11 Myths About Sustainable Clothing

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Myths About Sustainable Clothing: 11 Myths Debunked

Ethical and sustainable fashion is more popular than ever. But with popularity comes disinformation.

And, unfortunately, a lot of this disinformation comes from well-meaning advocates and even purportedly “sustainable” fashion companies.

The following myths address questions that come up from both skeptics and ethical fashion converts. The last six were written by Alden Wicker at EcoCult and shared here with permission.

This post contains a few affiliate links and I may be compensated if you make a purchase through them.

1. I have to buy dozens of new clothing items per year. 

For many of us, it would be a financial disaster to buy more than a handful of sustainable clothing items every 6 months, just because they are often priced higher than conventional products. But, if you’ve already built a basic wardrobe, you don’t need to buy more than a couple new things a year. Magazines and 5-week trend cycles make us feel obligated to keep up with every new fad on the market, but it isn’t necessary or even fulfilling.

You may have to buy less if you’re purchasing from more ethical brands, but that probably won’t hurt you in the long run. Plus, in my own experience, ethically produced items from small brands hold up better than fast fashion items anyway, so you won’t need to replace your staples as often.

2. My specific circumstances (size, profession, location) prevent me from buying from ethical retailers. 

I feel you on this one. The ethical market is still growing and it’s not always easy – or possible – to find things that fit well or suit your lifestyle. To you, I’d suggest a few options:

  1. Buy from online consignment stores like thredUP. You may be able to find a greater variety of sizes and styles from secondhand sites online.
  2.  Search ebay‘s pre-owned section for brands you like.
  3. Buy well. If you can’t find ethical or secondhand options, try to buy things that will last. You’ll save money over time and you won’t contribute as heavily to demand for sweatshop goods. I do this with shoes, because it’s difficult to find well-made, comfortable shoes on the ethical market (though there are a growing number of companies filling the void).

View my shopping guides

3. It’s actually in the best interest of sweatshop laborers that we keep buying their goods. Otherwise, they’ll lose their jobs and it’ll be our fault!

This one is complicated, for sure. On the one hand, I don’t think it’s a great idea to just pull out of countries like Bangladesh or Cambodia, because it’s true that thousands of people are employed by garment factories there thanks to consumer demand for new goods in countries like the US.

But I also think it’s too easy to immediately dismiss the whole ethical consumerism discussion by pretending that supporting sweatshop labor is actually moral.

We should continue to support global manufacturing, but try to find the companies that are better regulating their factories. Everlane, for instance, produces a lot of their tops in China, but they can tell you what it looks like to work at one of their factories.

In Cambodia, Tonle employees earn fair wages. If we support Tonle, they will grow and be able to employ more people, which means a garment worker can leave the sweatshop for a safer, better environment.

4. If wages go up, a lot of garment workers will lose their jobs.

Consider this. In manufacturing centers like Dhaka, Bangladesh, entire families work in the factory, even children. With a wage increase, families may be able to afford to let some members pursue other things, like childhood or education. Entire families wouldn’t necessarily have to work, so a few people losing their jobs may not be an issue at all.

This myth also presupposes that profit margins are already set as low as they can go when, in reality, higher-ups make a ton of money. Corporations have the wiggle room to provide better wages to workers and make improvements to facilities even without layoffs or significantly raising prices to consumers. They’d have to set up rigorous systems to ensure that wages are being passed down from contracted garment factory to the workers or set up their own factories, but there’s more money to work with than they like to let on.

5. The market can regulate itself. 

No, it can’t. The market is constantly being manipulated by individuals only looking out for their best interests. Regulation is essential; that’s why we have a 40-hour work week and child labor laws in place in this country.

The market is not some magical, mythical being that sorts things out for us. People call the shots and it’s on us to make the market work better for everyone. That being said, we can certainly help the market regulate itself toward better ethics by making smarter, healthier, more loving purchasing decisions.

heap of clothes and fabric - Myths About Sustainable Clothing
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6. If you donate your old clothes to the “right” charity, they will find their way into the hands of an appreciative low-income American.

Repeat after me: No matter where you donate, it all goes to the same place. No matter where you donate, it all goes to the same place. Most people still believe when they donate clothing, they’re donating much-needed garments that people in need will gratefully take and wear with pride. But the fact is, Americans donate far too much clothing for the underprivileged in America to absorb, and much of it, as fast fashion has taken hold, is worthless and falling apart.

Homeless and women’s shelters don’t even want your old clothing. They want bras, new underwear, coats, basic personal care products, and tampons. If you drop off a bag of your old Forever 21 clothing, it’s equivalent to you dropping off your bag of household waste, and expecting them to be thankful for the opportunity to sort through it and take out the bottles with deposits. That is how worthless and disposable old clothing is at this point.

The way clothing charities work, they take in your clothing, and then extract as much value as they can from it in order to run their operations. They’ll resale about 20 to 40% of it to the public.

The rest is bundled up and resold for pennies on the pound to a recycler who will downcycle some of it into insulation or wiping rags, and will send the rest to developing countries to resell for a couple dollars. If you donate to Goodwill, Salvation Army, Housing Works, the Greenmarket textile collections, that church down the street, all of them go through this exact same process.

So whether your clothing finds a second life depends not on where you donate it, but the quality of the clothing itself. If it’s well-made, timeless, and in good condition, someone, somewhere, will wear it again. If you bought it for $15 originally or it has a stain, it will be downcycled.

So the lesson here is not to worry about where you donate your old clothes – just pick a charity whose mission you support. And worry more about what clothing you’re buying in the first place, and whether it will have a long life. Oh, and if something has tears or stains, cut it up and use it for rags around your house.

You can read more about this issue in my article for Newsweek.

7. Your secondhand clothing is ruining clothing manufacturing in developing countries.

The truth about this is even more complex than the last myth. As the “common knowledge” goes, when your old clothing goes to Africa, the people who live there buy it and wear it instead of buying clothing that is made there, thus devastating the textile and garment industries.

But that may not be true, as I found out when I interviewed a couple of researchers on the topic.

Let’s take East Africa, for example. When the economies were opened up for international trade in the 1980s, two things happened simultaneously. First, East Africans started importing secondhand Western clothing and reselling it in large markets, because it was seen as high quality, and it was a way for East Africans to get that cool American style – Nike, Adidas, etc – for a few dollars.

Second, the East African textile industry suddenly had to compete with the international market, and because they were inefficient and had poor infrastructure, factories started closing down. The fact that these two things happened simultaneously gave rise to the myth that the secondhand market caused the factories to shut down.

The East African governments have proposed banning secondhand clothing. But if that happens, East Africans will not suddenly go back to buying traditional broadcloth clothing made in East Africa. They’ll just buy more super cheap Asian imports, just like we do.

Secondhand clothing, domestic clothing manufacturers and Asian imports all fill separate needs for East African consumers, who want to be fashionable, just like you and me. Plus, secondhand markets provide income to many East Africans, and support tailoring jobs as well.

Now, I should caveat this by saying that Haiti actually manufactures the same stuff that we cast off, like t-shirts. So it may be that our secondhand clothing negatively affects their economy, though Haiti has so many economic troubles, it’s hard to separate out any one culprit.

But I can tell you that when I was visiting the Dominican Republic earlier this year, I discovered that they have a thriving market for secondhand clothing, but also a huge clothing manufacturing base – it’s the third biggest economic sector after remittances and tourism, bigger even than agriculture. It has experienced a decline in the past decade, but according to this analysis, it was because of “high electricity costs, domestic cargo costs, maritime transport costs, and customs charges.

But the most important factor contributing to the change in fortune was the phasing-out of the Multi-Fibre Arrangement (MFA) which… set limits, called quotas, on the amount of foreign-made apparel and textiles [the U.S. and Canada] would allow into their countries from any specific producing country. Once the MFA expired, the Dominican Republic was unable to compete with the cheaper clothing assemble in China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Bangladesh, and it lost much of its share in the US garments market.”

Notice the secondhand market for clothing is not listed as a culprit. But fast fashion is.

woman lying on unorganized clothes - Myths About Sustainable Clothing
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8. Only the privileged can partake in the sustainable fashion movement.

While we are on the subject of secondhand clothing, let’s address this charge, which I most often hear shouted in the comment section of Refinery29 at me. Yup, I am privileged. But I also know of about 25 stores in the city where you can get high-quality, sustainable fashion for $5 to $30: Beacon’s Closet, Buffalo Exchange, 10 Ft. by Stella Dallas, Housing Works, Goodwill, Salvation Army, Second Time Around…

Yes, I’m talking secondhand stores. Secondhand fashion is a great way to get affordable and quadruple-ethical and sustainable fashion:

  • Your money is going to a charity or local business instead of a fast fashion company.
  • No resources are being extracted to make your clothing.
  • Nobody was exploited to get that fashion to you.
  • It’s probably local fashion, brought in by someone in the same neighborhood or city, so transportation emissions are almost nil.
  • You’re keeping something out of the landfill.

And I promise, this is not crap fashion. Stores like Beacon’s and Buffalo Exchange are extremely picky about what they take. They reject anything with stains and tears, anything out of fashion, and even cheap fast fashion. I’ll often stop in to see what they have and walk out with some beautiful blouses, or super fun, trendy items for a vacation with the tags still on, all for the same price as fast fashion. Really, beggars can be choosers.

In addition, when I tell people how to overhaul their wardrobe to be more sustainable, my first four steps do not involve spending money. In fact, they involve saving money! It’s only in the final step do I tell them to go shopping, and to do it mindfully, with cost-per-wear and resale value in mind.

Lona from StyleLend once shared with me a saying: “I’m too poor to buy cheap things.” It means that it’s a waste of money to buy things that will fall apart after a few uses. So buy high-quality, secondhand, timeless fashion, and not only are you super sustainable, you’re also super budget savvy.

Read more about the ethics of thrift stores

9. Fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world.

Thoroughly debunked. We actually have no idea what its impact is, and we are in desperate need of a research team to figure it out.

10. If companies just manufactured in the U.S., then all these problems would be solved.

Yes, manufacturing is the U.S. is superior when it comes to environmental protections. Our EPA enforcement is far from perfect (the European Union is surpassing us in many ways) but it’s much, much more robust than in any Asian country, where rivers in garment manufacturing districts are devoid of life and foamy with poisonous runoff.

But there’s a catch: U.S. garment manufacturing is not only much more expensive, because of our minimum wage, it also has a reputation for fashion industry insiders for being poor quality.

Many a well-meaning fashion startup has struggled to produce in the U.S., got a lot of flack from customers for the inconsistent, poor quality goods, and then finally given up and moved onto Vietnam or Latin America, where they can get higher quality accessories and garments made for a lower price. Or they simply found success and outgrew New York’s or LA’s manufacturing capacity.

Plus, what would happen to the millions of Asian women who work in the garment industry in Asia if we somehow reshored all our manufacturing? Those jobs, as dirty and dangerous and exploitative as they are, represent a step up from rural poverty and forced marriages for many of these young women. They represent a dream.

The answer is not to pull out of Asia entirely, but to figure out how to improve the working conditions and pay in these countries.

11. Fashion made in China is low quality and cheap.

Speaking of, this used to be true. But it isn’t any longer. Wages in China have risen to the point where it’s actually midrange, upscale and even luxury clothing that is now being manufactured in China, which has invested heavily in the latest technology necessary to create elaborate and quality garments and accessories.

Larger ethical sustainable brands struggle with this fact, because they have found the responsible factories there, and yet customers get angry at what they perceive as a greedy, unethical brand choice.

Yes, the environmental protections are still not great in China, but if you flip a tag over and see “Made in China” you can no longer assume that it represents the bottom of the barrel.

Read 8 more myths on EcoCult.

Read the first 6 myths here

Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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