Is sustainable fashion still there?


The above word has taken over the fashion industry. Everyone puts sustainability at the fore, trying to look back at what fashion has done to this planet.

But somehow, when I was young, when my teacher in elementary school announced a family motto, everyone wondered if there was such a thing in their house, and then I can only remember one thing, ‘everything goes well when the house is harmonious’. Of course, we have no way of knowing whether the motto is someone else’s family motto and whether it is a value we are really practising, and in fact, we do not need to pay that much attention to it. But sustainability is a problem because it targets all of us, so it’s not just a matter of looking at it. If that company’s sustainability disappears, you can buy another company’s clothes, and it seems not your business, but unfortunately, things aren’t that simple anymore. It’s already yours.

Then, why do they all shout about sustainability? That is because, sadly and ironically, clothes are not sustainable. In other words, clothes harm the planet. Significantly eliminating all synthetic fibres and using only natural fibres will not solve the problem. There is no harmless process from cultivation to processing. Like other industries (and perhaps more), the fashion industry has also been a climate catastrophe.

Moreover, the technology of the fashion industry cannot prevent this disaster. At least not yet; people can’t walk down the street and capture carbon with their clothes. Nike uses a technology that does not use water when dyeing, but maybe a more fundamental solution is needed before the Dutch boy who blocked the dam appears in the industry. Again, achieving carbon neutrality for fashion companies is as tricky as for oil companies. Fashion companies have no choice.

There is no choice, but that doesn’t mean that the reality of shouting about sustainability is the best. There are no clothes that are harmless to Earth in the first place. Even upcycling cannot achieve zero carbon emissions in the process. Because designers not only have to receive clothes for upcycling, but they also have to pass them on to secondary and tertiary consumers. Still, upcycling is at the forefront of sustainability and is gaining mainstream attention. Obviously, we cannot ignore the aspect that it can directly connect with the environment and create a virtuous cycle just by not adding garbage to the dumpster and not making clothes that may be sold as new resources.

H&M in-store recycling system “Looop”

H&M introduced the machine pictured above inside its Stockholm store in June 2020. The system, developed jointly by the H&M Foundation and the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel(HKRITA), replaces old clothes with new ones(to borrow their words). It adds no additional water and dyes here. This system is an excellent example of what capital-injected upcycling is. Of course, regardless of how innovative the system is, considering the history of multinational companies such as H&M and the fact that this corporation placed this machine like an installation art in a store where they have no choice but to face customers, it can be regarded as just another greenwashing in the end.

It is meaningful, however, that fast fashion companies break with the simple collection of clothes in the past and the payment of vouchers to purchase new products to those who brought old clothes. Furthermore, it’s not just about showing that consumers can actually see what they can do with the clothes in real-time. People can witness a series of processes from design to production in the store, and the experience of seeing the whole process in person is an opportunity to change their perception. It is worth considering how the open kitchen system has changed the perception of the culinary industry and consumers. We can expect an effect similar to that of an open kitchen through this system. Maybe, it will be an opportunity to break the custom of only purchasing clothes that have come out of nowhere and were produced in unknown places.

However, this level of effort and showing sustainability is insufficient. A little look at the back of this recycling system proves that fast-fashion companies are not as bright as they used to be and that issues such as upcycling and sustainability have been factored into the “+ factor” under financial calculations. Furthermore, it seems bizarre that h&m introduced a recycling knit machine, which is not easy to predict how many knits it will produce in a day, regardless of the system’s significance. That doesn’t mean we can’t rely on the efforts of a few conscious organisations and individuals to undertake such an important task as the continuation of this vast industry.

In the end, a shout using technology and capital and a shout with individual responsibility are both meaningful and necessary. Nevertheless, the best solution, the way not to stop showing and not to be dismissed as greenwashing, doesn’t have to show anything. If sustainability is not to be an empty cry, no matter how much you think about it, you have to do nothing. The most harmless clothes are those that only travel between your wardrobe and your body without having to go anywhere. However, in modern society, not doing anything is the same as saying that the market size will decrease, jobs will disappear, et cetera.

If so, maybe we can try a different approach to repair. The resale and secondary processing markets called “upcycling” are also growing in size, but access to “repair”, which is the most necessary to increase sustainability, is still insufficient. No matter how much you love clothes, mending clothes is still a strange and cumbersome task. It’s not as exciting as buying a new one. However, it is crucial to remember that second-hand trading and upcycling are all about extending the life of clothes, and this ‘long-term use’ means sustainability. And to prolong the life of anything, the priority factor is maintenance and repair.

There is no circular movement without care and repair. — Emily rea, co-founder and head of marketing and business development, The Restory


Why haven’t clothes been repaired until now? Of course, there are different problems depending on the material and type of clothes, but is it an area where people cannot improve their clothes? Is it because I don’t have the technical skills to fix it? When you look at the local laundry’s repair skills, it would be not easy to see it that way. However, the repair does not show any business feasibility. Repairs that require different manuals depending on the situation are more inefficient than mass-manufacturing clothes of the same material and design. Efficiency is an important principle, but no matter how large a business, can’t we just put down the calculator and carry out work only with responsibility?

The core value of achieving sustainability is to return corporate profits to society and the environment. If a brand is confident in the quality of its products, it will be necessary to show responsibility for the product accordingly, away from financial value. Moreover, how often has the economic value of consumption been judged in the fashion market? As an industry that has grown based on people who have bought it “just because they like it” so far, wouldn’t it be possible to do something with the same mind if it was a company in that industry?

The sustainability of the product through reliable after-sales service is the brand’s sustainability. Only when such management is supported can the perception of the lifespan of clothes change. Changes in the perception of the lifespan of clothes can change how we consume them, such as in fast fashion. Only where current consumption patterns have changed will we be able to see the sustainability of this industry.

Muyo Park




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