Tamia Thompson // Columnist
Sustainability. You’ve probably seen or heard this term used somewhere recently before. It’s the buzzword that took every clothing label by storm the last couple years. It’s the suggested direction many Instagram influencers will emptily tell you we should be headed toward. And it’s probably the most convoluted topic in fashion at the moment as we struggle to make a foreseeable reality out of what really has yet to be achieved.
The realm that we see this phrase used most often is in our consumption, from our food intake to the clothing we choose to wear. I think it’s pretty commonplace to hold out hope that your favourite brands are responsible enough to have at least some transparency, but it’s 2020 and somehow that isn’t so simple. With mass-produced clothing companies opening up about their garment manufacturing practices and distancing themselves from labels like “fast fashion,” it can be hard to know who’s being genuinely upfront with the public.
I spent years digging through thrift stores and raiding consignment shops before becoming tempted once again to buy a fast fashion piece from Uniqlo two winters ago. I scoured the entire store for bargains, and afterwards, the issues with my own purchasing habits would not stop looming over my mind. It took one unshakable Google search for me to become re-enthralled by ideals of real sustainability. I learned that Uniqlo, everyone’s go-to for essential basics and designer collabs, has not paid their garment workers in over five years, owing them around $5.5 million in wages. Disturbingly enough, their website has a sustainability page where they talk about their commitments made to better the lives of their factory employees. I couldn’t stomach that after years of conscious dedication to buying secondhand, I had been hoodwinked by good marketing—and all it took was a $5 t-shirt.
The word ‘sustainable’ has been so widely commodified that it’s easy to forget it was never meant to be at all. Sustainability in fashion is so much more than a trend for brands to follow or an idea to ascribe to in your Depop bio; it stretches far past consumerism specifically to oust it. Ecological and socio-political change are at the root of this movement happening in real-time as climate change conversations dominate much of our daily news. Social media will not have you believe that though, as we continue to watch how green-consciousness is made synonymous with how we spend money, rather than how we conserve and give back.
The Hydro Flask, a water bottle that became a motif for the Gen-Z VSCO and TikTok environmentalist communities, is a prime example of how greenwashing occurs in waves on the apps we use daily. Through influencers, $30-65+ water bottles became just another successful example of a product being peddled to youth as desirable and important to those who publicly care about our planet. There are loads of companies that do this and they do it successfully. But what we fail to recognize by being consumers of eco-friendly trends is that centering buying and branding is the exact opposite of the point.
With the understanding that our material possessions do not make us environmentalists comes the knowledge that sustainability can only work in a radical sense. To create something that sustains is to create something that is self-sufficient and functional while causing no harm to the ecosystem, which includes people. Labels like “cruelty free” or “vegan” only go so far if there are human beings being exploited or deprived of wages. Creating campaigns about diversity and inclusion mean nothing without employee equity and affirmed workers’ rights.
One of the biggest issues in the sustainability movement is how both conservative capitalist and liberal ecological leaders alike commonly ignore all impacts of environmental racism under late capitalism. In fact, lots of the ones we know about are grand advocates for biofuel (gas made from broken-down plant matter and cut-down trees, which is then funneled through pipelines), which is another product being sold to us as the oil industry ‘doing good.’ Personally, finding this connection was alarming for me. People gas up Tesla and Elon Musk for being innovative, when in reality, the production of electric cars batteries might actually be worse for the environment, and especially at such a high price point, Tesla isn’t a progressive company ‘for the people’ the way it’s hyped up to be.
Fighting climate change feels so pessimistic, but these are capitalist inventions being fed to us so we can “save the world,” made by powerful billionaire conglomerates who are doing the most damage, yet ultimately won’t need saving. If we gave half as much attention to environmental activists (like Vandana Shiva, one of the world’s leading advocates for eco-feminism) as we do to certain venture capitalists’ tweets, we would come to collectively see that the only way to go from here is back to our roots.
The solution to our problems with consumption lies precisely in how we consume rather than what we consume. Being particular about the resources that we take from often has more of an impact than simply changing whatever it is that we’re taking. Just because you wear organic cotton, doesn’t mean it’s actually good for the Earth. Just because you burn Palo Santo and white sage instead of candles, doesn’t mean it’s actually a good idea at all. Home-grown herbs and vegetables taste infinitely better than store-bought organic produce. Just like learning how to make your own clothes and accessories feels cooler and more unique than any piece you could find at a mall or even a thrift store. If you can’t sew, see a local seamstress or tailor around you. Buy from or trade hand-me-downs with your friends. Investing in yourself and your community as parts of this planet we are all contributing to is ecologically forward-thinking. As we petition our governments to do more about climate change, our best bet for individual action in creating a sustainable future is to buy less and share more. Share knowledge, share goods, and share power.