The Relationship Between Fashion and Sustainability

Clothes have such an important role in our lives, they do so much more than covering our bodies. One’s sartorial curation forms part of a visual language that communicates multiple messages of varying importance with the audience, us the ‘Spectators of the Drip’. People’s reasons for buying clothes are far from altruistic, the reasoning is founded on ‘Me’, and how ‘I’ look when wearing whatever apparel ‘I’ find appealing. The primary reason behind people’s apparel buying patterns is unlikely to change in this lifetime. Because who does not want to look good? The fashion industry is amongst the largest on the planet. The industry’s most successful business models are founded on cashing in on our insatiable desire to look good__ everyday. This model of incessant consumption is serviced by outlets catering to fashion consumers across multiple price points, covering ground from the luxury tier to the very low cost retailers. Having things does not satisfy us so we feel the need to acquire more things, this is applicable in most spheres of our lives – fashion is definitely in the ‘most’ box.

The size of the fashion industry means it is amongst the biggest energy users, has one of the largest workforces, is one of the biggest polluters, and other things one may expect from large industries. With research indicating that most clothing items are worn an average of seven times before the owner gets bored and seeks another fix of the Drip, you can imagine how many unused clothes are crying for air in our crowded wardrobes. Start by examining your situation before we go ahead and judge others. Let us start;- how often do you buy clothes? How many wears does an item get out of you before it loses its luster? Do you think about the health of the planet when buying clothes?

So much goes into making our clothes but we do not really care about any of that other than getting our clothes and crushing the #OOTD posts. Maybe with more information we can make informed buying decisions that positively affect our environment. We will break down some of the stages in apparel production and how we can play our part in making the planet a healthy and cozy home for us and other species. And, yes, the looks will not be compromised.


Who does not have a t-shirt? The answer is an unequivocal, “No one.” “No one” is sadly not the answer to the question, “Who does not know how much water it takes to make a Medium sized t-shirt?” A t-shirt falls under the category of “Basics”, its production is nothing basic though. The amount of water needed to make a single average sized t-shirt is a bewildering 2,700 liters. Another ubiquitous item of clothing is, a pair of jeans – making a single average sized pair of these requires an even crazier amount of water, 3,800 liters. So pairing these two items would mean one is walking around with a minimum of 6,500 liters. You still need to get a belt, shoes, and maybe a jacket and some accessories to complete the daily ensemble, the other items also need water to be produced – we really do come through dripping. Water is just part of the clothing production process, the factories need to power their machines, they need to employ people to operate these machines. There are toxic chemicals involved in various stages of production including dyeing. There is chemical and solid waste connected to the production of clothes, the disposal of which is not always environmentally friendly. The working conditions at most major factories feel nothing like French silk. There is evidence pointing towards exploitative and inhumane practices in these organisations. The pressure to churn out as much as possible as fast as possible from high fashion houses and fast fashion retailers worsens the already appalling conditions workers find themselves in. They are expected to work as coked-up robots for close to zero monetary compensation. But hey… suffering is temporary, #DripIsForever. Women form the majority of the workforce in the textile industry – with the world being the way it is, it means the suffering has multiple layers for most of the workers in these factories. Women are at risk in air-conditioned offices, what do you think happens to women in sweatshops?


After our clothes have been made by the often underpaid and mistreated workers in mega factories they have to leave those places and find their way to our already crowded wardrobes. Before we get to take them home they endure a rather protracted process, the period varies depending on the distance, mode of transport used, and other related logistical elements. Randomly pull out any 5 items from your wardrobe and check the “Made In..” entry on the tags, you will see that most of them were made in an Asian country. Your item was just one of countless items inside one of the containers that came in by ship, a ship carrying even more similarly sized containers. Ships use fuel and other energy sources to move, more energy and human capital is needed to take the apparel into various warehouses and subsequently our wardrobes. This is something that happens everyday, it’s just that the clothes are not always for us but the process still happens. Being cognizant of the stages involved in getting our clothes from production to our wardrobes can help us make better buying choices, or not. It is all a choice, we can choose to be part of the problem or we can take individual steps that can morph into big collective strides towards a cleaner planet.

What Can We Do?

As stated earlier, our reasons for buying clothes are primarily selfish and superficial so it is highly unlikely that we would buy an item of apparel solely because it has a positive impact on the planet. It has to look and feel good for us to part with our money – hard-earned or handed, it is all money. Sustainable living has often been pitched as something only affluent people can partake in, do not fall for that kind of thinking, it is incredibly flawed. The truth is everyone of us can make a positive impact through our spending and behavioural patterns. There are options for consumers across the entire socio-economic landscape. Ethically produced apparel is often out of reach for the majority of the population because making things without exploiting people and resources comes at a very steep price, and the businesses have to recoup and profit, and still make a positive impact on the planet. That is why an ethically produced plain white t-shirt might cost R750.00.

If that is too steep for you, it is cool, you are not alone. You can still serve us looks on a tighter budget by buying pre-owned gently worn clothes on the streets, thrift shops, etc. The added benefit of pre-owned clothes is the rarity, chances of seeing someone with the exact same item as yours are close to naught. Vintage clothes fall under the “pre-owned” category, this category can be broken down into three sub
categories; antique, vintage and retro. The distinguishing elements between all three is the period in which an item was initially made. Common logic dictates, if it is older than a 100 years it is an antique. If it is 20 years and older, it is vintage. And then you have retro, made less than 20 years from the date you scoop it up at a street corner, musty charity shop or fresh smelling thrift shop, or forward thinking outlets with an online presence like Retro Retro. And of course we do not have to subscribe to whatever is written because our key aim is saving the planet and looking fresh, if it is in good condition and you like it, buy it.

There are other options in between the ethically produced and pre-owned apparel shopping. We have an option to swap clothes with people whose style we admire, rent clothes, repurpose items when they no longer serve our Drip agenda. The primary aim is to curb waste and exploitation, how we get there is up to our pockets and imagination. Clothing can be used as tools of expression if you listen to your inner voice and do not aspire to be a mall mannequin or a copy of someone, there is only one Rihanna. This is where the DIY and customisation elements come in, you get to play with whatever item you feel like needs a special touch to set you apart from the sea of mass produced uniforms available at major fashion retail chains. Quality is something we can not compromise on however we decide to participate. Buying quality items means we will need to make less purchases because the items will have a longer life expectancy. We are fighting waste and exploitation, and cheering individuality.

Major Players and Economic Opportunities

Stella McCartney is arguably the most recognisable face of the sustainable fashion movement, she plays her part through her eponymous luxury label and other initiatives designed to create awareness and propagate ethical fashion practices. In one of her many noteworthy collaborations she partnered with German sports apparel behemoth, adidas to release a vegetarian version of the brand’s eternally cool ‘Stan Smith’ shoe – the tennis legend approved. The shoe was released in September, 2018. Stella and adidas have an ongoing working relationship, ‘adidas by Stella McCartney’, all articles are ethically made with some using recycled materials like plastic. We do have eco warriors in the fashion space locally, some of them were part of the inaugural Twyg Sustainable Fashion Awards, the ceremony was held at the Rooftop on Bree in Cape Town on 19 September, 2019. 7 awards were handed out in seven categories spanning retail and design. Zwelisha Giampietri Brand Manager of Amanda Laird Cherry (ALC) – nominated in 3 categories – accepted the fashion label’s ‘Changemaker’ award. She highlighted that the brand has actively looked for ways to reduce textile waste in the production of its timeless modern apparel. PhD candidate and DUT Fashion and Textiles lecturer, Fezile Mdletshe-Mkhize was one of the 5 judges, Mdletshe-Mkhize is the founder and director of the first multi accredited fashion institution located in a township, the Fezile Mdletshe Fashion Academy in KwaMashu. She also offers fashion consulting and other complementary services through her agency, the Fezile Mdletshe Fashion Agency. Following her or any one of the awards’ judges will be a step in the right direction towards learning more about the complex yet comprehendible subject that is Sustainable Fashion.

All change brings forth opportunities for the curious and competent. The change in the fashion industry means there is a wide selection of opportunities from which interested and competent entities can pick from. There are opportunities available in areas from sourcing, textile development to retail. And you do not have to be a fashion head to benefit from sustainable fashion. Liking and understanding fashion does not mean you will figure out an alternative to polyester, textile developers and science practitioners understand the make up of such better than you do. For us to make a significant and sustainable impact we need to be willing to collaborate; scientists with stylists, recyclers with designers, etc. Information on how we can take practical steps is just a Google entry away. You do not need anything more than what you have to start participating. Our enemy is waste and exploitation. Think before you make your next purchase.

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