Can Sustainable Brands Thrive in Today's Environment?

My husband and I were recently in Dublin. On our first day, we encountered a popular store that got our attention. While most of the clothing options were made of natural fibers with OEKO-TEX certification advertised and displayed throughout the store windows (farm to product certification that verifies the cotton is free of pesticides and harmful substances), the prices were incredibly inexpensive ranging from 4 euros to 10 euros per piece. One could essentially build an entire outfit for under 20 euros.

Being in the fashion and retail space, I was curious why everything was so cheap if the pieces were made naturally with a sustainability certification. First thing I noticed, the store was massive and had a ton of inventory - similar to any regular department store would have. The more a company orders (fabric and material) and produces (cutting and sewing), the cheaper it is for the consumer. Overproduction is no doubt the primary source of clothing waste and climate issues facing our world today. Second, the garments were made in Bangladesh - a country known for unethical labor practices.

The Rana Plaza collapse in 2013 was one of the very few garment factories that reached the U.S. mainstream media where over 1,100 people died due to the garment factory owners ignoring large cracks and signs of the building’s poor infrastructure.

Truth is, when a company invests in quality fabrics and fair labor practices, a piece of clothing should not be this cheap. If I didn’t have prior knowledge and as someone who values natural fabrics, I could have easily given this store and business my patronage.

While sustainability in fashion has come a long way, there’s much more work to do. The demand for synthetic clothing continues to remain because it’s cheap, and the speed and volume that clothing is made today continues to grow because it’s the key to profitability. There is a financial cost and burden when investing and working with higher quality fabrics, producing in low volumes, and providing fair living wages. This makes it incredibly challenging for conscious or sustainable brands to thrive when the current system does not support a new way of thinking and doing.

After our experience in this store, it got me thinking…how on earth can sustainable or conscious brands compete with this? How can my own business thrive in today’s environment and into the future? How can I grow and sustain my business when the current system is at odds with my ethos?

According to The Or Foundation, 15 to 45 billion pieces of clothing produced go unsold every year. These pieces eventually end up in landfills or in second markets and areas like Accra, Ghana and the Atacama desert in Chile where clothing waste is astronomical that it can be seen by space satellite. Research confirms how clothing waste has impacted the ecosystems in those areas, along with the many lives and garment makers impacted by the effects of over consumerism.

The lack of transparency from fashion brands and companies around their production practices, specifically how much they produce, is the biggest puzzle and challenge in the fight to do better and in creating a new system in fashion that promotes natural materials, small batch production, quality craftsmanship, fair living wages and a safe working environment for garment workers, along with fostering conversations that encourages people to change their relationship with clothing. In many ways, brands or companies don’t feel the urge or need to change or share this information with the general public. Why do something that would risk profitability or losing customers?

I’ve said this before and I will never stop saying it, but sustainable change begins with us. It begins with empowered individuals and consumers to generate the shift that's needed and essential not only for our planet to survive, but to be able to create a better environment for our children and grandchildren to live and breathe in. Brands and companies will only change when there’s a need to do so, when profitability depends on it. Perhaps, the first question could simply be - how are you combating overproduction?

Back to blog