Unless you’ve lived under a rock for the past few years, I’m sure that the term “sustainability” pops up here and there, especially if talking about the (unfortunately, detrimental) fashion industry. Recently in class, we discussed what sustainability means in fast fashion. To start, what exactly defines sustainability? I see that as problem one – we lack universal regulations to monitor both how we produce and consume, consume, and consume clothing. Different models exist for guiding us in exercising ethical practices, whether from the business or user side; regardless, most of us agree that the umbrella term “sustainability” should encompass the protection of labor rights and reduction of our irreversible carbon footprint.
From a historical perspective, sustainability issues in today’s global fashion supply chain commenced with the First Industrial Revolution that fostered unhealthy working conditions in sweatshops. Starting in the mid-1700s in Europe, underpaid women and children operated basic machinery and were exposed to hot environments. Though social sustainability was not on our raider until the 21st-century, we became aware of dangerous working conditions when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burned in 1911. On top of rapid industrialization, the need for RTW during and after World War I sped up production practices following Victorian and Edwardian fashion trends. Though fashion became more popular amongst the lower-middle class, the birth of contemporary casual wear heightened competition, in which retailers started to prioritize the economy over ethical practices. Thus, animal advocates and labor unions emerged to counteract production practices, and we pushed to sustain manufacturing on American soil rather than overseas. At the start of the 21st-century, efforts to exercise sustainability declined with the rise of cheap and fast fashion brands like Forever 21 and H&M. A traumatic event that made us revisit the fashion industry was the 2013 collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh.
As we push for ceasing fast fashion production, the question remains how we feel about brands monetizing off of these cultural shifts – shifts that may perpetuate brands jeopardizing one’s credibility to conceal unethical practices.
Retailers understand that sustainability resonates with Gen Z and millennial consumers and, therefore, tailor marketing and product lines to reflect this cultural shift in the modern fashion industry. Underneath the advertisements and new policies, we question if there is a capitalist incentive for “greenwashing” to maximize profit instead of slow production processes, preserving finite resources, and honoring labor rights. However, I see the motivation for “greenwashing” as inconsequential to the end goal of exercising ethical practices in the fashion industry. Monetization or not, consumers will invest in sustainable products and practices according to the Theory of Reasoned Action (TRA) (Ajzen & Fishbein, 1980). Through any endeavors, closing the gap between sustainability and businesses through “greenwashing” decreases the fashion industry’s carbon footprint. However, retailers may fail to follow-through with their promises and claims. Thus, we have the responsibility to challenge gray areas. Moreover, it should not take a thousand plus deaths in, for instance, the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, for us to start opening our eyes to unethical practices in fashion. “Greenwashers” or not, the problem lies within the brands who toy with transparency to conceal themselves.