Looking Good and Being Green: It’s Complicated

By: Elly Helgen

If you’re like me, you’d like to think you’re not materialistic enough to care about what’s trendy and “who” so-and-so is wearing. But if The Devil Wears Prada taught me anything, it’s that we’re all a part of the fashion industry, whether we like it or not. Unless you don’t wear clothes (no judgment!), we are all members of the clothing universe. This doesn’t mean that everyone is up on the latest trends, and only wears haute couture – in fact, those individuals are in the minority – but the fashion industry is something we all make investments in. Unfortunately, when it comes to being environmentally and socially conscious, fashion isn’t a subject we generally consider. But, as it turns out, questions of sustainability are certainly worth asking when considering your next clothing purchase.

 

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What does being sustainable even mean?

The problem with “sustainability” is that everyone has a different definition for it. I think the most important thing to remember, though, is that it has three generally accepted pillars (the 3 Es), and those are environment, equity, and economy. So, to put it simply, sustainability means providing for today without compromising tomorrow. And that means not compromising the well-being of the earth, people, and your wallet. I wish I could say that it’s easy to be green and ethical with your clothing choices, but it’s actually surprisingly difficult.

What are the issues?

Environment: Issue number one is that even those who do think about being earth friendly when buying a new skirt don’t want to deck themselves out in flax and burlap. They want to be a hippie without looking like one. Believe me, I totally get it. Trying to be fashionable and green at the same time is nearly impossible. Like most industries, fashion involves a lot of transportation and production, both of which impact the environment negatively. Then there’s the question of materials. Most are synthetic, or are grown conventionally with the use of chemicals – also bad for the environment. Let’s not even mention the numerous other resources used to grow crops like cotton.

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Equity: Everyone has heard of sweatshops. Those of us in the developed world tend to have a lot of demands. Thus, the problem of “fast fashion” has emerged. Basically, this means that factories in the developing world are asked to produce clothing faster, but for less money. This means that fair working conditions go right out the window. Some factory workers lose their lives because of the poor conditions. It hardly seems worth it for a cheap t-shirt. You would think that you could just solve this problem by buying only American made clothes, but that tends to be more expensive. The choice is yours.

Economy: I think the issue of money is the most relatable one. When we think of most things that have been deemed “green,” they cost an-arm-and-a-leg! That’s why most people don’t eat organic – they just don’t see how it can be worth the extra cost. I’m certainly not here to suggest that you should splurge on artisanal cheese, and while I recognize that money is a big factor for most consumers (I get it – I’m a grad student!), I would suggest that it is not the only one.

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So, what do I wear now?

I guess I should have told you upfront that I don’t have an answer for you…

The real problem is that there doesn’t appear to be anything to wear that meets the standards of all 3 Es of sustainability. If something is organic or ethical, it probably costs way too much (or isn’t trendy). But if it’s cheap, someone may have risked their life to make it. The struggle is real. So, while I may not be able to offer you a tangible solution, I do hope that you’ll at least be more mindful of your fashion choices in the future. The good news is, though, that the fashion industry is virtually 100% consumer driven. That means you have a say. Vote with your dollar, and start demanding better clothing options. Fashion forward hippies of the world, unite!

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