Editor’s Note: This article was produced by CNN Style’s editorial team in partnership with Fashion Revolution, an international non-profit campaigning for a clean, safe, fair, transparent and accountable fashion industry.
Buying from eco-consicous brands isn’t the best way to adopt sustainable style. Your online returns don’t end up where you think they do. Investing in luxury fashion over fast fashion doesn’t necessarily prevent worker exploitation.
Widespread misconceptions about ethical fashion and sustainability can sometimes keep consumers from taking meaningful action when it comes to their lifestyles. Here are nine common myths and the real facts behind each one.
MYTH: Buying from “eco-conscious” or “sustainable” brands is the best way to reduce your fashion footprint
TRUTH: The best way to reduce your fashion footprint is to buy fewer things. Get the most out of your current wardrobe by mending or altering old garments, restyling tired pieces and trading items with friends or through clothing swaps (post-pandemic). If you must buy a new item, try to find it second-hand. Some companies even offer repair programs, like Patagonia’s “Worn Wear,” or help to resell worn items. Researching sustainable brands is helpful, but buying something new should be the last option, not the first.
MYTH: Luxury fashion is more sustainable than fast fashion
TRUTH: Spending money on luxury fashion does not guarantee sustainability. Some fashion houses, including Burberry, have staged “carbon-neutral” shows, and Gucci claims its operations are now entirely carbon-neutral. Stella McCartney has been working towards more greener practices for years and is one a number of fashion brands to sign a UN charter for climate action, pledging to reduce collective carbon emissions by 30% by 2030. But the luxury fashion industry still has work to do. A report released earlier this year by Ordre, which specializes in online showrooms, reveals how unsustainable fashion weeks really are, for example. By measuring the carbon footprint of fashion buyers from 2,697 retail brands and 5,096 ready-to-wear designers attending international fashion weeks over a 12-month period, the report found that the 241,000 tonnes (265,657 US tons) of CO2 (or equivalent greenhouse gases) emitted was the same as that of a small country, or enough energy to keep the lights on in 42,000 homes in a year.
MYTH: The more expensive the garment, the less likely workers have been exploited
TRUTH: Many mid-priced and premium labels actually produce in the same factories as discount and fast fashion brands. This means that everything from workers’ rights to the conditions in which they work in, can be exploitative, regardless of price point. What’s more, the price of a garment does not guarantee that workers were fairly paid, because the cost of labor only makes up a small fraction of total production costs.
MYTH: Donating old clothes is a sustainable way to clean out your closet
TRUTH: While charities and thrift stores do give away or sell a portion of the clothes they receive, your donated clothes are likely to end up being shipped overseas to resale markets in developing countries, which can negatively impact their local industries, or in a landfill. Only 10% of clothing given to thrift stores is actually sold. The US alone ships a billion pounds of used clothing per year to other countries. Africa receives 70% of global secondhand clothes.
A 2016 research project, entitled “Dead White Man’s Clothes,” found that in Kantamanto, the largest secondhand market in Ghana, 15 million items are unloaded each week. The team behind the report concluded that 40% of the clothing in each bale becomes waste, dumped into already overflowing landfills, the Gulf of Guinea, or burned in Accra’s slums.
MYTH: Brands that promote sustainability are sustainable
TRUTH: “Sustainability” and other greenwashing buzzwords can be misused to attract consumers eager to reduce their environmental impact on the planet. Fashion search engine Lyst reported in 2019 that it saw a 75% increase in sustainable-related search terms compared with the previous year. “Objective criteria for rating sustainable fashion are missing,” McKinsey’s Saskia Hedrich told CNN. And using recycled materials or aspiring to be carbon neutral isn’t always enough. “Since sustainability spans a broad array of issues in the very fragmented fashion supply chain, other consumers often don’t fully get what ‘sustainability’ really means.”
MYTH: Most clothes can be recycled
TRUTH: Clothing can be difficult to recycle, in part because of how it’s made. For one, many fabrics are made from blends (of cotton and polyester, for instance), which must be separated if the material is to be turned into a new garment. In the US, less than 14% of clothing and shoes thrown away end up being recycled. But “recycling” is also a broad term that can be broken down into “downcycling” and “upcycling,” and the difference matters. Downcycled garments often wind up as fibers used for home insulation or carpets. In Europe, less than 1% of collected clothing is actually recycled into new garments, according to Circle Economy.
MYTH: It’s not worth it to repair cheap clothes.
TRUTH: Mending a fast fashion item may mean spending what you paid for it, but keeping the same clothes in rotation is the best thing you can do to reduce your carbon footprint. You can also learn how to carry out small repairs at home to keep costs down, including replacing buttons, fixing broken zippers, resewing loose seams and hemming pants.
MYTH: Your online returns are resold to other customers
TRUTH: Your returns may end up incinerated or in landfills. It’s often cheaper for companies to dispose of returns than to inspect and repackage them, and labels may be unwilling to donate the items for fear of cheapening their brand or damaging their exclusivity. A CBC report in 2019 highlighted this practice, pointing out that the volume of online returns has also increased by 95% over the past five years.
MYTH: Your clothes are from the country listed on the tag
TRUTH: Your clothes may be assembled in that country, but the tag can’t reveal the complex chain of labor that went into making them. “Your label won’t tell you where in the world the cotton was farmed, where the fiber was spun into a yarn, where the yarn was woven into a fabric (or) where it was dyed and printed,” states Fashion Revolution’s report, “How to Be a Fashion Revolutionary.” “It won’t tell you where the thread, dyes, zips, buttons, beading or other features came from.” To encourage labels to be transparent about their supply chains, Fashion Revolution has been promoting the hashtag #whomademyclothes?, asking users to tag brands in selfies with clothing tags visible.