Sustainable Fashion: Perceptions and Realities

Editor’s Note: This post is part of the on-going collaboration between S&S and GreenBuzz to promote increased dialogue between sustainability practitioners, academic experts, and the general public. GreenBuzz chapters in different cities coordinate on-the-ground events for a word-of-mouth driven community of professionals engaged in sustainability, bringing sustainability leaders together to connect with each other and to discuss specific sustainability topics. S&S will publish excerpts, summaries, and discussions generated by these events in order to facilitate on-going debate and make the information presented at these events available to a world-wide audience.


In recent years sustainable fashion has been gaining momentum. More and more companies are choosing to modify their practices to comply with specific sustainable guidelines. Bodies such as the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) & Fair Wear give businesses the opportunity to attain certain environmental and social standards. Various organisations such as Fashion Revolution and Greenpeace continue to put pressure on the industry by advocating for additional widespread changes in the fashion industry.

In response to the devastating collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh 2013,  Fashion Revolution was formed in hopes of educating the public about their individual clothing consumption. The organization’s aim is to encourage consumers to be curious and develop a better understanding of who actually makes the clothes on our backs.

Organisations like Greenpeace focus on the environmental and health implications of the fashion industry, running simultaneous campaigns targeting companies that engage in environmentally unsafe practices. They aim to eliminate the use of hazardous chemicals through the production process and ultimately make the clothing safer to wear. Designers are also taking a stand, forming local communities of designers and sustainable fashion enthusiasts who meet regularly to discuss how they can contribute at the local level.

Since 2011 the Berlin fashion label Aluc, has hosted the very successful Upcycling Fashion Store monthly ‘stammtisch’ where they bring together the sustainable fashion community of Berlin. Trade events like the Green Fashion showroom and Ethical Fashion showroom, which take part in association with Berlin Fashion Week, highlight that, to some extent, sustainable fashion is being recognised.

So attitudes towards sustainable fashion must be changing, right? Or is this all for show?

Since 2011, the Greenpeace detox campaign has encouraged brands such as H&M, Zara, Puma, and Nike to commit to eliminating the discharge of hazardous chemicals throughout the entire supply chain by 2020. However, in the 2014 ‘Rank a Brand’ report they found that there is a discrepancy between companies’ formal agreements and their sustainable actions. It was reported that “a large number of the fashion brands researched create the impression that they are doing the right thing for sustainability, but then fail to produce relevant and tangible information about the action they are taking.” With only 10% of the brands investigated complying with agreements to a high level, why are brands not choosing to follow through with their commitments?

Does this non-compliance from brands indicate that a significant proportion of the population care very little about the ecological and social issues surrounding the fashion industry?

McNeill and Moore address the topic of sustainable consumption at the consumer level by investigating attitudes around sustainable fashion. After conducting a number of interviews with various consumers, they thematically identified three major categories of shoppers; Self Consumers; Social Consumers; Sacrifice Consumers.

‘Self Consumers’ are active within the fast fashion world with a focus on keeping up with trends and regularly purchase new items. This group typically gives little consideration or thought to any ethical or environmental problems involved in the fashion industry. Inadvertently, these consumers’ nonchalant attitude toward the ethics in fashion could reinforce the big brands behaviour and lack of action.

Social Consumers’ claim to have a level of awareness regarding the environmental and social implications of their clothing choices, and thus could be deemed as ‘emergent’ sustainable fashion consumers. Yet this group also believes that there are many barriers in fully accessing sustainable fashion, which could explain why their attitudes sometimes did not align with their purchasing choices. This group seemed to be concerned with how they were perceived by their peers and may be the most prone to being influenced by social media.

The last identified group are ‘Sacrifice Consumers’. This group is aware of sustainable fashion practices and makes informed decisions dependent upon this information. McNeill and Moore suggest that businesses would find this group the least appealing in terms of profits as they are the least likely to buy garments regularly. The Sacrifice consumers feel that brands need to be more transparent and offer more information to their customers.

These three identified categories reinforce that consumers understanding and attitudes towards sustainable fashion differs greatly. Even though some consumers can see the worth in moving away from current fast fashion practices, the perceived barriers towards a more sustainable wardrobe tend to dictate the lack of action by many consumers.

There are many ways to interpret what this means for sustainable fashion. For one, big and small businesses alike might read into these findings and begin by enhancing transparency via social media and other avenues. In the Rank a Brand report, they found that 63% of the researched brands had included information about sustainability on their websites, however according to the report it seems that only a small percentage of these companies are acting on their commitments. Leading consumers to feel like they are doing the right thing, when in actual fact very little has changed.

So how can consumers hold brands more accountable and create change? Here are a few best practices based on advice from Fashion Revolution:

  • Be Curious. Before buying new items, find out whether the brands are forthcoming with information about their clothing production.
  • Make decisions based on your findings.
  • Be realistic about taking the leap towards a more sustainable wardrobe: take one small step at a time.
  • Buy less. Choose quality over quantity
  • Purchase garments with a transparent supply chain
  • Choose items which comply with certain certifications (e.g., fairtrade, organic or upcycled).

As with any industry, there are businesses that are working towards a more sustainable model and those that unfortunately prioritise profits. With the fashion industry being one of the biggest polluters in the world, our behaviour needs to change. This change can happen and with the help of organisations such as Fashion Revolution and Greenpeace, we can continue to challenge the fast fashion model to move towards a more sustainable future.


Image courtesy of Wikimedia. Originally published by S&S on March 25, 2016.


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