In the age of social media and misinformation, myths about any and everything are abundant. As the fashion industry continues to shift to more environmentally friendly practices, myths about sustainable fashion are, unfortunately, making the rounds. As we move to become more conscious consumers, it’s imperative we reassess and debunk fashion’s misconceived notions.
Myth #1: Luxury brands are more sustainable and ethical because they are slow fashion. If the article of clothing is expensive, then it was sustainably and ethically made
There’s a common misconception that higher price correlates to higher quality, and that higher quality therefore must mean higher standards for sustainability and ethics. But this is simply not true!
Luxury labels use a strategy called prestige or premium pricing, where they keep prices high based on a psychology of perceived values or benefits, such as exceptional quality, innovation, or exclusivity. But high price does not guarantee that garments are made from ethically-sourced or environmentally-friendly materials. Additionally, paying more for a product does not guarantee that the workers who made it are treated fairly or paid better. Many high-end premium brands produce in the same factories as fast fashion and lower-priced brands.
Luxury brands also make garments from synthetic fabrics and most do not disclose much, if any, information about their supply chains. In fact, many of the luxury labels reviewed in Fashion Revolution’s 2022 Transparency Index scored worse overall than fast fashion, and nearly all scored in the lowest percentiles in traceability. In addition to being notoriously opaque, luxury designers also engage in many of the same strategies as fast fashion by making deceptive, exaggerated, and unsubstantiated sustainability claims.
For example, Stella McCartney, an early adopter advocating for climate action, markets its bio-based Mylo line as a “sustainable leather alternative.” Although advertised as ‘PVC free,’ nowhere in the brand’s media campaigns is it revealed that this “mushroom leather” is neither fully bio-based, nor biodegradable, nor plastic-free. (Although certified to be at least 50% plant based, neither the manufacturer nor Stella McCartney will reveal how much of this product is plastic.)
In another example, Kering, whose design houses include Gucci and Balenciaga, makes the jaw-dropping claim that its organic cotton has an 80% lower environmental impact than traditional cotton. Although Kering’s cotton appears to be traceable, there is no verifiable corroborating data certifying its impact. Changing Markets, EcoAge and Transformers Foundation, all explain that environmental impact claims like this are not credible because the data and analyses cannot be substantiated. Furthermore, impacts extend beyond the raw material through to the entire product lifecycle.
Deceptions and exaggerations like these lead consumers to the wrong conclusions about the impacts of what they are buying and wearing. This is why we can’t take brands on their word alone.
Myth #2: Sustainable brands are 100% sustainable and only use sustainable fabrics. If a brand says they are sustainable, then they are
As the examples in the previous myth illustrate, we simply cannot trust everything brands say.
Because fashion is largely an unregulated industry, there is no industry-agreed-upon, much less legal, definition of sustainability. As a result, brands are defining sustainability based on their own interpretations in order to justify accelerated growth and profit. Unfortunately, more often than not, brands deceive, exaggerate or lie about their environmental and social sustainability. This is greenwashing.
Some of these tactics include:
- Developing “ethical” capsule collections and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) strategies so as to appear environmentally and socially responsible.
- Co-opting sustainability buzzwords like “green,” “ethical,” and “eco-friendly” into their brand lexicon without providing any evidence of significant sustainable action.
- Co-opting social issues and movements in marketing to appear “woke” or socially responsible.
But perhaps the most deceptive and abused tactic is certification. As consumers become more savvy, brands are looking more and more towards certification schemes to bolster their sustainability credibility through data. But here again, we must look deeper. As a Changing Markets’ assessment explains, most of the organizations that offer these schemes lack accountability and independent oversight, and inevitably end up promoting industry interests. Essentially this is self-regulation in the form of certification: a clever way to enable greenwashing on a massive scale.
So if we can’t believe what they say, and most of the certifications can’t be trusted, what do we do?
Look beyond materials to the brand’s practices. Materials alone do not determine sustainability. Every unit of every product made has an environmental and social impact, from inception through manufacturing, consumer use and disposal. So if a brand makes 1M units of organic cotton tees, the impacts of 1M units aren’t suddenly negated by the use of organic cotton. Instead, is their supply chain traceable? If so, do they disclose where their suppliers are located? Not just country, but addresses? Are they paying living wages and ensuring safe conditions for their garment workers?
What kind of volume do they produce? How do they address waste? Do they have an active Extended Producer Responsibility policy? What is it? (financial, physical, or both?)
Check out Remake’s Fashion Accountability Report for more information and assessments.
Myth #3: Secondhand is inherently ethical and sustainable
We know secondhand shopping has many benefits, including saving money, finding unique pieces, and the fact that secondhand clothing (for the most part) doesn’t consume further resources. So while secondhand can be a more sustainable and ethical way to shop, we must acknowledge that the secondhand market is not inherently sustainable.
You may be surprised to discover that only 10-20% of items donated to charity sells in their shops because the quality of most of the donated items is so poor. As a result, a small but growing portion ends up incinerated or in a landfill; while the rest is sold for recycling into industrial use or sold to secondhand wholesalers, who in turn sell in bulk to other countries as secondhand clothing, primarily in the Global South. Unfortunately, a significant portion of the secondhand clothing sent to other countries ends up as waste, because it is not needed or deemed unusable. Places like Chile’s Atacama Desert and the beaches of Accra, Ghana adjacent to Kantamanto Market have become dumping grounds, creating environmental and public health disasters.
So, although you may think that your donated unwanted items are going to the needy, the reality is there is a grossly inequitable secondhand trade market, where enormous amounts of unwanted and often unusable clothing from the Global North is sent to the Global South under the guise of “charity.” You can read about what one organization, the OR Project, is doing to try to address these effects in Accra, Ghana.
Then there is the issue of “thrift store gentrification.” Thrift store gentrification refers to the practice of co-opting secondhand shopping, popularizing it to appeal to a more affluent customer. It often involves frequenting thrift stores, buying either cheap items or items of value, inflating the prices and reselling for profit. This practice exacerbates economic inequality, by driving prices up thus making once affordable items unaffordable and inaccessible. It can also reduce “quality” inventory, leaving only less desirable items.
Finally, not to be outdone, fast fashion has entered the secondhand market. Brands like H&M, Levi’s, and Lululemon have now implemented take back initiatives and resale schemes, marketed as “circularity.” While this may sound promising, the reality is that these brands are exploiting secondhand to encourage more consumption, which in turn benefits their bottom lines. Rather than truly embracing circularity by re-calibrating their business models, brands are offering discount vouchers on new product in exchange for “old” items. Only a small percentage of items recycled this way actually ends up at resale, with much of it going to the same dumping grounds in Atacama and Kantamanto. This in no way addresses the overproduction that fuels overconsumption. It is yet another angle of greenwashing.
Myth #4: Made in the US, Made in the UK, etc. automatically equals “Ethically Made”
Similar to the luxury myth, consumers have a perception that “Made in the USA” (or UK, or France, etc) equates to higher quality, and by default, equates to higher ethics. Unfortunately, this is not true.
The issue of garment worker exploitation is not exclusive to the Global South. It is a worldwide phenomenon, affecting garment workers who produce products across price points, from fast fashion to luxury. This exploitation is rooted in colonialism, racism, sexism and greed.
No matter where they produce garments, brands deliberately seek suppliers with whom they can negotiate the lowest price in order to maximize profits. Often but not always, it is in countries and regions with vulnerable populations, weak labor laws and even weaker enforcement. For supplier factories to secure work, they have to offer a low price to be competitive. In turn, factory owners and managers will squeeze their workers’ pay, because often what the brand is willing to pay does not cover all the factory’s costs of materials, labor and other overhead. This means that in addition to worker wage theft, the factory has no money to invest in worker safety or other initiatives.
Roughly 80% of garment workers worldwide are women. In places like the US, garment factories employ primarily immigrant women of color. This is deliberate because women from these communities are often the most vulnerable, lacking resources and with few options for employment.
Despite stronger labor laws in countries like the US and UK, workers still experience poor working conditions and wage theft, because many of the laws are not adequate to cover industry specific issues, or they contain loopholes that allow brands and their factories to escape responsibility.
This is why Remake supports The FABRIC Act, which establishes nationwide workplace protections for garment workers in the US.
Myth #5: Garment workers are better off working at sweatshops than having no jobs
This myth often arises around the topics of degrowth and reducing consumption. At its root is a lack of understanding of how brands exploit their suppliers, but also a disconnect and lack of empathy for people who are “over there and probably don’t have any other options anyway.”
How cruel and callous to dismiss the humanity of a workforce estimated to be over 70 million people globally, most of whom are young women of color living in the Global South. These are people. People who deserve dignity of work, and dignity of life.
If you were to visit any brand’s values page, you would think they agree. But the brands are not invested, because they do not hire the workers directly. Most brands do not own the factories that make their products. Instead, they present themselves as “buyers” shopping for the lowest price. In order to secure the absolute lowest price, they’ll pit suppliers against one another. This is what brands call “sourcing.”
Brands only care that factories provide the lowest price and quickest turnaround time. Often a factory cannot pay its workers because the price paid by the brand was too low to cover the entire cost of labor and materials. And brands may decide to not pay in full, or may not pay at all, because of their lopsided, one-way purchase agreements or by declaring a state of force majeure. We saw renewed attention brought to this unfair practice during the early months of the pandemic, spurring Remake’s #PayUp Campaign. Suppliers truly are at the mercy of brands. And when it becomes too expensive or regulations become too cumbersome in a region, brands will flee to where it is cheaper, and start the cycle all over again.
This is not to say that factories are above reproach. Due to cultural biases, lack of oversight and failure to enforce labor laws, garment workers often struggle against the power of the factory managers or owners. This leaves workers vulnerable to abuse, harassment, and violence.
But at the heart of all of this is brands’ failure to invest in their suppliers. Because without sufficient resources suppliers are left not only unable to pay for costs of production (labor, materials), but also forced to operate factories in compromised structures, leading to disasters like Rana Plaza.
So then let’s be honest here: these are not “good” jobs. Workers earn pennies on the dollar for piece work, are often forced to work 70-80 hours a week, and are subject to abuse, violence and other dangerous working conditions. Sweatshops keep women trapped in a cycle of poverty.
Brands have the power to change this. Brands have an obligation to change this. The UN Guiding Principles for Business Conduct make it explicit that brands are responsible for human rights violations all along their supply chain. Essentially, if you profit from it, you must make sure no human rights violations occur. Brands must invest in their workers’ well-being, safety, and dignity.
Myth #6: Factories are most responsible for low wages
Just as most brands seem to agree that workers are entitled to humane working conditions, they also seem to agree that workers in their supply chains should be earning a living wage — but they draw the line at being held responsible. Brands tell us that it is the supplier factories who are responsible for paying fair wages. According to the brands, factories are obligated to uphold a “Supplier Code of Conduct,” which essentially lays all the risk of labor and human rights due diligence on the factory. Supplier codes of conduct have long perpetuated the dangerous myth that suppliers are the only guilty party if labor rights issues including wage violations are found in the supply chain. It’s an incomplete and skewed viewpoint that absolves a brand of any liability for its actions.
According to the Clean Clothes Campaign Tailored Wages Report, a garment worker’s wages on average are 2-5 times less than she needs to support herself and for her family to live with dignity. The problem here isn’t that the factories aren’t paying their workers; the problem is that the brands are not paying their suppliers enough to cover their costs of production. As explained previously, brands squeeze suppliers for the absolute lowest price in order to maximize profits, and in turn suppliers are forced to squeeze worker wages to meet brands’ prices and to be able to pay for materials and their other costs of production. Sometimes a factory is forced to take an order at a loss just so they don’t lose customers. As we saw during the COVID-19 pandemic, when brands canceled their orders, factories couldn’t meet any of their supplier obligations.
When factories can’t pay their workers living wages, cover their materials and other expenses, then they also can’t invest in worker safety or other improvements. And because brands are notoriously opaque about their supply chains, the public doesn’t find out about atrocities until it’s too late, if at all.
From Remake’s Accountability Report: “It is not enough to share where a company’s supply chain is located; companies need to share how much their garment makers are paid and what their working conditions are like, as well as demonstrate that both are improving year-over-year.”
Of course, as mentioned before, the brands have the power to change this. These are multi-national, multi-billion dollar brands, that continue to profit while perpetuating these exploitative conditions.
Instead of one-sided codes of conduct, we need strong, binding legislation that holds brands accountable for their actions. California’s Garment Worker Protection Act (SB62) is a good example. This bill, which passed in September 2021, sets a minimum wage floor, demands transparency and accountability from brands, and provides clearer paths for remediation.
Myth #7: Raising garment worker wages would increase prices for customers
Brands like to perpetuate this myth because it’s a convenient defense for their continued exploitation. Consumers buy into this myth because they do not understand true costs and because they have skewed perceptions of affordability versus value. This is not to say that things like inflation and price increases aren’t real; they are. But perception isn’t reality.
The reality is that labor is only a small fraction of the overall cost of a garment when being mass produced. On average, Clean Clothes Campaign reports that only about 3% of the total retail cost of a garment is labor, so increasing workers’ wages would not significantly increase the price of a garment, if at all. Clean Clothes Campaign has also suggested that it would cost brands as little as 10 cents more per T-shirt to ensure workers received livable wages.
In an example from 2019, Swiss NGO Public Eye broke down the cost of a Zara hoodie, from farm to final product, and found that the Spanish brand made more profit from one €26 ($29) black hoodie with R.E.S.P.E.C.T emblazoned across the chest (the irony!) then all the workers in the supply chain put together.
And then there’s consumer perception of affordability. Below is the US consumer price index, which measures the average price of goods over time. Note how the price of apparel has remained relatively steady over the last 20 years. (Fluctuations reflect things like holiday sales, back to school and effects of COVID-19.)
Since the early 1990s brands have been pushing the price of clothing down relative to other consumer goods by aggressively cutting costs and using cheap materials. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that fast fashion began making its big impact: cheap suddenly became chic and consumption increased. 2000 was also when polyester overtook cotton as the dominant fiber, doubling production by 2020. It’s no surprise that between 2000 and 2014 clothing production doubled, and consumer purchasing per capita increased 60%. Cheap, disposable, fossil fuel fashion altered consumers’ perception of “affordability.”
“What do we mean when we talk about affordability? People constantly conflate the idea of affordability with the idea that no one is paying the price for the low, low, low prices at the checkout,” says Aja Barber in her book Consumed: On Colonialism, Climate Change, Consumerism, and the Need for Collective Change.
The current cheap disposable fashion model does not come without costs. It is clear that purchasing practices by brands force suppliers to cut corners on labor, safety and other protections so they can fulfill orders. Millions of workers lost jobs and income during 2020, while brands continued to make billions of dollars in pandemic profits. Tons of fossil fuel fashion waste is pouring into landfills and exacerbating a growing microplastics problem.
The utter rapacity of these billion dollar brands and their billionaire owners is not sustainable, and the true costs are being borne by underpaid workers and the planet.
Changing the Industry
We need a radical shift in thinking in order to truly turn fashion into a dignified industry.
Sustainability isn’t a trend, or a department, or a PR opportunity. Sustainability must be central to the business model, and by extension a pillar of supply chain ethos, embracing corporate social responsibility and ethics into its core tenets. Brands have an obligation to invest in their supply chains and pay their workers more, and in this way assume some of the risk that they force suppliers to bear. Brands must move away from their exponential linear growth models. Instead they must adopt circular business models, where they apply regenerative practices, slow down the production cycle, and produce far less but better.
Governments must do their due diligence by adopting legislation that forces brands to abide by their supply chain commitments. Such legislation must provide for accountability, including punitive measures for violations, and remedies for any harms caused.
And consumers too, must do their part. For years brands have been asking consumers to purchase more sustainably, while continuing to churn out billions of garments per year. Nevertheless, consumers do have the power to impact change. Yes, consumers should reduce consumption and be more purposeful when purchasing: buy less and buy better. But also, consumers can use their voice. Through campaigns like The FABRIC Act, consumers have the opportunity to collectively demand transparency and accountability from brands, and drive meaningful change.