The last time I went on one of my rants about why sustainable fashion matters, I was met with silence and stunned faces. After the initial shock of me sharing why I don’t buy fast fashion anymore and how cotton production is deeply tied to slavery, my friends had an avalanche of questions:
“How am I supposed to afford to buy 400 dollar t-shirts?”
“Do I have to throw out my favourite Zara jeans?”
And the best yet:
“Does that mean I can only wear linen from now on?”
As an industry insider that values inclusivity and accessibility, I know that sustainable fashion is much more than its tired old stereotype: beige clothing that cost an arm and a leg. However, not everyone feels the same way and it’s clear my friends aren’t the only ones. Many of us have misconceptions about sustainable fashion, with little truth or fact to back them up. If these misunderstandings are what’s stopping more of us from choosing consciously, then we’ve got a lot of collective unlearning and relearning to do.
What is sustainable fashion, really?
To start with, sustainability is a journey and everyone’s experience is a unique one. It means a mindset shift and a commitment to choose consciously, whether buying new, used or nothing at all. In itself, the sustainable fashion movement campaigns for a more fair, equitable system; in high contrast with the exploitative way the industry at large currently operates. What actually makes fashion sustainable or ethical? It relates to the way manufacturers treat their workers, produce our clothes and manage their environmental impact.
While supporting ethical brands is important, sustainable fashion doesn’t just come in the form of new clothes. There’s so many ways to consume fashion more sustainably: swapping, renting, choosing secondhand, thrifting or simply buying less. One way doesn’t win over another, it all comes down to your priorities and what you find the most accessible. For example, if you’re someone who cares about animals, you might avoid leather or silk, but you may be ok with buying them second hand since they already exist. If you’re concerned about microplastics in your clothes, instead of throwing out all of your polyester garments, you could focus on ways to care for them better and use a microfibre-catching washing bag.
In short, green living doesn’t come with a handbook. Your sustainable fashion journey doesn’t have to look like the next person’s. You have the right and creative freedom to experiment with what works for you. At ZERRIN we’re passionate about dispelling myths around conscious fashion consumption to inspire your sustainability journey. So, we’re discussing and debunking myths and issues surrounding the sustainable fashion movement so you can feel more empowered to create a greener wardrobe—on your terms.
1. You have to be rich to afford sustainable fashion brands.
Admittedly, ethically made fashion is more expensive than fast fashion brands at your local mall. However, there’s quite a few reasons for the higher price tag. An obvious one is that, unlike fast fashion, sustainable brands care for their environmental impact, their workers and the needs of the consumer. They don’t just prioritise profits, they advocate for transparency and use innovative ways to make clothing that don’t exploit people and the planet in the process. Quality materials and paying living wages will, naturally, result in a more expensive product.
What’s more, slow fashion brands intend to make high-quality products that can be passed down through generations. If you compare the cost per wear of a pair of boots purchased for $50 and only used 10 times, versus one bought for $500 and worn a countless number of times over the span of two decades, it’s clear who the winner is. The cost per wear of a garment is the real indicator of how expensive it is. However, this just isn’t a mainstream way of thinking—yet. So yes, sustainably made clothing is costly at first, but they may pay for themselves by saving you the time, effort and money of having to replace them every season, especially if the item in question is something you gravitate towards buying multiple times (like great wardrobe basics!)
The cost per wear of a garment is the real indicator of how expensive it is.
2. Quitting fast fashion takes away jobs from developing countries.
The reality of the garment industry in developing countries is pretty harsh, and something not everyone is aware of. The reason why many manufacturers are based in Cambodia, Bangladesh, India and China is because of the low cost of production and minimal labour regulations. Local governments use this as an incentive for large businesses to produce there and contribute to their GDP. However, this leads to suppliers turning a blind eye when human, animal and environmental rights are blatantly rebuffed in the never-ending pursuit of higher profits.
What’s more, did you know that 80% of garment workers are female? Due to low family income and lack of spousal support, women enter the workforce to afford their basic needs. Unfortunately in these countries they have limited job opportunities, often having to choose between physical labour or prostitution. There’s few other choices for a decent livelihood other than entering the garment industry, which is majorly held afloat by fast fashion. This means they’re often overworked and paid very little, endure physical, mental and verbal abuse on a daily basis. What’s more, they usually don’t have the right to unionise and demand better treatment.
All of this begs the question, is this the kind of job and working conditions that we want to encourage, anyway? Fueling fast fashion purchases only worsen the condition of these workers. It forces workers to toil for 18 hours a day to produce clothes for the price of a sandwich. Shockingly, brands sometimes get their garments into retail shops before they pay their workers for their overtime. Meaning, you may have bought clothes made by another human being who hasn’t even received their salary for making it yet.
Understandably, refusing to buy fast fashion isn’t possible for everyone. Still, we can confront manufacturers and brands and push them to stop focusing on profit over people. On the other side of the coin, ethical fashion promotes a business model that values the faces behind the fabric. By supporting fashion made in a better way, we are encouraging fair labour and fair pay. More importantly, we’re placing value on the artisans and workers who make the clothes we wear every day.
Your sustainable fashion journey doesn’t have to look like the next person’s. You have the right and creative freedom to experiment with what works for you.
3. You need to be 100% sustainable, otherwise, it doesn’t make a difference.
One common comment made by sustainability naysayers (and one that I’ve seen on a few viral TikTok videos recently) says that “there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism”. More often than not, it’s posted after someone points out the wastefulness of an $800 SHEIN haul. This type of comment is increasingly used as a scapegoat to justify impulse buys or massive hauls. It steers the conversation about sustainability away from its intended purpose: awareness and education.
Yes, the onslaught of capitalism has made it impossible for us to avoid the exploitation of resources or labour, from our smartphones to our shampoos. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t try to do better, a little at a time. Sustainability has never been about doing everything perfectly because that’s neither possible nor the goal. If there’s some change you can make—whether it’s to carry a reusable bag or support an independent designer—it’s a step in the right direction.
4. Your wardrobe should only contain items from ethical and sustainable sources.
In case you were about to clean out your closet of all fast fashion, stop! No one’s saying you have to throw out your old Zara pants or H&M shoes. The most sustainable piece of clothing you own is what’s already in your closet. Did you know that the average number of times a piece of clothing is worn before being tossed out is, shockingly, just 7 times? Wearing our clothes for just nine months longer could lessen their environmental impact by 20 to 30%. Also, it’s still important to audit your closet once in a while to make sure you don’t encounter the “I have a closet full of clothes but nothing to wear” syndrome.
It really doesn’t matter what your ratio of fast fashion to ethical pieces is, it matters that you wear your clothes to their fullest! Making your clothes last longer and not overconsuming trends is more eco-friendly than buying a whole new wardrobe to replace your existing one. Besides, it’s more important how you wash and take care of your clothes, regardless of where they’re from.
5. You can buy as much as you like, as long as it’s from sustainable brands.
Shopping sustainably doesn’t give you a free pass to replace your closet every season, even if you can afford to. It’s not enough to just buy from sustainable brands; understanding your individual impact is key too. Learning about the resources to just produce a plain white tee will change your perspective entirely.
For instance, it takes 10,000 litres of water to produce just 1 kilo of cotton. Especially if it’s conventional cotton, which takes a lot of land, labour and harmful chemicals to achieve the maximum yield. It can leave the land barren after each harvest and leads to complex health issues for farmers working those fields. So, you might actually be helping the environment by buying only what you need, even if it’s from a fast-fashion brand.
6. You can’t be sustainable if you still shop fast fashion.
Considering how ingrained fast fashion is in our lives, it’s a huge feat for anyone to completely give it up. While many have done this successfully (including our founder), it’s not practical for many shoppers who consume fast fashion due to price, size or other accessibility reasons. Fast fashion brands also provide a level of convenience that’s hard to give up, like free express shipping and returns. While fast fashion brands might wastefully churn out new styles every week (or every day, looking at your SHEIN…) we can’t deny that they offer a lot of diverse sizes and fits. Plus-size, maternity, petite, tall and wide feet are just some categories you’ll see on the ASOS homepage that many sustainable fashion brands can’t offer yet.
The bottom line is that not everyone can give up cheap fashion, but we can always consume it more mindfully. Consider buying only what you need from fast fashion brands, and opting for other ways to get your fashion fix, like at a thrift or swap store instead. This isn’t to say you can only buy necessities and not wants; the goal is to not fall into the rabbit hole of every fleeting trend of the week. Buy what you like and what makes you happy, and wear it well past the 30-wear mark. Check out the #30wearschallenge on Instagram for inspiration, or have a go at the 30-day outfit challenge I tried out.
7. Luxury brands are more sustainable than fast fashion brands.
While it might sound intuitive, this is, unfortunately, a flawed concept brands use as greenwashing tactics. To the untrained eye, it might seem like higher prices mean better quality and responsible sourcing. However, it’s not often the case. It’s been revealed that some luxury brands even outsource production to Indian sweatshops. Just like fast fashion brands, many luxury brands often don’t own all of their manufacturing facilities. That means they don’t have control over all of their suppliers, or the pay and working conditions of their workers. The high price of luxury is mainly a big marketing mark up, rather than evidence of ethics and quality.
What’s more, when you consider the waste that fashion weeks create, or how some brands have burnt excess inventory instead of marking it down, luxury brands don’t seem that sustainable. That being said, certain luxury labels out there are authentically committed to sustainability. Companies like Stella McCartney are paving the way for vegan ethical fashion and Gucci has announced carbon-neutral plans.
8. Sustainable brands can’t be stylish.
Sustainable fashion brands might steer clear from trends, but that doesn’t mean their designs aren’t fashion-forward. Rather than focusing on fads, conscious brands look to create unique and timeless pieces that fit individual lifestyles. While classics mean different things to different people—some imagine monochrome hues, some bold prints—there’s a few key ingredients that make something timeless. If anything, creating a more sustainable wardrobe has a lot to do with discovering your own style language.
And here’s some food for thought: no matter how sustainably made a garment is, it won’t matter if you don’t like it enough to wear it again and again. As consumers, our goal is to find clothes that suit our lifestyle, style preferences as well as match our ethics. Maybe there was once a time when all sustainable fashion looked the same—neutrals and baggy silhouettes—however, a quick google search will dispel all of that. Just look at the brands ZERRIN carries; block-printed fabrics, bold natural and waterless dyes, bamboo ribbed bodycon dresses…the list goes on!
Here’s some food for thought: no matter how sustainably-made a garment is, it won’t matter if you don’t like it enough to wear it again and again.
9. Brands saying they are sustainable are definitely sustainable.
As the trend in conscious living is on the rise, sustainability has become a popular marketing tactic. Brands (more often than not, fast fashion companies) now slap on terms like “organic” or “recycled” into marketing campaigns. This is only possible because of the sheer lack of regulation in the fashion industry. We repeat: it’s not enough to have a “conscious collection” while the bulk of the production you’re making profits of is made in a completely different way—and even more so when there’s little to no transparency about where materials are sourced and if workers are paid a living wage. Isn’t it ironic that large fashion conglomerates can spend more on greenwashing instead of fundamentally changing their business practices?
While it takes a lot of time and effort, the only way to know if a brand is truly sustainable is by doing research and asking questions. You can use apps like GoodOnYou to look up brands and see how they are rated, or even search for fast fashion alternatives on ZERRIN’s ethical brand directory, which breaks down a brand’s impact in 5 key areas: People, Planet, Packaging, Principles and Product. When in doubt, chat with a brand over social media to know more about their approach to people and the planet. If you get any responses with overly fluffed language or no information beyond the first tier of their supply chain, these are red flags. Brands who put in work day after day to ensure they minimise their impact will have lots to say, guaranteed!
10. Donating clothes is better than throwing them away
It’s true, charities and thrift stores do give away or sell some of the clothes they receive. However, most charity shops ship these clothes overseas to resale markets in developing countries. This influx of cheap clothes negatively impacts local industries or ends up in a landfill. Take H&M for example. The brand advertises its recycling program to make consumers believe that all clothes will be remade into new clothes, or their recycled clothes are 100% post-consumer recycled materials. This is just not the case. 60% of these clothes go into resale in other countries and then 35% of these clothes are downcycled as insulation. If you’re Singapore-based and want to donate clothes to vetted organisations and mutual aid, read our guide here.
We can’t simply donate our clothes to absolve us of our fast fashion consumption. We need to buy for the right reasons and think long term. Otherwise, we fall down a slippery slope of counterbalancing unethical practices with a more sustainable afterlife. Yet, if everyone in the world thinks this way, that means millions of people buy tonnes of clothes solely to give or throw away every year when the trend is over. When we consider the intricate processes that go into the making of our clothes, from fibre to the final product, we can appreciate them better. Even if they do not serve their purpose any longer, you could try upcycling them into something that will.
11. It’s not worth repairing cheap clothes.
If our clothes cost more to repair than when we bought them, it might seem logical to just chuck them out and replace them. Funnily enough, this is exactly what brands want! Experts have called this phenomenon ‘planned obsolescence’, and it’s not unique to fashion—notice your phone drop in performance just in time for the release of the latest model? In essence, fast fashion brands design clothes to fall apart so customers have a reason to keep coming back. It could be a missing button or a loose seam that warrants the next shopping spree (online or offline). So, learning to mend our clothes can save us money and time in the long run.
12. Thrifting takes away clothes from marginalised communities.
While there’s some truth to this statement, it’s oversimplified. As thrifting has gained popularity, some have questioned the “ethicality of thrifting” if you can afford to buy sustainable products. There have been cases of wealthy consumers buying out the best pieces at a store and reselling them for 4 times the original price.
There’s also been a recent trend on social media where young thin women show off their thrift hauls. This includes buying larger sizes of clothes and upcycling them into trendy pieces for their TikTok accounts. What this does is reduces the options for marginalised groups, such as plus-sized low-income individuals. This makes them dependent on fast fashion for cheaper options, and still encourages overconsumption (even if it’s secondhand). So yes, thrifting for fun is not so sustainable.
Nonetheless, there are still immense benefits to the environment of thrifting. It’s better to give preloved items a second life rather than to let them end up in landfills. We definitely need to encourage more to give secondhand fashion a go—especially here in Asia—because it helps keep more existing clothes in circulation. Alternatives like thrifting or swapping are a great way to experiment with your style while minimising your impact.
Fact: Sustainability is for everyone!
We want to stress: sustainability isn’t an exclusive club you have to buy your way into. It’s all about a mindset shift and creating greener habits. That’s something we can all do, regardless of race, budget, location or income level. When it comes to consuming fashion more sustainably, it is not about buying more but reframing why you buy in the first place. And if we all choose well—quality over quantity—and make things last, we’ll naturally buy less, but better.
With a background in fashion and textiles, Durva is an ardent photographer and advocate of social justice. She enjoys writing about fashion, socio-political issues within sustainability and partakes in the occasional 'who wore it better' banter on Diet Prada.