Is Sustainable Fashion an Oxymoron?


Trends come and go but our resources are finite.

I was walking past a chain store on the weekend and saw they had a sign in the window saying ‘ask us about our conscious collection’. My heart did a little ‘hooray’ to celebrate the small sustainable fashion victory, while my head muttered ‘too little to late’. These conflicting sentiments are felt commonly across all areas of design and policy making when it comes to addressing environmental issues, social injustices and inequalities. However no area is more contentious and dualistic than the area of fashion when it comes to addressing long term environmental and social consciousness in operations and the global supply chain. In an industry built on a model of impermanence, continual change, and reinvention it’s hard to see how something that’s as long term as sustainability planning can fit into a system built on planned obselence. Over the past two decades the fashion industry has moved to a less sustainable model of operations. We once had four fashionably distinct collections that corresponded with the change of seasons, we now have 52 weeks of the year where any goes and trends come and go as quickly as the life cycle of an internet meme.


What does sustainable fashion really look like?

You might remember that I addressed some of the marketing terms that the fashion industry use to define conscious fashion choices the other day. Unfortunately sustainability is a very complex, multi faceted and (should be a) holistic issue. It’s near on impossible for labels to address all the environmental and ethical externalities of production in a system that operates in a fossil fuel and cheap labour dependant economy. When we look at the reality of creating a totally positive fashion industry with we must also look at changing the way that the global (or national if you want to operate locally) economic system works. When we trade globally it’s hard to control all aspects of the way that a product is produced, used, and disposed of and the cold hard truth is that many of the ‘positives’ that labels are fostering (like organic fibres, eco dyes, recycled plastics, solar power, etc.) are relatively small victories in a macro scale view of the industry.

Sustainability shouldn’t be a sticker in the window of a store telling us about organic content of some items. Ethics shouldn’t be one item made through a social enterprise scheme in a store full of fast fashion that results from below living wages. These are bandaids on gaping wounds. Holistic thinking should encompass the entire manufacturing process not isolate little bits of it. This all encompassing design concept (referred to a cradle to cradle or a circular economy) is a whole books worth of ideas but can be distilled down to:

‘making new stuff from old stuff’ and that designers are responsible for where products go when we are finished with them.

When we make unwanted items useful and financially appealing they are no longer useless junk. You don’t often find wads of cash lying around on the foot path, and cash (here in Australia anyways) is just a piece of plastic with value assigned to it. Nothing more and nothing less. When end of life fashion ‘junk’ can be seen as a usable item with value it’s no longer rubbish and it can be as financially desirable for designers to use as virgin resources are. MUD jeans have a great business model in that they lease items (meaning that it’s easier to track the end of life products), make new fabrics from old, and offer customers a financial incentive to recycle. However the whole cradle to cradle or circular economy model gets even more technical when you start to factor in things like energy used in production (renewable or not), freight (carbon intensive, neutral, or positive), ethical labour (at all stages of the supply chain) and the list goes on.



The problem is too big for me!

When we read things like this it can be easy to think ‘ah… screw it, I can’t fix the global economy what difference does my purchase make anyways!’ Then it’s also tempting to get a high on apathy and go on an apocalyptic dooms-day style shopping spree with reckless abandon to your values. When you do this you succumb to the ideal that sustainability can be unfashionable or useless and discard it along with last seasons heels, your personal values, and that burger you only ate half of. It’s important to remember that no matter how bleak the world can seem that you have the ability to make decisions. Being thoughtful about your consumption is the classy and stylish way to take action, even if at time when your media is telling you that you are doomed, it might seem little trivial.

Collective decisions can do both good and bad for the environment and people.

The results of which are completely determined by your personal values. When we look at Trump and Hanson (a renowned Australian xenophobic politician)  in power some of us might be proud while others are appalled. Whatever your position in this is, it’s important to realise that they are only in power because there have been people supportive of their values and missions. Their triumphs in achieving a platform for their message should be taken as a sign that no matter how ‘out there’ your ideals are there is a chance that one person with something passionate to talk about can influence others. While you might not make it to the White House on the back of a passion for organic cotton knickers, there isn’t anything to say you can’t!  To briefly bastardise the messages presented in the well through out book on Fostering Sustainable Behaviour by Doug Mckenzie-Mohr and William Smith let’s look at some dot points on how your personal mission to be more sustainably minded and stylishly influential can be implemented:

  • Foster your love for sustainability: This is the first step on a road to sustainable action. You need to know what you are passionate about and why you are passionate about it. Sustainability and sustainable systems thinking isn’t something that comes naturally to all of us, so learning about the hows and whys is important. However education alone doesn’t necessarily result in action (which is something we look into further in the following dot points).
  • Identifying barriers and benefits: As we mentioned above, most things are only useful if they have value to us in some way, shape or form. Mostly the World works in dollar values. Which is why our environmental and ethical purchases or missions need to be finically viable. Unless they are there is little chance of them being an ongoing thing. However, sometimes the benefits of an action (say to support your friends eco-friendly fashion label even if it’s our of your budget) can outweigh the financial issues or barriers. Knowing what it is that you are getting from a purchase (be it a monetary benefit or otherwise) and weighing it up against the cons or the barriers to the decision making is key to making this an ongoing and sustainable action.
  • Good intentions aren’t always actions: Remember your New Years resolutions? How many have you kept? It’s easy to set good intentions but not always easy to follow through on them. Setting yourself an actionable plan of how you will fit your stylish fashion intentions into your current closet and shopping patterns is key to ongoing conscious shopping commitments. You can do this through understanding your own habits. For which I recommend the book Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin.
  • Find yourself some support: Many of us can stick to our plans for a short while on our own but over the long term support from others is required to help keep the momentum. The good thing about social media and our global connections is that we can reach likeminded people without having to leave our sofa. While this type of friendship will never directly replace our face-to-face friends it can really help provide support for people who are passionate about a cause but don’t have anyone nearby to share their passion with. I know I would personally struggle with my own eco-fashion mission if it wasn’t for a wonderful supportive online community (you guys!!!!).
  • Giving yourself incentives to act on your sustainable style values: Rewards are an important part of feeling like you have accomplished something, working an incentive system into your own sustainable style mission can help keep you on track and feeling good about your style commitments. Depending on the way you like to feel appreciated your incentives could be tangible (like a fashion purchase that fits your values) or intangible, like a day out to a place in nature that you enjoy. It could even be something as personal as achieving an inner ‘mission’ to inspire at least one other person to change the way they think about their clothes and the impact it has on the environment/people or animals.

How do you feel about this topic? Do you think that sustainability can be fashionable? Should it be fashionable? Do you have your own tips for fostering sustainable action plans? Share with us so we all know!



Author: Katie

Katie Roberts is a self confessed 'write-a-holic' Environmental Scientist with a passion for Sustainable Fashion.

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  1. Really good food for thought!

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    • Glad you got something from this post Diana!

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  2. It is very overwhelming to think that the whole system is broken so what do my actions change; I feel this as well. When I go shopping, it makes me sad to see all the choices and our society’s obsession with consumption. How do we encourage businesses to care about environmental issues when capitalism encourages choices and fast trends?

    I feel that sustainability can be fashionable and should be. Our generation is more concerned about environmental issues and I hope that will translate into our businesses and practices. I know of a few clothing companies that use recycled fabric such as Christy Dawn and Reformation. I also have seen that Athleta is working on using less water in their dye process. These initiatives are great starts, but the bigger picture is changing people’s shopping behaviors and business practices.

    We as a society need to adopt a minimalist approach to clothing, and start to find ways to make biodegradable fabric more mainstream and improve the process behind clothing. The first step is to educate people. Many people in this generation care about environment but maybe do not know the issues with the clothing industry. Hopefully this will drive people to change their consumption habits and that in turn will influence companies. I applaud your initiative with this blog to help educate so keep it up!

    (sorry that was so long!!)

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    • Such great and thoughtful insights Anna.

      I’m sorry it’s taken a while to respond. I actually wrote a great big long reply yesterday only to have it disappear after posting it. Technology had the full-moon spooks on. It’s true that we need to foster a trend for sustainable futures thinking. It’s especially important given all the fear, negativity, and climate change denial that is feeding through our media at the moment.

      I hadn’t actually heard of Christy Dawn until now. Thank you so much for sharing. I’ve been loving seeing the small changes that bigger business is making. One of my long-term faves Mimco decided to take on a EFI certified collection and they have been stocking it for a few seasons now. It’s important that we make sustainable and ethical initiatives BUSINESS not charity. While charity is lovely, it sort of fosters the idea that doing good isn’t business. Business should be able doing good. We should ‘other’ the businesses that do bad, rather than putting charity out on it’s own as a ‘something’ but a ‘nothing’.

      What really pains me to see is the small businesses that focus on sustainable and ethical production closing down due to lack of funding. Often they see lots of positives and support, but only dollars pay bills. Unfortunately good vibes, kindness and kudos aren’t accepted as currency (yet).

      Have you watched the Minimalists doco on Netflix? You will likely love it if you haven’t seen it already.

      Yes, there is a stigma associated with fashion. I cop it often. People assume that fashion is ‘silly’, ‘frivolous’ or for ‘airheads’. It’s like there is an elitism in considering ones self above fashion or trends. The truth is that every day every one of us wears clothing or accessories of some kind (naturalists excluded). Believing that you aren’t a part of the industry is a little air headed. Even if you don’t buy fashion items often they are still a part of the global supply chain and an opportunity to choose well.

      Thank you so much for dropping by with such wonderful insights. It’s so kind of you to say supportive things here. The blog really has been a labour of love and it’s so rewarding to hear that you have been enjoying it.

      Much love.


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