Is sustainable fashion moving mainstream?

The fast fashion industry is facing increasing amounts of scrutiny. Customers are asking more questions about where their clothes and accessories are coming from, and the impact that their chosen brands’ practices are having on the environment. As a result, the pressure on retailers to find more sustainable alternatives is mounting. Could this change in customer outlook spell a more widespread switch to sustainable fashion?

Recently, fast-fashion giant Boohoo were heavily criticised in the media when it became apparent that their Leicester factory was continuing to operate during a local lockdown, with no regard to social distancing practices. 28 people in this factory tested positive for Covid-19, and it subsequently emerged that Boohoo was paying its garment workers as little as £3.50 an hour. This brought the issue to the forefront of public discussion. Not only was the company contributing heavily to throw away culture – according to Oxfam, 11,000 unwanted clothing items end up in landfill per week – but it also was treating its garment workers incredibly unethically, drastically underpaying them and forcing them to work in unsafe conditions.

The unfair treatment of garment workers and fair wages is often overlooked in conversations around sustainability in fashion. It comes under a form of ‘environmental racism’, where high-income countries shift mass production to low-wage workers, often affecting women of colour. These workers can be subject to precarious working conditions, including respiratory hazards and toxic chemical exposure, and they’re at risk of developing musculoskeletal complications. Across the world, many women are forced into silence about this problem due to fears around hostile immigration policies.

The UK government has a part to play in this issue. Despite acknowledging the problem, they have yet to implement attempts to tackle poverty pay and sweatshop conditions, even when presented with alternatives put forward by the Environmental Audit Committee. The government is now being urged by a cross section of MPs to take urgent steps to end fast fashion, by encouraging the development of new sustainable fabrics with lower environmental impacts, as well as boosting recycling facilities. states that the pandemic has significantly impacted the fashion industry; breaking supply chains and causing a huge dip in sales for many companies. Despite the obvious negative consequences from this, the group sees this as an opportunity for the industry to change by rebuilding itself in a way that is more sustainable, enabled by increased environmental regulation by the government. 

This report is widely backed by the public. In fact, 65% of UK residents agree that the government need to urgently do more to reduce the environmental impact of the fashion industry. 74% of the public backed the call to support new start-up businesses that operated greener business models, and 72% wanted the government to invest in skills to bring more manufacturing jobs to the UK. 52% also said they’d be willing to spend a little more on clothes if they were made ethically and had less impact on the environment.

According to Cassandra Dittmer, sustainable brand consultant, cost can be a big pain point when it comes to changing consumer behaviour. ‘“Being able to shop sustainably is a huge privilege because that means you are able to make choices. Many people today don't have the time or means to make sustainable choices when they are trying to support themselves and a family on living wages.” But, the growing shift to more ‘circular’ buying habits may help to combat this problem.

Customers are starting to build new habits such as keeping their clothing items and accessories in circulation as long as possible. This is supported by industry too, with brands like ‘Renewal Workshop’ taking back items, cleaning and repairing them before reselling. Added to this, items that are made with care by conscious brands are generally built to last, so consumers don’t need to throw away items at the same rate – on the provision that they’re investing in quality, ‘forever’ items.

While consumers are becoming far more informed on sustainability and trying to make more conscious shopping choices, it can be difficult for them to tell which brands are genuinely following sustainable practices, and which are just employing the buzzword of ‘sustainability’ to exploit its popularity. This practice, known as ‘greenwashing’, sees retailers overstate the environmental or ethical benefits of their products or services. The best way to avoid getting caught out is to look for the most transparent of brands – if the company mentions ‘sustainable’ and ‘ethical’ practices, look for the evidence on their website. The most trustworthy brands will be transparent about their supply chains.

Generally, it looks like the global pandemic has led to a positive change in the way the majority of us view fashion and consumption. Since the pandemic first began, 57% of people who regularly buy fashion items have started to change their behaviour, according to research by McKinsey. Two-thirds of those surveyed believe it’s now more important than ever to limit the impact of climate change through the fashion industry. Many report buying less, but while Boohoo’s shares have fallen, their sales are in fact on the up, which could prove change is happening slower than we’d like.

In fact, while customers seem to be increasingly aware of the problems around the fast fashion industry, many are still buying in large quantities. Despite the effect of Covid-19 on retail stores, the increase in online sales in August this year has now led to it outperforming last year’s sales in the same month. It seems that while awareness around environmental impact has increased, consumers are still purchasing garments at a high rate.

It is clear that awareness around sustainable fashion is increasing among the general public, from fair wages to environmental impact. Many consumers are starting to take up more sustainable practices, and are increasingly looking to the government to greater regulate the industry. That being said, clothes sales this year increased despite the global pandemic, proving there remains a desire to regularly buy new clothes, fast. So while sustainability has trickled into the minds of consumers, we have a way to go before it moves completely mainstream.