Fashioning a “Trendy” Mindset
Updated: Jun 7
Sure, the fashion industry has its problems. But do consumers make them worse?
Over the years, the fashion industry’s exploitation of unsustainable practices has become increasingly clear. Along with churning out clothes that are steeped in dangerous chemicals and produced using materials that are quick to wither, name brand companies also harness the power of advertising and social media to falsely portray their products as “sustainable.” In the process, they mobilize scores of often-uninformed consumers who continue to encourage environmentally-unfriendly clothing production through their repeated purchase of these clothes. This essay specifically discusses the role of the consumer in sustaining the environmental wrongdoings of the fashion industry, as well as the ways in which consumers can finally take a stand. While up-cycling and dying clothes with natural substances are explored as viable options, less time-consuming alternatives such as checking the labels on clothing and being wary of deceiving social media campaigns are also discussed. In addition, this essay uncovers the reasons why consumers respond the way they do: why they succumb to faulty advertisements, why they hesitate to purchase sustainable items, and why they so frequently flee to stores even when their closets are overflowing. In doing so, this essay aims to lay bare not only the powerful role that the consumer plays in the fashion industry’s practices, but also the impact that a rising consumer voice can have on making permanent change in a burgeoning industry that is only starting to pick up speed.
Though the clothing industry’s detrimental impact on the environment is widely known, the role that consumers play in exacerbating the problem is seldom acknowledged. As companies continuously flood stores with rack upon rack of new garments, giddy consumers pile their shopping bags to the brim with items designed in line with the latest trends. In doing so, they often unknowingly show their support for a fast-fashion industry that promotes clothing that hardly lasts weeks, contains harmful dyes, and is environmentally costly to produce. Because customers are uninformed about the impact that each of their purchases makes as well as the individuality that sustainable fashion offers, they are hesitant to switch to eco-friendlier methods of purchasing and using clothes. In her article, “Climate justice isn’t sexy: The double failure of sustainable fashion marketing and activism,” Sarah Portway addresses this issue by writing that consumers “prefer to ignore the social and environmental implications of their clothing purchases at the point of sale” (par. 26). In other words, consumers frequently choose short-term pleasure over long-term damage, thereby feeding the exploitative behavior of corporate manufacturers. In “Industry insight: conscious consumption,” Ophelia Schultz-Clark argues that “[w]hat [consumers] are going to wear today is a powerful choice, and it is up to [them] to make an informed one” (par. 1). By being educated on the ways in which they can improve the environmental sustainability of their clothing, through methods such as up-cycling and boycotts of unsustainable corporations, consumers have the power to speak up against and hold accountable businesses within the fashion industry that have a history of malpractice. In fashioning a new mindset that exposes the deception of corporate social media campaigns and promotes extending the longevity of clothes, consumers can become a force for permanent change in both the production and the use of clothes.
The contribution consumers make to amplify the clothing crisis all starts with their response to fashion marketing tactics that highlight the beauty or trendiness of clothing over its quality. Advertisers frequently abuse their power to manipulate consumers into thinking that they are making environmentally conscious purchases — a tactic that succeeds in reinforcing consumer naivete. Portway writes, for example, that consumers are “encouraged to buy multiple ‘fashion’ pairs” that are “destined for disposal due to their low economic value” (par. 6). As these outfits have been produced from inexpensive materials such as polyester, they tend to flood and flee stores within the blink of an eye. Rather than purchasing one long-lasting article of clothing that can be used and reused several times over, shoppers are persuaded to buy multiple items that fail to last longer than a few weeks. Aside from snagging clothes with a short shelf life, consumers also neglect to thoughtfully consider the history of their clothes before purchase. In fact, Portway argues that “consumers who are influenced by USDA labels at the grocery store…may not be thinking about how their clothing was made when they visit the mall” — and that includes where the clothing was made and what products were used to make it (par. 10). Though vendors should be required to disclose information about their production process, consumers should also proactively choose to educate themselves on the pesticides, harmful dyes, and faulty manufacturing processes that go into clothing production. In doing so, they could potentially be guided toward making smarter choices while browsing clothing racks in the future. Portway’s call for a boycott of unsustainable clothing corporations, in which she pleads consumers to “pick up the bouncing campaign posters and start posting annoyingly prevalent and horrific re-postable social media,” further speaks to the prevalent need for consumers to make their voices heard (par. 26). Though they may appear to be little more than credulous shoppers who quickly succumb to corporate campaigns, consumers have the power to become better informed about and call out corporations with a record of negligent production practices. As such, by publicizing their protests with just a click of a button, consumers can reject misleading advertisements in favor of greater corporate transparency.
Though consumers’ response to faulty advertisements is certainly noteworthy, the psychology behind their apparel purchases must not be set aside. By better understanding why they buy environmentally-damaging clothes while steering clear of more sustainable options, consumers can modify their ways of thinking as they shop for clothes in the future. For one, consumers frequently overestimate the sustainability of companies that brand themselves as “green.” In fact, in "Environmentally Friendly Apparel Products: The Effects of Value Perceptions,” Heekang Moon and Hyun-Hwa Lee emphasize that “consumers may consider a fast fashion retailer’s move to be more sustainable than it really is” (par. 4). Like Portway, who brings light to the constant deception used by brand-name companies, Moon and Lee claim that consumers are frequently dazzled by the pretty patterns and lavish looks that are constantly waved in front of their faces. As such, they highlight the importance of perception: If consumers perceive a more sustainable product as “beneficial both to themselves and to society,” then they will feel more encouraged to purchase that product (Moon and Lee par. 18). Their study, in which they introduced consumers to more environmentally friendly products made by well-known retailers, such as H&M and Zara, reveals that the affordability of these products, as well as their ability to remain in line with the trends, largely drives consumers toward or away from making sustainable purchases. These findings have applications in a broader sphere as well. Those products that are more environmentally sustainable but also come with a higher price tag generally cause consumers to feel dissonance and ultimately shift toward the cheaper, unsustainable option. As price is certainly a substantial factor contributing to any purchase, consumers often struggle to find ways to maintain a sustainable wardrobe without breaking the bank. That is where up-cycling comes in.
Up-cycling, which involves taking existing clothes and increasing their value, is just one of many options for consumers to lengthen the longevity of their wardrobe. Though up-cycling is often dismissed as burdensome or demanding, most consumers are unaware of the surprising ease with which any aspiring up-cycler can transform even the most threadbare clothes into stunning masterpieces. In "An exploratory study on up-cycling as the sustainable clothing life at home," Sooyoen Shim, et al. stress up-cycling’s success in “expressing our own personality without unnecessary spending, and satisfying our desire for pursuing creative and novel material” (par. 4). Their study, in which they asked thirty adults of varying ages to describe their attitude towards up-cycling, reveals that many consumers hope to make more active efforts to alter their attire, either by changing its fit for others to wear it, by turning it into bags and purses, or even by simply using and reusing it as rags for household chores. However, this desire to transform attire into art is met with complaints that converting hats to mats or shorts to forts not only demands time and energy, but it also requires an overload of creativity. Shultz-Clark offers a viable solution by suggesting that even those who claim to be lacking in ideas or creativity can up-cycle with ease thanks to platforms like Pinterest, which provide “hundreds of examples of things you can make from old clothing, plus ways to breathe back life into old garments” (par. 4). Because most consumers have such readily available access to technology and the endless realm of ideas within it, it is in their best interest to take advantage of digital platforms to learn how to revamp their clothing into any number of possibilities. However, the benefits of up-cycling stem beyond the environmental sphere. Shim, et al.’s findings support that those who up-cycle their clothes “use them for a long time with affection,” forming an emotional and personal connection with what used to be little more than a ragged piece of cloth (par. 39). As such, those who protest that up-cycling clothes hinders people from keeping up with the contemporary craze often disregard that up-cycling offers much more flexibility and individuality than assumed. And, as Clark consistently emphasizes, rejecting social norms in favor of a more sustainable wardrobe is a small price to pay when compared to the alternative of “feeding a business area that guzzles far more than its share of precious environmental resources” (par. 2). If more consumers switch to up-cycling for its low cost and its high satisfaction, then they may find that it provides a much-desired sense of accomplishment while keeping entire piles of clothes out of the landfill. In the process, consumers can add a new element of personality to their garments, making their wardrobe their own and only their own.
Aside from giving their clothes identity by recycling and modifying them, consumers can also combat the clothing industry’s exploitation of harmful chemicals by dying their own clothes with natural substances such as roots, leaves, and fruits. In his New York Times article “Colors of the Cauldron,” Michael Tortorello details the multitude of problems posed by artificial dyes, including that “extra chemicals can trickle into the waste stream” and release toxic amounts of “aromatic solvents, formaldehyde, chlorine bleach, and heavy metal salts” into the water (par. 26). Tortorello goes on to cite Sasha Duerr as a leading fashion designer who uses plants from her own garden to bring color to her clothes, arguing that “[i]f you’re looking at a plant, you’re looking at a potential dye” (par. 12). Though some of Duerr’s plants, such as fava bean vines and poppy roots, are not readily available to consumers, others are easy to find and appear equally vibrant on cloth. In fact, consumers can find the vast majority of natural dyes at their local grocery store at a relatively low cost, especially because a very small quantity of the dye is needed to produce even the most brilliant colors. Only one or two blackberries, for instance, can make for a bold blue-black hue, leaving a substantial portion as a tasty snack. Meanwhile, in “Use of plant dyes in textiles industries,” Sarita Joshi, et al. especially emphasize those dyes that are “available in abundance, cost effective, [and] yield good color,” such as the bright red hues of pomegranate and the darker purples of indigo plants (par. 3). These dyes not only confer a unique and ever-changing color to whatever they touch, but they also are a relatively inexpensive alternative to synthetic dyes that seep into the environment and damage the wildlife. Since natural dyes age with the garment, they ensure that the garment looks slightly different every time it is worn, allowing for individual expression at its finest. Thus, the long-term benefits of natural dyes far outweigh the short-term convenience of synthetic dyes. In a race between natural and synthetic dyes, natural dyes win by a landslide.
For those who simply cannot overcome the time and energy required to up-cycle or dye their own clothes, there remains a smaller yet still significant way in which they can minimize their clothing footprint without having to put in additional effort. By paying closer attention to the labels on clothes prior to checkout, as well as by purchasing clothes only when they are really needed, consumers can refrain from stocking up on products that have been made in an unsustainable manner. For example, consumers can purchase clothes that are guaranteed to be used several times in the future not only due to their durable material, but also their loose fit. In the New York Times article “How to Buy Clothes That Are Built to Last,” Kendra Pierre-Louis suggests that consumers consider options that are versatile enough to be used exhaustively, flexible enough to be compatible with changing body sizes, and comfortable enough to be used repeatedly rather than be thrown away. Pierre-Louis also advises consumers to be on the lookout for clothing tags that detail the materials in the clothes themselves, claiming, for example, that “keep[ing] the polyester content [in a dress shirt] between 20 and 40 percent…[is ideal] so the shirt is absorbent and soft but reasonably durable” (par. 33). Similarly, in his Washington Post article “The Troubling Ethics of Fashion in the Age of Climate Change,” Robin Givhan argues that there are, in fact, ways for consumers to remain in style while purchasing clothes that lack extra buttons, cuffs, or other accessories that place a strain on the production process. Like Pierre-Louis, Givhan ultimately claims that “[t]he simplest, best path to sustainability is not anti-fashion; it’s anti-gorging” (par. 23). By asking themselves whether they really need certain clothes rather than filling up their shopping carts within seconds of spotting the newest products, consumers can initiate steps toward a more sustainable way of living. And by altering their mindset that having the latest trends is the only way to appear fashionable, consumers can promote a new outlook towards clothing usage that centers on making the most use of what they have — and shopping only for what they need.
The fashion industry’s alarming contribution to air pollution, water contamination, and global warming, among other problems, is well-known by the public. However, the role of the unsuspecting consumer in perpetuating and encouraging poor corporate practices is often set aside. Consumers far too frequently fall prey to devious marketing ploys and purchase clothes that are falsely marketed as “sustainable,” all because they are rarely informed of the ways in which they are continually being deceived. Even more consumers throw away old clothes after minimal use, purchase clothes without reading the labels on them, and support companies that infuse clothes with harmful chemicals. Though the flaws in the clothing production process are certainly undeniable, consumers have the power to not only alter their treatment and purchase of their garments, but also to pressure large corporations to take a second look at their faulty practices. In harnessing their voices to push for a more eco-friendly yet equally fashionable future, consumers can make waves in an industry in which environmental protections have been next to nonexistent. And in doing so, they can reform one of the world’s largest and most damaging industries from the bottom-up.
Givhan, Robin. “The Troubling Ethics of Fashion in the Age of Climate Change.” The Washington Post Magazine, 18 Nov. 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/magazine/2019/11/18/troubling-ethics-fashion-age-climate-change/. Accessed 4 May 2021.
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Tortorello, Michael. “Colors of the Cauldron.” New York Times, 4 April. 2012, www.nytimes.com/2012/04/05/garden/a-new-generation-discovers-grow-it-yourself-dyes.html. Accessed 4 May 2021.