No One Wants to Admit It: Sustainable Clothing Means Sacrifice

April 22, 2015 Updated: April 26, 2015

Earth Day, April 22, is followed in quick succession by Fashion Revolution Day, April 24, which marks the anniversary of the Rana Plaza clothing factory collapse in Bangladesh.

That disaster killed upward of 800 garment workers in a few short moments. They, and all the others who work around the world in similar low-wage, high-risk conditions are widely considered victims of the garment industry’s race to the bottom.

Though people at the lower ends of the economic ladder are the most visibly affected, our entire culture has been victimized. Fast fashion has made blandly dressed, unhappy “consumers” of us all. The implicit expectation to shop our way to happiness is so pervasive that it’s become part of Western, and increasingly, global culture. But with quantity and frequency goes quality and meaning.

Dana Thomas wrote in her book “Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Luster” that only 200 women wear haute couture today. They are the few who still have the opportunity to experience what it feels like to have a fine craftsperson design, drape, cut, and sew a dress just for them. The deep meaning of such a relationship is to embody the fact that our things should serve us, not the other way around.

What will happen to that world of working knowledge if designers decide, due to market pressure, that these 200 women are not worth serving anymore? Future generations may never have fine possessions again.

In recent decades we’ve seen the gathering clout of the slow food and organics movements. Sustainable fashion will be the next big area of concern.

Living in a sustainable and socially responsible way is not something to pay lip service to. It’s easy to buy suspiciously cheap “green” or “-conscious” just because a product is marketed as such.

Responsible consumption means buying less frequently and buying as high quality a product as possible. Not a chicken in every pot every night, but an organic, free-range chicken once a week.

It means not dropping $20 on an impulse purchase at a fast fashion chain, but actually saving money over the long term (what a concept) to make an acquisition after careful planning and research. Or not making a purchase at all until the perfect item is found.

It means having standards. And as anyone who’s ever attempted something worthwhile can attest, living up to standards requires self-discipline, clarity of purpose, and sacrifice. If more people can make the pursuit of such a standard fashionable, our material culture might just stand a chance against the onslaught of cheap.