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The truth behind sustainable fashion

Collaboration with Gaia Theory

What is Gaia? The Greek Goddess of Earth. The Gaia Theory is that hypothesis Earth is a living being due to its ability to sustain itself; as such it should be treated with the same kindness and care as you would give anyone else. Our mission is to promote this gratitude towards earth through minimizing fast fashion and promoting vintage and second-hand shopping instead!


Meng and Nadine: I joined Youth Challenge International’s Youth Climate Leader Program in Oct 2022. Climate change has always been a subject that speaks to my heart, and eco-conscious fashion became more relevant recently. The prevalence of fast fashion and influencer-shaped consuming behaviour, once shaped me too; in the past few years, I became aware that fashion industry in fact is the second most energy-consuming industry. So I joined YCLP with this focus on Sustainable Fashion.

During my design thinking process, I encountered an inspirational vintage shop owner and we had a pleasurable talk. This was the starting point of creating a space that archives these inspirational talks and thoughts about the community of eco-conscious fashion. Naturally, this shop owner became my first interviewee.

I reached out to the youth in Toronto and found a group of them that share this passion for being stylish and eco-conscious. We crafted the name of this space together as Gaia Theory. Throughout this process, we interview related people, post vintage/thrifted styles, write green fashion blogs, and bring you along our journey through social media. Protect Gaia whilst staying fashionable!


How does science and sustainable fashion go hand in hand?

Aasfi: Science and fashion have been traditionally thought of as two separate worlds- one intellectual and one materialistic. But, with the fashion industry being a multi-billion dollar industry today, we know that technology plays a huge role in facilitating this popularity as well as dictating what materials are used in our clothing.

Traditional textiles and materials like leather and cotton are becoming increasingly unsustainable with the carbon emissions of the cattle industry and high water usage in growing cotton, and their modern counterparts do not provide an eco-friendly alternative. Faux leather is essentially plastic, made of petroleum and chlorine, and synthetic fabrics tend to have very short lifespans, filling up landfills quickly.

Technological advances are desperately needed now to solve this dilemma, and provide consumers with an affordable and accessible product that is both long-lasting and sustainable. Bioengineering is one such example of fashion and science joining forces. Scientists in the UK are harnessing recombinant DNA expression to enable bacteria and yeast to create the same protein and collagen found in animal-based materials, making fabrics with the long lifespan of leather and wool, while minimizing the environmental impacts.


What can people do in order to lessen their carbon footprint especially in fashion?

By far the biggest impact someone can have towards lessening their carbon impact is to consume less. While ‘sustainable’ items such as cotton totes and reusable coffee cups are appealing, amassing a large collection of these items is actually more harmful in some situations than simply using their disposable counterpart.

A study by The International Reference Center for Life Cycle of Products, Services and Systems (CIRAIG) in 2020 found that given the production and lifespan of reusable mugs, one would have to use it up to a 100 times to break even with the ecological impacts of a single-use coffee cup. For everyday coffee drinkers, that is great, but for minimal consumers the switch may do more harm than good. Going back to the grocery bag in question, the amount of water and resources used to grow the cotton overshadows any benefits it may provide for the environment. In 2018, Denmark's Ministry of the Environment calculated that in order to compensate for the environmental pressure of growing cotton, a tote has to be reused over 7000 times. Combined with the marketing of greenwashing, it is not unlikely to assume one person can own more than one reusable mug or multiple cotton totes, further minimizing its benefits.

Further, people can educate themselves on the background of their clothing pieces. Sustainability goes beyond environmental impacts and into issues like animal abuse and labour rights violations. The app ‘Good On You’ rates popular fashion brands based on their environmental, animal and labour rights while providing helpful information on how examine products in our daily life ourselves.


Why is sustainable fashion changing?

Sustainable fashion has historically been classified as ‘hippie style’, characterized by ‘ugly’, used clothing. However, as climate change becomes more and more prevalent in mainstream media, sustainability (and sustainable fashion) has become a trend in itself. While this is largely a great step for the environmental movement, it has also become a marketing ploy, and a social media aesthetic. Images of reusable drinking straws and tote bags are all over Instagram and though they do a great job of normalizing reusable products, they can also contribute to the issue of overconsumption.

Regardless, the popularization of a more sustainable lifestyle is inherently positive and is constantly pushing people to be mindful of their everyday habits, while proving that a more eco-friendly is not as difficult as it seems. For the fashion industry, this means brands are facing more pressure to take steps reducing their environmental impact, and while it may sometimes be only for marketing, it is still better than nothing. The de-stigmatization of thrift stores and second hand clothing is also great for sustainability, making fashion accessible to everyone, while reducing items in landfills.


Are there any misconceptions about sustainable fashion and what can be done to debunk them?

These are just a few of the many myths surrounding sustainable fashion, but provide a great starting point for further research.

Myth 1- All brands with green branding or ‘greenwashing’ are sustainable.

Many brands (like H&M) use deceiving labels as a marketing ploy to appeal to the sustainable consumer, while being guilty of numerous unsustainable practices. The recent surge of supposedly eco-friendly products and campaigns is at best a marketing ploy designed to convince consumers of a corporation's social values and at worst, an avoidance of true accountability when it comes to sustainability and ethics by broadcasting their recycled products and lack of plastic shopping bags. In order to identify truly sustainable brands, we can look at their supply chain to ensure fair labour, the longevity of their products, and most importantly, their transparency.

Myth 2- Sustainable fashion is too expensive for everyday people

While many sustainable brands are more expensive than we are used to, often they are accurate depictions of what an item should cost with liveable wages and responsibly sourced materials. Often, these items are of better quality and longer lasting. The $5 t-shirts and $15 jeans are not realistic in todays economic climate, and usually are indicative of corners being cut. Secondly, thrift stores are very popular nowadays both with local and online options and are a very affordable (and more sustainable!) alternative to fast fashion stores. Other options include repairing your clothes instead of throwing them away, sharing/swapping with friends and family, and learning how to sew/knit/crochet your own clothes!

Myth 3- Everyone who shops fast fashion brands is to blame for the large amount of clothing going to waste and overconsumption.

The biggest issues with fast fashion clothes are their poor quality that makes them more susceptible to damage and their non-biodegradable synthetic materials. The everyday consumer will likely buy pieces from these brands and actually use them to their full lifespan. The problem arises when social media influencers post their massive ‘hauls’ online with hundreds or thousands of dollars worth of clothes that they will probably not wear more than once, if ever. Aside from overconsumption, this also creates micro-trends, characterized by pieces that are only trendy for one season before being disregarded as unfashionable. These create unrealistic and unsustainable standards of fashion for impressionable youth who just want to dress like their role models. The regular consumer who is genuinely interested in the items they buy and wear them regularly are never to blame for this crisis- it is rather the overconsumption of influencers to stay ‘trendy’ and brands favouring profits and quick trends that are the problem.


Works cited:

Ardley, B., & May, C. (2020). Ethical marketer and sustainability: Facing the challenges of overconsumption and the market. Strategic Change, 29(6), 617–624.

Parguel, B., Benoît-Moreau, F., & Larceneux, F. (2011). How sustainability ratings might deter ‘greenwashing’: A closer look at ethical corporate communication. Journal of Business Ethics, 102(1), 15–28.

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