they make their money, distinguish their brand and win accolades, prizes and industry respect. That one word alone. S U S T A I N A B I L I T Y.
When Stella joined LVMH earlier this year, the CEO of LVMH Bernard Arnault expressed in his welcoming speech that LVMH had had a pioneering history with regard to sustainability, and he said that is why they wanted to basically win Stella away from their rival Pinault. In a press release from the company at the time, Mr Arnault, according to the UK Guardian, stated: “LVMH was the first large company in France to create a sustainability department, more than 25 years ago” He added, “It is the beginning of a beautiful story together, and we are convinced of the great long-term potential of her House. A decisive factor was that she was the first to put sustainability and ethical issues on the front stage, very early on, and built her House around these issues.”
This is very nice and very noble. Clearly, it is also very well intentioned. This notion of sustainability and greening of the apparel industry. But are there unintended consequences lurking underneath all of this conscience purging that all of these personalities are overlooking? Are they on the verge of solving one problem by creating numerous others?
Again, it is clear that these people mean well. Take Stella McCartney for example. She has always been about sustainability from the very beginning. It is not like she ever said her brand was 100 percent eco-friendly but while no brand can be completely eco-friendly by virtue of the nature of the beast of industry and what it takes to clothe the world, Stella has always been about “sustainability.” Indeed, it is LVMH’s respect for her corporate views on the subject of sustainability that led Stella to accept their offer of holding a minority stake in her eponymous brand. In her statement at the time, she indicated : “The passion and commitment they expressed towards the Stella McCartney brand alongside their belief in the ambitions and our values as the global leader in sustainable luxury fashion was truly impressive.” So niche, or not, elite or not, we know that Stella McCartney and LVMH have been at this for a long time. And they really want to be agents of change in the industry. And many new as well as older players in the industry have been following their lead and now it is all anybody talks about is
S U S T A I N A B I L I T Y. And it’s nice.
Let us be very clear about this, however. Sustainability is a money word.
I ask the question again: Is this whole sustainability movement at least a little bit elitist? And is it also a little bit unsustainable in and of itself? Why do I ask this question? Well, it seems to me that all the brands that are at the forefront of this sustainability movement are luxury brands. Their stuff is already uber expensive and out of most of our leagues. Many are already using green supply chains, and specialized materials (like specially spun merino wool and recycled plastics) and alternative water resources to make their clothes. Even if the whole industry became 100 percent eco-friendly tomorrow, it is not going to really change much for these brands. Their customer bases are what they are. They have money. And even if the prices go up a little bit, it is not going to be a big whoop for any of these people. They are going to be able to afford to buy their clothes. A T-shirt for $1,000 will not phase these people. They are going to still run the industry. They are still going to look better than the rest of us. Life is still going to be just peachy.
Juxtapose that with the fast fashion industry which is incontrovertibly less green than the luxury brands. When they go greener what is that going to mean for their consumers? Who is going to be their customer? How will these people whose wages remain flat, now be able to afford to buy a basic sweater at $1,000.00 a pop?
That is not to suggest that fast fashion brands are not trying to be more eco-friendly already. Of course they are. Many fast fashion brands have also joined in and have even signed the “Fashion Pact” which is the ground-breaking agreement between the world’s biggest fashion conglomerates to operate in a more “ethical” and “sustainable” manner. And largely this is going to mean using recycled and up-cycled (whatever that means) materials, paying higher wages to factory workers and finding alternatives to replace resources like water. Going greener is obviously a good thing. It’s nice. It is good. It is noble. And it is probably right.
But hidden underneath of this goodness is the question of how are people going to pay for this stuff? How much is this stuff going to cost and when people can’t afford to buy clothes what is this going to mean?
Yes, sustainability is going to be expensive. The prices are going to mean only certain classes and demographics will be able to buy these clothes. Think about it. Who is going to be able to afford all these green clothes? Not the same people who shop at Zara and H&M now. These people do not have the same resources as the luxury goods consumers who can routinely buy a Chanel bag for upwards of 5,000 euros. The more “sustainable” fashion becomes, the more inaccessible it will also become for the vast majority of people, I think. And what ends up happening in this case, is that only the financially elite will be able to purchase even basic clothing. So in the end this movement towards greater sustainability will create a big social divide, increase snobbism which is already out of control, and lock out an enormous portion of the population from the privilege of looking fashionable.
People will literally have to choose between looking ignorant (for buying unethical clothing) or buying sustainable clothes and eschewing their rent payments.
The other thing about sustainability is that it is going to kill a lot of jobs. Right now, obviously there is the problem of labor inequities in the apparel industry especially true in developing countries in Asia where the lion’s share of these clothes are manufactured. However, when fashion houses are forced to pay higher wages and create slower fashion, obviously they are going to downsize their workforces – by necessity. So, whereas people were crying because they didn’t have a high enough wage, when you put them out of work completely because your brand is only dealing with “sustainable” production, then what the hell are they going to do then? And will we all be able to “sustain”the resulting casserole?
Just my two cents.board