Can Sustainable Fashion Ever Be Fashionable?

Why hasn’t it happened already?


Why is it so hard to find sustainable clothes that genuinely excite us? Yes, there are designers creating beautiful clothes that don’t compromise on ethics, but the list is small. Beyond that, we’re left wanting more. So much of what makes fashion great is that inspirational, aspirational, have-to-have-it feeling, yet somehow, sustainable fashion has developed a patina of sluggishness in the style department. Surely the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive?

And what will it take to get to a place where sustainable fashion is just fashion?

Let’s start with the why. First, and perhaps most obviously, sustainable fashion is about taking a slower and more measured approach to clothing production. Eschewing trendier designs in favor of clothes with longer lasting wearability makes sense in this context, but there goes a lot of the !!!!! factor. Trends excite us because of their novelty and because of how they speak to how we want to feel at a particular moment in time. It’s a tall order to expect sustainable fashion to satisfy our desire to consume of-the-moment items and simultaneously taper our consumption by encouraging us choose more timeless pieces.

Second, to produce clothing in an environmentally and socially sustainable manner is challenging given the complexity of the apparel supply chain and the speed of the fashion cycle. Production-wise, the supply of sustainable materials and components is still relatively limited. Designers who prioritize sustainability inevitably face tradeoffs, sometimes requiring compromises on design, cut, and material in order to uphold sustainable standards.

Remember that for the majority of its history, sustainable fashion has been a niche industry catering to a niche clientele. As the industry moves closer to the mainstream, designs will start to better reflect the needs and desires of a broader fashion market. This shift is already underway, thanks to newer brands and designers entering the sustainable space with a fresh perspective. Change will also come from within the fashion industry, as established labels begin to gradually adopt more sustainable practices. Brands like Stella McCartney and holding companies like Kering are demonstrating that sustainability and fashion can stylishly (and profitably) coexist.

We can discuss and debate the whys at length (and I hope we do in the comments below), but to me, the really interesting question is: how can we encourage the shift so that sustainable fashion is exciting? So that feel-good sustainable fashion is just good-old fashion? For this, I think it’s useful to refer to the often-used parallel drawn between fashion and food.

We’ve undergone a dramatic change in our eating patterns over the last decade in America. Whether we read the label, pass on sugar, buy organic or skip fast food, we are more aware than ever of the impact that our dietary decisions have on our health. Through this increased attention to food, we are reestablishing our relationship with what we put in our bodies (and with our bodies themselves). The real power of sustainable fashion is to do the same—to reconnect us to our clothing and in so doing, to invite us to approach choosing what we wear from a deeper place. And ultimately, isn’t a deeper connection with what we wear and why we wear it the essence of really good fashion and the foundation of authentic personal style? If so, sustainability, rather than a sacrifice of style, might be just the opposite: it’s a mindset we can use to hone our style. I think that alone makes sustainability one of the most exciting things to happen in fashion in some time.

So how do we put this into practice? Of course, it’s great to buy sustainable clothing when and if we can. Yet, in the same way that we don’t have to buy organic food to be healthier eaters, we don’t have to buy sustainable clothing to have a healthier relationship with fashion. This might sound crazy but if that sustainable thing doesn’t excite you, I say buy only the clothes that do. We’ll only get closer to cultivating a more sustainable relationship with fashion if we genuinely love (and therefore respect) what we’re wearing.

Nadine Farag is an ex-PhD student living in New York City where she is working to fuse her love for fashion with her interest in sustainability. Nadine researched and authored Zady’s New Standard, which examines the social and environmental issues associated with apparel manufacturing.

Collages by Ana Tellez and Lily Ross.


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  • Caitlyn Spanner

    Well said! A quality over quantity approach is a great starting point for anyone wanting to make a more conscious choice.
    KitX is an Australian label doing sustainable fashion very well.

    • Nadine Farag

      Thank you! Happy to learn of KitX.

    • Hannah Cole

      agreed agreed agreed on KitX <3

  • Meghan Kase

    There are brands out there that are creating fun, fashion-forward, sustainable clothing!
    My good friend is the creative director of Ohlin/d, which ethically sources their materials from Peru:

    • Nadine Farag

      This is great!!

  • Ramses Martinez

    I’m a fan of the comparison between fashion and food. A deeper connection with what we put on our bodies and why we do it is a great point and I think that education plays a big part in being sustainability conscious. One of the main reasons I became vegan was because of an appeal to my morals and my education on the path that our food takes from its origin to our plates. Could a similar approach be taken in regards to our clothing?

    • Nadine Farag

      This is a really thoughtful question. Thanks for weighing in.

    • streats

      I’m the same. I have started making small changes to the food I buy/eat, for sustainability and environmental reasons. I consider everything from packaging to where it’s come from to the water footprint of the crops. So I avoid almonds and soy (very water intensive) and have reduced my meat and dairy consumption also. I take the same approach to clothing and also beauty and household products too. I scrutinise the care labels of clothes before I even try them on – sales assistants generally think I’m looking for the price but I am actually looking for the fabric composition and care instructions, which is not something people generally think about until after they buy it. I try to avoid synthetic fibers, and dry clean only items.

      With both fashion and food I don’t think for one second I am “saving the world” but I like to feel good about the choices I make and the impact I have even on just my immediate environment.

  • I’m not sure about this one… the !!!!!/trend factor is sort of contradictory to the ethos of sustainable fashion – trends, by their definition, are not sustainable, especially not at the current rate of fashion industry turnover.

    That’s not to say that there aren’t WOW pieces that happen to be sustainable, though! It’s just that maybe they’re in prints, cuts or colour ways that are a little more timeless.

    • Nadine Farag

      Thanks for this comment. You’ve really touched on the tension here when it comes to trends. Yes, they pose a sustainability challenge but they are an undeniable factor in shaping how we get dressed at a macro level. I appreciate your last point- maybe what’s required is a reframing of what we consider to have the !!! factor.

    • streats

      I think there are ways to engage with trends that are sustainable. If you think about it, most trends cycle back every few years. Buying from consignment stores or thrifting, you can compose your own interpretation of trends. It might not be the exact Marc Jacobs dress that everyone is talking about, but if you think about what excites you about that piece – it might be the color, a detail like fringing or embellishment, the shape of it – going on a quest to find that element in a unique piece can be so satisfying. Customising clothing is another way. It’s getting the essence of the !!! and understanding how and why it touches us.

  • dk

    You’re right, that the !!! factor may not always be present with an ethical brand, but there are a lot of brands that do the wow and don’t compromise with their moral. It seems to me that’s easier to find them in Europe. I have worked hard to make myself a list with new-comers and established brands, that are european-based, that do the big clothes.
    The hurdle is that I have to search really hard for those brand. They are also very little big name brands that come to mind – Stella, Acne, Filippa K, Calvin Klein..To be honest, I have yet to hear whether Chanel, Dior, D&G produce under fair conditions. And it’s a pitty that it’s so hard to find this information.
    I think that it’s really important topic, and the more we talk about it, the bigger the chance to see some change in the fashion industry. In the meantime, I can only suggest that we check out Emma Watson’s Instagramm account (or even better – her stylist Sarah Slutsky) for ethically responsible brands.

    • Anni

      One of the things that kills me about many of these high end brands (looking at you Chanel!), is that they refuse to discount merch at the end of the season that hasn’t sold because they don’t want to lower their prices (and reputation) and instead BURN IT ALL. I was horrified when I first learnt about this and to this day I won’t buy non-second hand Chanel, because the idea of wasting all that high quality merchandise is fucking appalling.

  • BK

    I’m not sure I follow here. If I only buy what I love, and I love mass-produced, poor quality clothing produced without any environmental consciousness in sweatshop conditions, will that move us closer to sustainability? I think that’s the key problem with current way we consume fashion. Not enough people are aware of the conditions under which a lot of the “trendier” clothes are made and don’t even consider labour standards or ecological impact when they’re shopping. There needs to be a genuine desire from within the industry (that or a legislated mandate) to inform customers of these production standards and it needs to be done comprehensively and concisely. Labels are one thing that needs to change; if food labels denote down to a fraction of a percentage the amount of nutrients in a certain food item, so shouldn’t we seek more transparency in our clothes? Putting the amount a worker was paid to make the item on the label, a la Everlane, or how much water or carbon dioxide was used to produce it, like Reformation does, are practices that should be encouraged. It’s unsuitable to ask shoppers to somehow vote with their feet when they aren’t given enough information to do so properly.

    Also another thought that came apparent to me when I was reading the food analogy and I thought I should add to the conversation – being in a position to actually choose what food you buy and consume is one of privilege, just as being able to choose what clothes you buy is a privilege. There are whole swathes of the human population who just don’t have enough money to make choices in certain areas of their lifestyle, despite whatever messaging or information is out there – eg if you need new shoes for work the next day and only have $30 to spend on them, it’ll be the cheap $30 pair you buy, not the better-standard, better-produced $100 pair, regardless of your intentions, because they’re out of your reach. I’m not saying this negates the conversation or anything, but it’s an economic factor is an important point to include.

    • Nadine Farag

      I really appreciate your comment. I think buying what we love or what excites us is a helpful and accessible starting point because it invites us to consider our relationship with consuming something. I agree that won’t solve the problem 100% but I believe it’s a very good start. Absolutely re: the privilege associated with consumption choices, whether clothing or food. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.

    • Anni

      I think buy what you love – even if it is mass produced, poor quality can improve the way you think about consuming. Even if someone’s favorite store in the world is forever 21, buying what you love means purchasing maybe two pieces that really fit you, that you really treasure and that you will take care of so it will last you 4 years instead of 3 months. Sure, you’re still contributing to the growth of mass production but if everyone started only buying a few pieces, potentially even just one or two pieces a month that would force the insane pace that fast fashion churns out to slow down, because they would be left with products they couldn’t sell which in the long run would make a business revaluate how much product they need to have on the floor and how often they need to revamp “newness”.

      • BK

        But, considering that these clothes are deliberately made poorly = deteriorating faster = being replaced more frequently, wouldn’t it be more effective to concentrate on *avoiding* the sort of retailers who produce in such a manner in favour of a more sustainable, slow fashion brand? The most effective and long-lasting way for any sort of sustainability to be achieved in the fashion industry is for major companies to adjust their means of production and if you’re still buying things from them once or twice a month, any sustainable intentions on the behalf of the consumer are not going to be apparent when they review their quarterly figures (let’s be realistic, financial stats are probably the most influential data for major companies like Forever 21, H&M, Zara etc). They’ll still think people are happy to buy from them in their current situation with their current production methods. Whereas a drop in otherwise positive product sales usually means somebody in an office somewhere is thinking “shit the bed, what went wrong here?” – it’s more likely that they’ll consider possible alternatives to try and get those sales back. On the flipside, if you spend your money at one of the admittedly few sustainable companies, it 1) Supports their efforts and communicates to them that they have a willing market out there and 2) Sets an example for other companies, proposed, fledgling or existing, that sustainable production can be successful and economically viable. That’s my reasoning for why I avoid fast fashion if I can (I’m Everlane’s personal stalker and definitely spend too much time scouting for stuff on TheRealReal/Vestiaire)

        • Anni

          It would be best if everyone avoided them – but given the high rates for ethically produced items that a majority of people cannot afford and also the lack of trend driven ethical brands, it’s not a change that is going to happen overnight. Sure it’s more effective for someone like me, who is a young person with savings and gets paid $55k a year and is qualifiedly “middle-class”, but it’s clearly not the most effective for the majority of Americans who make far less than that, and it’s not as effective for younger teenage consumers who are completely uncatered for in ethical fashion that make up a huge portion of fashion related sales.

          I agree with you that supporting ethical brands is the best way to go and does communicate to them that it has a audience out there, but I disagree that purchasing less doesn’t send a message to mass market retailers. I don’t work in fashion anymore, but I work in a multi-billion, international big name product design company catering to children and because of cultural influences / changing technology, our margins are down by A LOT. What did that mean for us? Well, yes, we went “OH SHIT” and tried new things and we cut some jobs but we also started producing less – we didn’t make as many new items each year, we tried to re-use molding and casting parts more effectively and in the end, despite being more creatively restricted we overall saved way more money and were much more environmentally friendly.

          If you look at the fast fashion model, the big name players like H&M, Forever 21 & Zara are the ones with the quickest turnover rate in terms of product. Second-tier stores (in terms of traffic and sales, not quality) like Mango, or Charlotte Russe for a younger girl don’t have nearly as many drops in a season BECAUSE they can’t afford it – and they don’t have the foot traffic that demands that much change and while that is not on the same level as having all the items produced ethically or locally, producing less, and at a slower rate is a still a small step towards progress.

          • BK

            I know that not everyone can afford to buy sustainable and ethical fashion – that was one of the key points of my first comment / but I think that if people like you and I can afford to buy it, continuing to shop at stores which are the problem and not at the sustainable places isn’t the best we can do. It sounds like your current employer have the right idea, but are companies like Zara etc likely to want to take on a similar approach, given they are constructed specifically to deliver very fast fashion on a regular basis? Look at Zara’s behaviour on other ethical standpoints like copying the artwork of Tuesday Bassen, their bottom line is making as much money through whatever means possible. Are a few leftover lines on the floor at the end of their season going to want to make them slow down or simply change their stock to more popular items which they can get out the door?

          • Anni

            I’m not disagreeing that for people with higher income, they could do their better by not buying at all, but not everyone will, and just being a more conscious consumer is still a worthwhile effort none the less.

            I’m saying there are still more battles that can be won by those leftover lines. I can tell you that 80% of the decisions made my company are not necessarily about environmental factors and mostly about money. In fact, I actively hate how creatively stifled I can be at times because I have to so cost conscious right now because it often feels like I’m recycling ideas and substantially giving my customers a subpar product because of the high reuse rate (and incidentally, more environmentally friendly by reusing more existing resources), and quite honestly I’m sure my design equivalent at Zara would equally hate it. But even so, if there are lots of leftover stock at Zara, design/accounts/whoever will most likely hand down the mandate that they need to focus on key best sellers, therefore producing less variety. Yes, you may say – isn’t that still the same quantity of product but shifted into different ratios? Yes it is, but it is not the same environmental impact. Cutting down on the number of colors of a SKU means that’s less machinery needed for dying, cutting down on vastly different silhouettes means that a company may not be producing as many new patterns (and automation needed for it).

            Look, I’m not saying that buying less from Zara is better than buying nothing from Zara, but I think, if there is a big enough cultural shift towards buying less (forcing big companies like Zara to focusing on key trend pieces “must haves” rather than offering everything under the sun), there is a still a positive environmental impact that will happen incidentally through the cost-cutting procedures of working for a giant corporation.

  • Luxe Lis

    I prefer quality (chic & sustainable) over quantity(poor quality and boring). Style, quality and treasure hunting ( Vintage or bespoke) for me. My conscious is ethically sound, this way. Everyone and the environment wins! I love happy endings….

  • Carolina

    Totally agree that the deeper connection to our clothes is something that can help solve the problems that arise out of the “fast fashion” machine, but I think one of the largest issues that needs to be addressed (even in your own story) is the fact that trends are not personal style. Trends, even that “have to have it feeling”, are a reflection of a wider context of economic and cultural forces. I think the point of man repeller is that we wear whatever the hell we want and not be beholden to trends/the allure of fast fashion. Sure, even Leandra will be inspired by and incorporate certain “trend pieces” into her repertoire, but those are then filtered through the lens of her personal style. The larger issue is our desire for novelty to be exterior to ourselves..but when we have been thoughtful about the pieces we have bought (or MADE?! I picked up knitting and it is the best thing I’ve done for my closet…not because I’m making all my clothes, but because I realized what a well-made item looks like and the amount of labor that goes into it) and we invest in our OWN style I think we will be much more fulfilled…
    I think Leandra wrapped everything up it pretty damn well: “We can invest in quality that will last beyond next season. It’s like passing on the salad in order to be really, really hungry for the thing you’ve actually been craving. You’ll be so much more satisfied, and when you look back on it one, two, five years from now, chances are you’ll think: yeah. I still want to wear this.”

    whew…lots of thoughts :/

    • Nadine Farag

      This is a great comment, Carolina. I totally agree that trends reflect a broader set of forces acting upon us and are not personal style…and that in fact a large part of their appeal might even be that we can somehow shortcut the journey towards personal style by wearing something that we’re told is fashionable. And what your comment makes me think is that we actually need to invest in personal style en route to a more sustainable approach to fashion…which I couldn’t agree with more. Thanks for weighing in.

    • Lilly Bozzone

      YAS to your entire comment! YES. Personal style cannot be composed of trends. Functioning on a trend-to-trend basis is a sure way to destroy any unique personal style.

  • Lindsey

    I recently refreshed my work ensembles, and made a serious effort to only buy “sustainable” clothing. Despite the fact that my work outfits are basic (re: a black/navy/grey dress + sweater), the whole process was surprisingly difficult.

    I purchased a piece from Elizabeth Suzann that I adore, but I can’t spend a buck-fifty and wait 4 weeks every time I need a new top. A trendier and more accessible alternative I found was Reformation – but regrettably, I have boobs. Eileen Fisher is notably sustainable but the parallels to Chico’s (and my 3rd grade music teacher) made me question the whole process. In the end I purchased a few pieces from Everlane and Patagonia, and just went with “Made in USA” as my qualifier for everything else. I found American made pieces from Three Dots, Anthropologie, UO, and Splendid; pieces that are probably not wholly”sustainable”, but hopefully “responsible”?

    • Nadine Farag

      Thanks for this great (and entertaining) comment. I really admire your approach of doing the best you can do with your time/budget/style requirements.

    • Morgane L

      Elizabeth Suzann is a no brainer for me!! I feel so good buying her pieces, and they are truly timeless. The wait is a bit of a challenge, and so is the cost, but by the time I actually receive the item I’ve had a few weeks to make up the cost in my budget, so it kind of works out.

  • Sarah

    I’m so happy places like Man Repeller are discussing sustainable fashion! As someone mentioned below, I think price has a huge impact. As a college student on a tight budget but who loves clothes way too much, I can only afford clothing from cheap places, whether that be a thrift store or a fast fashion place. I also find that many sustainable, ethical clothing companies, if they aren’t too expensive, only sell very basic clothing, like plain colored t-shirts, etc. that I’m not super interested in. I believe the only way to change this is through education. If more people actually knew where their clothes came from, and the conditions their clothes are made in, they would be more likely to buy from sustainable brands. I highly recommend the documentary The True Cost to learn about the environmental impact and human impact clothing production has.

    • I feel as if this is many people’s dilemma. It’s the question/concern I always come across and it always makes me critically analyze sustainable fashion. I LOVE to shop but also am firmly against the fast fashion industry. Being in college, seeing trends, and just generally not being interested in clothing for long periods of time makes fast fashion sooo desirable for me. But as another commenter pointed out, the real solution is to change our way of thinking. As much as you love to shop and non-sustainable fast fashion prices, they come at a huge cost — one that we’re not paying. In order to overcome the problematic fast fashion industry we have to change the way we think about clothing and trends. We need to learn to buy less and appreciate more. Consumerism fuels the dangers of the fashion industry. We’re also incredibly privileged to be able to decide that sustainable fashion “isn’t worth it” because we would rather spend $40 on five t-shirts, a pair of leggings, and some cool earrings at H&M than spend that same $40 on one item at a sustainable brand. It’s hard to transition one’s way of thinking, I know. But as a society, continuing to choose fast fashion over sustainability for whatever reason is synonymous with choosing your ultimate desire to buy more and more things over someone else’s safety and the living conditions of his/her community.

  • Liz

    While I understand a few of the points made and love that Man Repeller is discussing sustainability in the fashion industry, I think the discussion regarding buying “only the clothes” that truly excite you (even if they’re extremely unsustainable) continues to perpetuates environmental toxicity from the fashion industry. By buying that amazing-had-to-have jumpsuit from unsustainablestore1, you cycle your money directly back into companies who use it to make their profit margins larger while ignoring the women touching and sewing our clothes — women who are polluting their own water stream, showers, etc., so we can have that jumpsuit (which yes, I’m sure is truly beautiful!). I just feel like we can do better!

    If we can think creatively enough to repel men with our clothing style, we can vintage/flea/secondhand/used clothing store shop well enough (and cheaply enough) to prevent women from polluting their own water and clean air for our fashion’s sake. “Sustainability,” especially in the fashion industry, goes so much further, and even the discussion of only buying that amazing, i’m-so-invested jumpsuit/dress/shirt is a privileged one. While it certainly isn’t instantly gratifying, shopping secondhand/used/vintage (i.e. Buff Exchange, beacon’s closet, local vintage stores) is zero waste. It can also be incredibly stylish! Support brands who are extremely transparent, but also support clothing that already exists. No matter how cute that article of clothing is, if a company pretends like they didn’t know their clothing was being manufactured during the Rana Plaza collapse, I feel like we should probably pretend like they don’t exist lols

    • Umm i just need to say I LOVE the last sentence in you comment! lols

    • Nadine Farag

      Thanks so much for this comment, Liz, and for critically engaging with the piece. I appreciate it. I agree there are many alternatives to buying fashion that comes at a high environmental and/or social cost, and you list good ones. I’m interested in this question of whether buying only what we love or only what really excites us will serve as a conduit for reconnecting us to what we wear and will help us ultimately approach our relationship with consuming fashion differently. Because once that happens, once we really see fashion through a new set of eyes, my hope is that over time we’ll need a deeper and more meaningful set of criteria for what we consider genuinely exciting. On the flip side of this, I often wonder if buying something just because it is sustainable if we don’t really love it is a disservice to our relationship with fashion. Loving something or being excited by it breeds respect, which breeds interest, which I feel undeniably leads us to question how our clothing is made and at what cost.

    • Lilly Bozzone

      I would argue that the fast fashion stores that function on a trend-to-trend basis actually perpetuate a lack of excitement when purchasing clothes. When we get so caught up on buying trendy things, we lose a sense of our true personal style and that honestly gets really boring.
      When shopping at Forever21 is as easy as buying a coffee, we start to lose the personal connection between us, our clothes, and who made them.

      I actually think that being excited about a purchase is very important for stopping the fast fashion industry. Being truly excited about a purchase means you’re invested in the item. Caring where it came from and who made it is the natural next step. We need to encourage the population to be truly excited and to therefore care about their purchases so that they may open their eyes to the manufacturing process.

  • Hannah Cole

    Loved reading this.

    At the moment I feel like most sustainable brands have taken a bit of a Swedish-minimalistic approach in their designs, shapes and patterns definitely. And if that kind of thing excites you, then that’s great. But I think we will see more sustainable designers edging towards the blow-your-mind pieces as we experiment more with different fabrics and new technologies. They may not necessarily be “on trend” as such, but they will create their own trends and movements.

    The exciting possibilities are endless with pineapple leather…seriously, google it.

    • Nadine Farag

      Love this point Hannah. It’s great to think about how the “blow-your-mind” factor you write about could be what gets us excited about the fashion of the future. As you pointed out, theoretically, sustainability should promote creativity rather than constrain it.

    • streats

      I absolutely agree. I went on a bit of a minimalist stint after I quit my job and went back to school – I stopped buying new clothes except for a few essentials (5 basic tees, black jeans, 1 pair of boots). I adopted a kind of uniform for a couple of years that was very androgynous and boxy and plain. I liked it at the time and it served its purpose but in the past few months I’ve started to feel parched. I gravitate towards these same kinds of pieces but it doesn’t actually excite me; it’s just safe. I tell myself that they’re better because they’re timeless or because the fabric is better quality, but they are so deathly boring. I would LOVE to see more sustainable fashion that embraces color, print and texture. And yeah, I am super excited about pineapple leather

      • Hannah Cole

        I feel you!!!
        I think that’s why I tend towards vintage so much now – at least then I can find fun and different items that aren’t breaking the planet, completely guilt-free indulgent fashion

  • Harriet

    Oh my goodness I could literally talk for hours on this topic! So much so I actually wrote my dissertation on it at university.
    The main problem is sustainable fashion is kind of an oxymoron. The main principles of sustainability that are built around longevity directly oppose the key aspects of fashion which promote novelty and ever changing trends.

    I recently went to a lecture that looked into the attitude-behaviour gap and why people that reduce, reuse, recycle, buy organic, don’t eat meat, use less energy etc., etc., still don’t seem to be buying sustainable or ethical clothing.

    One of the professors at the lecture said something quite interesting, a little far stretched but interesting none the less. He said that research shows that as humans we crave that feeling of doing something wrong every once in a while, kind of getting off on being bad and the guilt that follows. Seeing as luckily the majority of us don’t want to do something really bad like commit a crime, they instead get that buzz from buying that top that they shouldn’t really buy. So his theory is maybe people don’t want to feel good about their purchases because they crave the feeling of doing something wrong.
    There is also the other viewpoint that people don’t want to think about the impact their clothes have on the environment because for many fashion is an escape from reality and a way to forget about all the negative things that people deal with on a day to day basis. So making the ‘right’ choice when it comes to buying clothes isn’t appealing to us as we just want something that makes us feel great no strings attached and maybe recognising the problem would take some of that joy away. I know after I did all my research for my dissertation and learnt about the impact of the fashion industry on the environment it did take the shine out of buying that new pair of jeans, knowing that thousands of people were having to suffer from polluted drinking water just so I could make my bum look great.
    So many adopt the ‘I just don’t want to know’ mind-set because they don’t want to risk not being able to enjoy doing something they love. Kind of the same reason that I refuse to watch that film about meat that has made loads of people become vegans. I love meat and I don’t want that to ever change.

    Or maybe it’s just because people still are not aware of the connection between fashion and the environment and don’t know that fashion is the third most polluting industry. If that is the case then clearly education is key but who is going to do it? Certainly not the clothing brands that make millions off people not making sustainable clothing choices.

    Even though I would love to believe that this is going to change, like it has with food, unfortunately I don’t know if it will anytime soon because it would have to involve massive changes that would need to be made on an industry wide scale, an industry that currently makes a lot of money off people not making sustainable choices. The main difference with food and fashion is eating organic fresh food has a direct benefit on the person buying it but buying a sustainable top unfortunately doesn’t make the clothes any better in fact in some cases as mentioned in the article it makes it worse! So why would people pay more for something that doesn’t look or feel as good as something cheaper..

    Having said that there are more and more exciting changes being made all the time and there are companies that are starting to make sustainable clothing that people actually want to wear. So I am ever optimistic that we will get there in the end!
    Sorry for the essay!

    • rachel

      It definitely did take the shine out of shopping for a while once I realized what the fashion industry was doing not only to the earth, but also to the people producing the cheap “fun” clothing that so many see as disposable. I think what managed to get me excited about fashion again was thinking about it in a different way: getting pumped for the thrill of the hunt instead of the thrill of the swipe, if you will.

      • Harriet

        I definitely think that’s true. Maybe this is an opportunity for people to truly fall in love with fashion again. At the moment trends change so quickly that it’s nearly impossible to really love something. If people started to take time choosing what they are buying and thinking do I really like this rather than is this on trend then you will end up with items that you are excited about and actually suit you and therefore will stay in your wardrobe a lot lot longer!

    • Nadine Farag

      !!Harriet!! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. I thoroughly enjoyed reading them. Your point about fashion as escape resonated particularly.

    • I think we all need to become full-time Man Repellers: doing our money maths wisely (though I won’t be skipping coffee any time soon, Haley :-), hunting for affordable sustainable clothes during our work 🙂 (appropriate shops do exist in Germany, for example – and even H & M offers some aspects of sustanability) and wearing them the many new, bold, interesting ways we have all seen Leandra & Co. invent, introduce, use … We should all go naughty by means of inventing our own personal trends and not chasing those dictated by fashion. We should take that much worn organic cotton scarf, have a good look at it and try to find a new way to wear it – thus introducing a trend, not copying others.

      Don’t know about your neck of the woods, but there’s much affordable sustainable clothing to be had in Germany – though it takes some hunting (waiting for the sales), some maths (hmm … 3 tees from H&M or this organic cotton, Fair Wear one?) and some sincerity (nope, I don’t need 3 versions of a cold shoulder blouse). And after the purchase system is all set, we can go all “unsustainable” and play with our clothes just like we’ve seen some of our favorite ladies do …

  • rachel

    Remember– trends are cyclical! If you can find it at H&M, you can probably find something similar on eBay, and buying something that’s already been produced is always better for the earth than buying something new. Another way to indulge in trends sustainably is to only buy trend items that you love and think are really “you.” Even a shirt not made sustainably can be responsibly purchased with the earth in mind if you can commit to wearing it 30 times, instead of buying 30 shirts.

    • Nadine Farag

      Spot on. Thanks, Rachel.

    • streats

      I always think about price per wear. I would rather buy one $50 tshirt that I will wear once a week for two years, than a $5 tshirt I’ll wear once every few months before I toss it out next year. And I totally agree about trends being cyclical. If you can identify what it is about a trend that you like (color/texture/shape/embellishment), you can look for that in thrift/consignment stores or customise something to achieve that look. Not only will you probably save money and have less impact, but you’ll be more personally invested in having created that look for yourself and that commitment to finding it will pay off so much more.

  • Alyssa G

    Does Reformation count as sustainable fashion? I’d like to think so. I also consider buying vintage as “sustainable” since you’re, in effect, “saving” a piece from the landfill. Really interesting article, and I definitely agree with the last statement!

    • streats

      Absolutely. They are a great example of a sustainable company – not just the physical products they make but also in their production practices: how they use water, the fact that they are online-only (except I think one physical store) and a bunch of other factors make their impact comparably better than most. And yes, vintage, thrifting, consignment are by definition sustainable, not just because you’re saving something from landfill but because you’re contributing to a cycle — someone passed those clothes on, and you will do the same when you’re done, and so on. That’s the very point of sustainability is that it can continue to exist and re-exist with little or no waste in the process. Well done and keep doing it!

  • Vilma Serrano Bautista

    I really enjoyed this post. I find that he price point for sustainably made clothing is what usually keeps me away from labels that I would otherwise support. I get why the price points are what they are, but at the same tme, I wonder who this clothing is ultimately being produced for, if it is so financially inaccessible to most people (like a teacher like myself). I’ve ultimately decided that investing time and money in secondhand stores is what is most feasible for me, but can’t help but feel that the price points are problematic. I wonder if ultimately brands will get creative with how to attain more reasonable price points that also are ethical, sustainable, and accessible.

    • Rebekah Novak

      I have the same thoughts. Like, if Stella McCartney really wants to save animals from becoming handbags, shouldn’t she make those handbags a viable alternative for more than a handful of people?

  • It is great to see more designers becoming sustainable, especially with the new Australian label KitX using recycled material and maintaining ethical processes. It will be interesting to see which other designers come on board..

  • Dorte Lange

    “Can Sustainable Fashion Ever Be Fashionable?” The Lissome’s ( answer is a very clear Yes! It is already happening and there is a multitude of (small) fashion brands out there creating gorgeous and equally conscious garments. But they are still hard to find for the general consumer and even experts of (conventional/non-sustainable) fashion. It took us literally months of thorough research to get a good overview on the scene of conscious fashion pioneers striving for design excellence which we have now started to showcase at The Lissome online fashion guide. Take a sneak peak at some conscious clothing for gentlewomen and join us on:!

  • manhattanred

    I find that a lot of innovation in fashion lately has centered around sustainable practices where sustainable production might be more difficult to obtain. We see this in companies that offer clothes on a lease basis, such as a company I started called Redenim. We saw two problems that needed to be solved: rampant waste in the denim industry and women who were buying and closeting expensive jeans for months, even years if their sized changed. So we decided to create a rotating closet of designer jeans to help alleviate in both arenas. Win win. While we are committed to finding sustainable designers (who often come with high price tags that may be difficult on most shoppers), and working to make those brands more accessible to women, we are also trying to create sustainable practice to help with fashion pieces that are already in the consumer ecosystem. By making it easy for women to trade in jeans — we recycle them at the end of their usable lifecycle — we hope to reduce waste while making women feel comfortable and confident.

  • I’ve been thinking about this post since I first read it a few days back. Three years ago I started editing my wardrobe for a few different reasons – creative expression, a new job, figuring out my mid-twenties, general post-college adulting. None of these reasons specifically included sustainability or ethical consumption, but after trial and error (and challenging myself to spend a year only buying thrift and vintage), my massive closet overhaul landed squarely on the mission of becoming a better person with a healthier relationship with the planet.

    Becoming more mindful about my closet also led me to be a hell of a lot more considerate in other areas of my life. I overhauled my diet, started riding an electric bike to work, and replaced chemicals in my beauty bag and kitchen cabinets with natural products. A lot has changed since I wrote a little post about it last year, but I like to look back at it as a milestone of setting formal goals around who I want(ed) to become and how to get there:

    And really, what I love and what excites me in fashion has changed tremendously over the past few years *because* I now shop as a better-informed consumer. Ethically made, long-lasting clothes made of natural and sustainable fibers are healthy for me and for the world around me, and that gets me all jazzed up. When you start respecting yourself and your environment, you will begin to value well-made clothes that are created by healthy people, animals, plants, and land.

  • streats

    I think one problem with the “sustainable fashion” that’s out there is that so much of it is made with cotton. Cotton is a massively water (and pesticide) intensive crop and there are so many problems with its production. The misconception that if a fiber is organic, it’s okay, is akin to the mindset of people who say “Bottled water isn’t bad, I recycle!” Don’t get me wrong – it’s great that people are becoming more aware, and I still buy cotton myself, but there are so many better solutions out there — MR did a great article on this recently which I thoroughly enjoyed and found very informative: ( — the bit about cashmere vs alpaca kind of blew my mind.

    A friend of mine and I were discussing this recently and she said that she thinks the future of fashion is really going to be in textile innovation. It’s something I firmly agree with. If we can really innovate in that space, and encourage more designers and makers to do so – as well as companies and manufacturers to invest in that – there’s no reason we can’t have fashion that is sustainable AND exciting.

  • Hi Nadine,

    My DREAM would be for ethical fashion to become fashionable…like ASAP, but I do think (gotta keep it 100) both concepts will remain mutually exclusive until top designers/brands embrace slow/timeless fashion, which unfortunately might never happen since this is a multibillion-dollar industry that thrives off of selling more, more, more. Which means selling cheap, trendy clothes that sacrifices ethics to keep up the supply. The only way I think brands could keep profits up is to charge more, which I’m ALL for because even though cheap fast fashion has been the millennial’s savior when it comes to being able to afford to look stylish…aren’t we all kinda over the incessant shopping/spending so much on clothes that fall apart in a couple wears?

    Yes, there are a FEW brands making strides out there in the sustainable arena (Reformation, DSTLD, Everlane), but it needs to be a complete revolution…and how do we make that happen? We need the big players to come on board, even if it’s just ONE designer/house.

    There also needs to be SERIOUS strides taken in the vegan/cruelty-free area, which is what I’m most passionate about. I would DIE (of happiness) if there could be a high-end brand/luxury design house who would jump in the pool and commit to not using leather/fur for shoes/accessories. Right now there is only Stella McCartney and that’s such a shame because while I love her label, it would be great to have variety, of course. As a vegan, it’s really tough (well, depressing) to not be able to purchase bags/shoes from my favorite design houses like Saint Laurent, Chanel, Gucci, Celine, etc. *tear emoji*

    I think if design houses/brands could find some kind of balance, we could be a step in the right direction. For fast fashion shops like Zara, H&M, and Forever 21, if they could just maybe put out collections that are maybe priceier, but sustainable/better quality. And if luxury label could follow Stella’s lead and make all their designs have a vegan option – so same designs, just some use faux leather/fur.

    – AB |

  • Jenise Pinto

    Please complete this survey as I am doing a study on how to improve fashion sustainability within the denim industry and also how consumers can be educated through fashion companies.

  • Thread End

    I loved this article! It articulated everything that I am feeling at the current moment and my hit me at a time when I am reevaluating my buying behaviour and re-thinking my wardrobe

    I found the comparison between ‘healthy eating’ and sustainable fashion quite thought-provoking, because you are right, there is more awareness about food and the right foods to eat in the media and there has been a change of behaviour. But we are not seeing this with fast fashion, like people know that fast fashion isn’t that great (particularly after the Rana Plaza collapse), but still buy into it? Maybe because there is less obvious personal damage, whereas fast food leads to weight gain but for fashion, we as consumers, are too disconnected to the production of clothes and therefore do not see the environmental damage etc. My blog is actually dedicated to educating people about the effects of fast fashion from all angles; ethics, environment, art of fashion etc

    Though some may disagree, I personally like the approach of only buying things when you truly love them (regardless if they are fast fashion or sustainable). I think it is a futile pursuit to quit things cold turkey or to completely change attitudes towards a particular thing (especially when that particular thing is significantly cheaper and easier to access). I think by encouraging people to think about their purchases and to only buy things you know you are going to wear loads, it is a step in the right direction for behaviour change.

    However, I still think one of the key issues with the sustainable fashion industry is that it appears quite unattainable. Like beyond clothes costing more, I find that there aren’t that many stores that actually stock sustainable clothes (at least in Australia) which means all shopping has to be done online. I also find that a lot of sustainable brands have a similar aesthetic going on and at times there seems to be no clear point of differentiation. I’m hoping that as people become more educated about fast fashion that there will be more of a demand for sustainable fashion and more designers will begin seeing it as a viable business model 🙂

  • Fashion Conscious

    Such an interesting piece and a really important conversation! At Fashion Conscious we believe that you can have an ethical conscious without sacrificing style, but perhaps we haven’t quite found the perfect balance yet.

    Between brands becoming increasingly aware of their manufacturing responsibility, consumers getting educated and closing the loop on the life cycle of our clothes, we will get there!

    Read our full response here:


  • Sophie Scholl
  • Hannah Roberts

    I’ve only just seen this and am so excited to see an article discussing sustainable fashion on Man Repeller! I agree with a lot of the points you’ve made, especially the emphasis on the compatibility of sustainable and ethical fashion with the !!! factor you’ve described. I definitely think sustainable fashion is exciting and really hope that, as you’ve stated, it will totally transform the fashion industry.
    But, I think in order for that to happen, we need to more radically demand change, rather than making do until sustainable fashion “catches up” with the mainstream. Even within the year since this article was written, so many more amazing ethical and sustainable fashion brands have popped up, producing beautiful and affordable items that combine the !!! factor with uncompromising ethical standards in quality, sourcing and production. I think the comparison made between food and fashion is a great one, but even there we should demand more, of the industry and of ourselves. Just as food packaging now, almost universally, must contain specific information, detailing nutritional value and where the food has been sourced and produced, so should clothing labels clearly detail where and how the item has been manufactured. Only through demanding this change, will retailers be forced to respond and greater transparency and clarity will be brought to a currently murky, entangled industry of out-sourcing and hard-laboring.
    I totally agree that buying less is far more sustainable than impulse buying whole new wardrobes with every season. However, rather than buying only the clothes that excite us, regardless of where they come from and in what conditions they were made, surely it is more sustainable, and will bring about faster and more long-lasting change, to only buy clothes that do not compromise on ethical or sustainable standards. I firmly believe that only when these more radical steps are taken will the industry be forced to clean up its act and then fashion with the !!! factor will finally display the sustainable credentials to match.