Hopes, Myths and Culture in the World of Sustainable Fashion

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By: Maria Francisca Moutinho Ricardo da Costa

From: Sciences Po Menton

Accra, 2023- The second edition of the Obroni Wawu October calls for the attention of the industry for the upcycled clothing trend. The subheading of Vogue’s report warns us: “the world should pay attention” (1).

Younger generations seem to be increasingly concerned about the sustainability of their patterns of consumption. In 2022, “Gen Z accounted for 68 percent share of sustainable apparel revenue in the United States” (2). In our society, “the demand for sustainable practices appears to be high” in the context of the fashion industry (3).The “ethical fashion market” it expected to rise to a value of $11,122.2 million in 2027, after 5 years of significant growth (4). At the same time major fast fashion brands, like H&M, ZARA, or Nike, have been accused of “greenwashing” their way into attempting to make consumers perceive their business practices as eco-friendly (5).

The United Nations Alliance for Sustainable Fashion is working towards aligning the fashion industry — which has “important impacts on social and environmental development”-with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (6). Taking part in this “global mission”, fashion brand-rating website “Good on You” refers to “sustainable fashion” as “a fashion industry that manages its environmental impacts within planetary boundaries and ensures the well-being of people and other animals throughout the supply chain” (7). In practice, this means that, to evaluate how (un)sustainable a given brand is, its impact on different stakeholders (“planet”, “people” and “animals”) is assessed (8).

This essay will explore the prospects surrounding the emerging world of sustainable fashion, and attempt to examine the main elements of the culture shaping it, pointing out what we, as consumers, should become aware of.

Fast “Sustainable” Fashion — Myth or Reality?

A 2018 Report establishes fast fashion as “the readily available, inexpensively made fashion” that follows the “constant demand for more and different styles”, furthermore explaining this industry’s system :

With the rise of globalization and growth of a global economy, supply      chains have become international, shifting the growth of fibers, the manufacturing of textiles, and the construction of garments to areas with cheaper labor. Increased consumption drives the production of inexpensive clothing, and prices are kept down by outsourcing production to low and middle-income countries (LMICs) (9).

A study conducted in 2014 concluded that, despite the efforts of major corporations in the fast fashion industry to the principles of sustainability, companies struggle to regulate operations within their supply chain, making it hard to secure products’ quality throughout the process (10). Due to the risk posed by social and environmental concerns throughout large-scale fast fashion supply chains to consumer demand, companies have started monitoring and reporting their “supply chain performance”, which has been found to improve their sustainability practices”(11). The same study acknowledges, however, that companies’ reports do not always correspond to the reality of their practices, and that such conclusions are, therefore, sensitive to criticism (12). This leads us to the exploration of a phenomenon that has put multiple fast fashion companies under the public scrutiny: that of “Greenwashing”.

“Greenwashing in marketing refers to companies presenting product or service information in a way that makes consumers believe it is environmentally friendly”(13). Greenpeace reports that this is a frequent practice in major garment industry companies, which have been “making false green claims”(14). Collections deemed “sustainable”, like Decathlon Ecodesign, H&M Conscious, or Primark Cares, have been found not to follow many eco-friendly practices, as promised by brands (15). Greenpeace found that these greenwashing practices were conducted on aspects like “false certifications”, “lack of verification”, or “reliance on discredited measurements”. Such practices may also include

claims of being more sustainable but only improving a negligible part of the fashion brands' collections, or downcycling materials instead of focusing on fiber-to-fiber recycling, or promotion of take-back programs that incentivize guilt-free consumption (17).

While some companies may be putting in the efforts to reduce the negative environmental and social impacts of their activity, there is an increased need for transparency so that consumers are more aware of the choices they make, and efficient market regulations can be established at the corporate and domestic levels. On the other hand, the “overconsumption of clothing” seems to pose one of the greatest challenges to the achievement of sustainable fashion. It is difficult to find solutions, or alternatives, to an aspect that is deeply ingrained in our economy, and socially normalized (18). As The Guardian reported earlier this month, the “fashion industry push to reduce the environmental impact of the clothing it sells is being undermined by an ongoing addiction to buying new clothes” (19).

The Progress of the Sustainable Fashion Industry

Increased demand is expected to contribute to the growth of global fashion industry to around $2.25 trillion, in 2025 (20). Strengthening the relationship with consumers, establishing lasting partnerships with suppliers and seeking innovative strategies of production seems to be at the forefront of the goals set by small-companies aiming at achieving a “sustainable fashion” business model (21). These startups have emerged all over the world, in countries like Sweden, France, the USA or Japan. However, a “need to accomplish environmental and social aspirations in addition to economic objectives” poses a large set of challenges that these businesses are still looking to address (22). Tackling the aspect of consumer demand seems to be central to the success of these businesses- elevated prices in the sustainable fashion brands as opposed to lower ones in fast fashion make sustainable garments less affordable to consumers, or at least make it harder for enterprises to convince consumers to buy their products (23). In order to do so, sustainable fashion companies increase their marketing efforts, to raise consumer awareness on their decisions’ impacts (24). Additionally, ensuring the quality and sustainability of materials and a healthy work environment in often more expensive production areas poses a financial burder on these small-businesses, limiting their growth (25). Large-scale focused supply chains difficult the coordination of “sourcing markets” due to “high minimum order quantities” (26) . It seems fair to argue that, in order to achieve growth in the world of small-scale, sustainable fashion enterprises, we must seek a larger-scaled system reform. The constraints posed on the development of this business model are precisely those capacitating large-scale fashion brands to pursue unsustainable practices throughout their supply chains (27).

The Second-Hand Clothing Industry

The transition from a linear to a circular economy, which ensures materials and services can circulate  for a longer time period (28) seems necessary for the achievement of sustainability within the fashion industry (29). Often associated with these efforts (30), the second-hand industry clothing is on the rise, and it is expected to reach a value of USD$351 Billion in 2027 (31). This trend is caused by greater consumer awareness of the environmental benefits of second-hand clothing purchasing, which “saves an enourmous amount of unwanted clothing from landfills and dumps'' (32). Despite the popularity of thrift stores in countries such as the US, India, or Australia, market analysis reports predict that “retailers in the secondhand apparel market are considering shifting their focus from traditional thrift stores to online used clothing platforms to boost their sales and increase their new customer base” (33). Alongside this strategy, the industry’s collaboration with luxury brands to resell their products is a main trend driving its growth (34). A study published earlier this year concluded that the achievement of sustainability within this industry depends largely on the firm’s nature: within second-hand clothing sellers, for-profit (FP) and not-for-profit (NFP) businesses must be differentiated (35). NFPs, which “have had a historical dominance in the second-hand market” are more likely to achieve social, economic, and environmental sustainability, becoming a “part of the transition” to a circular economy (36). On the other hand, NFPs may “increase, rather than decrease, inequality and consumption” (37). The same study points out, however, that the existing dynamic between new and second-hand clothing businesses hinders the latter’s potential as an entirely effective alternative to new clothes’ consumption, and to fully eradicate its consequences for the environment (38). The rule remains virtually the same: supporting smaller-scaled businesses will more likely produce positive returns to the environment and society. However, it seems like purchasing second-hand clothing is, generally speaking, a step towards sustainability.

Upcycling: What is it?

Within the implementation of a circular economy, there is another phenomenon we cannot miss: that of upcycling, which consists of turning already existing materials into a new item, reducing waste and extending the life of garments (39). Indeed, Vogue called it “the biggest trend” (40) and The Financial Times called it  “fashionable” (41). Brands all over the world, especially in the UK and the US, are focusing on this process, in an effort to showcase their commitment to sustainability (42). Furthermore, major global fashion retailers have committed to the initiative: in 2013, “H&M’s Garment Collecting program” was set “to keep used clothing in circulation for longer” (43). A study from 2016 compared the “design and production processes” of “standard” and “upcycled” fashion, concluding that the latter’s “approach directly addresses the textile waste problem, and offers opportunities for further employment and training within the industry” (44). The reason for this lies in the production of upcycled garment pieces: “Fabric sourcing must occur much earlier on in the process than in standard design and production, and pattern cutting techniques must take into account inconsistencies in supply with interchangeable fabric options” (45). Opening its doors to trends and innovation, upcycled fashion seems to be an effective alternative to standard clothing production practices.

The Cultural Requisites for the Promotion of Sustainable Fashion

Overconsumption not only represents the main trigger of unsustainable practices in the fast fashion industry, it also threatens the potential of an emerging sustainable fashion world. Fast fashion is characterised by incentivizing “consumers to view clothing as disposable”, one of the main factors driving its label as “unsustainable” (46). Tackling this issue is one of the aims of the sustainable fashion industry, which plans to extend the life of garments (47) through, for example, upcycling or second-hand selling. To achieve this, garments’ design is not only focused on the physical characteristics promoting greater durability, but it “should be complemented with an understanding of consumer psychosocial factors to facilitate engagement and consumer attachment”(48). Researchers point out that consumption has multiple meanings, and that therefore the sustainable fashion industry should invest in designs that promote a “strong person-product relationship”, ideally achieving an “emotionally-durable design” (49). The role of behavourial economics research seems key to developing this industry, as this implicates that psychosocial elements should be included in sustainable fashion design (50). A study published in 2022 by researchers at the University of Exeter indicated that consumer exposure to “new imaginaries around the materialities of clothing”, in a series of “workshops”, were effective at increasing people’s “sensibility for sustainability” (51). This represented a “challenge to dominant cultural values” (52). Although the practical impact of this increased awareness in consumer behaviour is unknown, researchers noted that, after these workshops, participants “were much more reflective about the clothing purchases they made”, additionally feeling they “had reduced their consumption of clothes” (53) . The creation of a new “cultural milieu” (54) surrounding clothing becomes, therefore, crucial to complement a design that promotes both the material, and the “socio-psychological” (55)  life of garments.


The expectations surrounding the Sustainable Fashion Industry are high. They trigger the emergence of new business models and startups, and set major brands in the fast-fashion industry under pressure to adopt practices aligning with the values of sustainability which consumers seem to be gradually acquiring. However, the achievement of a sustainable fashion industry faces multiple challenges, on which policy-making and business management must focus in order to achieve environmental, social, and economic sustainability within the industry:

  • Access to information: Asymmetric access to information between producers and consumers creates false or unfunded beliefs on consumers, hindering their potential to better understand and evaluate their consumption behaviour and its impacts. Transparency is a core requirement for the achievement of a sustainable fashion industry. Phenomena like “greenwashing” or even the lack of reporting or monitoring create an urge to incentivize the use of domestic, and international, policy-making to regulate the activity of firms within the fashion industry- in particular, those of large dimensions, characterised by the production of “fast-fashion”.
  • Large-scale focused business models: Linear economic systems promote supply chains working to achieve profit maximization. However, in order to integrate the fashion industry into a “circular economy” (56), prioritizing its achievement of sustainability (57), supply chains must be redesigned so that small and medium-scale businesses are financially and administratively capable of entering and establishing themselves in the market (58).
  • Production-planning and design: The establishment of a sustainable fashion industry must be based on a focus on production, rather than on consumption. The management of production processes must be held carefully so that the different stages of production are aligned with the principles of sustainability. Moreover, production must be managed in ways that respect a design established to optimize resource use throughout the life of the garment: from the sourcing of raw materials (59) to use.
  • Overconsumption, lack of research and education: A culture of overconsumption drives “fast fashion”’s unsustainable practices and hinders the potential of the efforts taken to promote sustainability within  the fashion industry (60). Reducing consumption is therefore necessary to promote a sustainable fashion industry. This change in consumer behaviour can be achieved through an increase in educational efforts to bring awareness about the impacts of purchasing choices. Research highlights the importance and effectiveness of doing so not only through traditional, economic and environmental approaches, but focusing on the psychological and social aspects shaping consumption (61). Finally, efforts must be made to promote research surrounding patterns in consumer behaviour, so the effectiveness of such educational strategies can be maximised.

1) Cernansky

2) Smith

3) Bringé

4) Research and Markets

5) Igini

6) UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion

7) Good on You

8) Good on You

9) Bick et al.

10) Turker and Altuntas

11) Turker and Altuntas

12) Turker and Altuntas

13) Marsh

14) Abelvik-Lawson

15) Abelvik-Lawson

16) Abelvik-Lawson

17) Adamkiewicz et al.

18) Moorhouse

19) Wood

20) Ikram

21) Hofmann et al.

22) Hofmann et al.

23) Hofmann et al.

24) Hofmann et al.

25) Hofmann et al.

26) Hofmann et al.

27) Fraser and van der Ven

28) United States Environmental Protection Agency

29) Chen et al.

30) Persson and Hinton

31) Smith

32) Verghese

33) Verghese

34) Verghese

35) Persson and Hinton

36) Persson and Hinton

37) Persson and Hinton

38) Persson and Hinton

39) Harvey

40) Proctor

41) Simons

42) Vogue

43) Vogue

44) Han et al.

45) Han et al.

46) Bick et al.

47) European Commission Directorate-General for Environment

48) Nerurkar

49) Nerurkar

50) Nerurkar

51) Willett et al.

52) Willett et al.

53) Willett et al.

54) Willett et al.

55) Nerurkar

56) United States Environmental Protection Agency

57) Chen et al.

58) Hofmann et al.

59) Han et al.

60) Wood

61) Nerurkar


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From: Sciences Po Menton
More posts by Maria Francisca Moutinho Ricardo da Costa.
Hopes, Myths and Culture in the World of Sustainable Fashion
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