Whether we want to face it or not, there’s no denying that fashion is taking a major toll on our planet.
The textile and fashion industry is the second most polluting industry in the world, contributing to pretty much every type of pollution there is, from pesticide- and dye-ridden waters to air contamination and extreme landfill occupation. This can mostly be attributed to the cheap way many clothes are produced, not to mention how often we dispose of them. “Roughly 80 billion new pieces of clothes are produced globally a year, and roughly three out of four will end up in landfills or burned,” says Rachel Kibbe, founder of HELPSY, a millennial-focused online shop that sells only ethical fashion and beauty brands.
Of course, the main culprit behind all of this is the fast fashion. While consumers previously used to save up money to buy quality pieces they would keep for long periods of time, they now opt for the throwaway $5 T-shirt or $10 dress. Purchasing these pieces on impulse is becoming more of the norm, upping the demand for quick and cheaply made clothing and feeding the giant machine that is the fast fashion industry.
A recent study by Barnardo’s shows that today, around 33 percent of women consider clothes to be old after wearing them fewer than three times, with 23 percent eventually discarding any clothes that were bought on a whim. One out of seven women agreed that social media holds a strong influence on this “throw away” culture, instilling fear of being pictured or tagged wearing the same outfit on different occasions.
However, there are the brands out there making a difference, operating in ways that are ethical and sustainable. How do they actually achieve this? Kathleen Talbot, head of sustainability and operations at Reformation, one of the most popular and trend-focused ethical fashion labels of today, explains that there are a number of ways to go about this. “A lot of brands focus on more sustainable materials to start—so they'll source an organic, or “better,” material and just plug that into their same business model,” she says. “Other brands may focus more on operations and business impact and offer better transparency around manufacturing processes—which is often the dirtiest part of the industry.”
Labels that repurpose vintage, such as Born Again Vintage, are also becoming a major part of the sustainable fashion circuit. Whether sourcing deadstock vintage textiles and materials (ones that were never worn or sold to the public) or altering them to make them more desirable to today’s market, by not using newly, cheaply produced materials, they avoid contributing to the troubling environmental hazards.
The ultimate goal for the fashion industry would be for all brands to be fully ethical in every aspect. Kibbe explains a concept called cradle-to-cradle design, one which ideally any large-scale producer would follow—and not just in the fashion industry. “Cradle-to-cradle suggests that every part of production should either leave the planet the same or better than as it started,” says Kibbe. "This may sound like a crazy, unattainable goal, but it’s the future if we’re going to curb climate change. We need dye systems that clean, rather than pollute, developing nations' water supplies; agriculture that enriches, rather than depletes, the soil; fabrics that compost and/or can turn into something other than what they were when they started"
So while we know what needs to be done to change the industry, how do we set it all into motion? It turns out, it’s up to the demographic that’s the most powerful right now to spark the revolution: millennials.
“Millennials are practically the only influence in the industry if you look at numbers,” says Kibbe. “They represent one-fourth of the population and over $200 billion in buying power in the U.S. alone.” And just as millennials hold most of the buying power in the world, they also hold the most social influence and are the trendsetters of today, particularly via a host of different social media platforms. “They are the nay- and yay-sayers of what's hot,” says Bridgett Artise, founder of Born Again Vintage. “Social media has allowed their voice to become our fashion government.”
Talbot agrees. “With the evolution of social media, and millennials’ influence on those outlets, we're seeing a lot more customer commentary directed to brands, and brands responding in turn by telling more about their product stories and giving a lot more detailed information about supply chain,” she says.“Millennials are pushing the boundaries of traditional fashion retail and driving demand for honesty and transparency for the products they purchase. They want to know the how-why behind fashion in a new way.”
Based on the influence that millennials have over the fashion industry, the potential positive impact on global environmental threats could be tremendous.
One of the most overwhelming aspects of climate change and environmental distress is that it can feel like it's impossible for individuals to make an impact, but it's more and more clear that millennials have the ability to shape market demands and thus effect environmental change. If millennials begin to steer away from the fast fashion corporations that are destroying the planet and demand things like ethically made clothing and brand transparency with regard to how and where products are made, the industry will pay attention.
“Fashion, like any industry, will evolve to the demands of the market,” says Talbot. “So if more consumers shop ethical brands, more brands will adopt ethical practices to capture that market.”
“If the consumer would only shop ethical brands, it would send a message and demand that the industry change their toxic behavior,” says Elske Krikhaar of the Greenpeace’s Detox campaign. “If the consumers demand better alternatives, or an alternative to fast fashion, the textile industry would have to change its ways and stop polluting and depleting our natural resources. Better recycling systems would be set up and the fashion industry would not be driven by profit and fast fashion, but rather by beautiful clothes that last longer and have a lower impact on our environment."
Still, in order for a tangible effect on the environmental threats affecting the planet to take place, it’ll take more than just the work of a few millennials. “We are facing really big, global problems,” says Talbot. “In order to reverse threats of climate change, water scarcity, and environmental degradation of all kinds, we'll all have to participate in change. Real change will require political will and a revolution in how businesses operate.”
First things first, a changed global mindset is a requirement in order for any progress to take place; as consumers, we need to learn to curb our spending and to only buy what we need, rather than everything we want. “It's the amount we consume that affects us,” says Artise. “Hence, the demand for producing fast fashion. This is asking a lot, especially when it is so readily available to us and it's all we've ever known. But, I think, millennials already understand this way of thinking.”
Whether it’s shifting where and how often millennials spend their money, using their social media influence, or both, there are lots of ways—big and small—in which millennials can make a difference. “We all wake up and put on clothes every day,” says Talbot. “So our decisions have an impact whether we realize it or not—we all have the opportunity to make change.”