If looks could kill

Fashion begins to reckon with the damage it’s done to the planet

“Sustainable” clothes and sneakers are a good start, but we should all be buying less. An industry built on crass consumerism is finally looking in the mirror.

MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images/MediaNews Group/Getty Images

Early this February, in the lead-up to revealing its SS20 collection, Noah posted a bold message on its Instagram feed: “We are not a sustainable brand.”

It was a rare admission for a clothing brand, but not a new one for Noah, the five-year-old company that’s become like a grown-up Supreme. (It was founded by Supreme's former creative director Brendon Babenzien.) Noah has garnered a dedicated following thanks to its progressive politics and its commitment to ethical business practices.

But for all its bona fides, Noah has never been shy about the core paradox of being a sustainable producer of apparel. Adding recycled T-shirts to its lineup and paying livable wages to its producers doesn't solve all the industry's problems. "We are, however, working as hard as we can to be a responsible company," Noah said in the post.

Apparel giants like Nike and Adidas have made progress on the sustainable manufacturing front, increasingly embracing practices like upcycling. As a result, these companies have been praised for their efforts. But it’s important to question how much of a difference these practices actually make. Equally imperative is highlighting the consumers’ role in sustainability. It’s remarkably simple, but it bears emphasizing: we need to stop buying so much stuff.

On its blog, Noah has grappled with the idea of sustainability for years. In February 2018, it made the same “We are not a sustainable brand” admission in the lead graphic for a blog post called “On Sustainability.” The post went on to say: “There’s really no such thing as a sustainable clothing company. True sustainability would mean turning back the clock on over a century of clothing consumption and production trends, most of which have been fueled by accelerated industrialization and the rise of consumer economies worldwide.”

Eight months later, in November, came another blog post entitled “We Are Drowning in Stuff,” in which Noah announced it would be closed for Black Friday. “While we’re not trying to say people shouldn’t consume anything,” the company wrote, “we are saying the current cycle of endless consumption isn’t healthy. We may all be acting like there’s nothing wrong with it, but the fact is plain: we are drowning in stuff.”

The fashion industry currently churns out more than 53 million tons of clothing per year, according to a 2017 report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. The report found that consumers have worn the same clothes 36 percent less than they did 15 years prior, with many articles of clothing only being worn seven to 10 times before finding their way to the dump. Organic materials like cotton and wool produce methane in landfills through anaerobic decomposition, which contributes to global warming. If all the discarded clothing that could still be worn were collected for reuse globally, $460 billion in new clothing sales could be avoided. In the U.S. in particular, people only wear their clothing for a quarter of the time of the global average.

Meanwhile, other people involved in the endless cycle of telling you what to buy are beginning to come around to that idea. Just this week, Business of Fashion executive editor Lauren Sherman tweeted about beginning the year without buying any new clothing. She said, without having much time to dig into the second-hand market, she’s only bought three things, two of which she’s returned. Still, she hasn’t been “dying for” anything new in stores.

She’s hardly alone in fashion media. Russ Bengtson is a sneaker OG. The former Slam editor-in-chief and sneaker editor for Complex has been covering kicks since the mid-’90s. His collection would be a source of envy for many connoisseurs, but for him it has become a source of dread. “When people ask me how many sneakers I have, I always say between 500 and 1,000,” Bengtson says. “I have no idea how accurate that is. That’s always been a number that’s felt right. The state of my storage unit right now is not conducive to doing an account.”

He’s slowly begun getting rid of some of his sneakers, taking them to charity-based thrift stores or resellers like Round Two. But that’s barely cracked a dent into his stockpile, and he jokes that he needs an intern or an archaeologist to help organize and offload the countless pairs.

“Buying now to put away for later doesn’t make sense anymore.”

“I always justified keeping things by saying, ‘I might want this in 20 years,’” Bengtson says. “I can’t really look at stuff now and think, ‘In 20 years I might want this.’ Twenty years from now I’m not going to want any of this. Now is the future I’d always talked about. If I’m not going to wear it now, I’m not going to wear it ever. So buying now to put away for later doesn’t make sense anymore.”

Bengtson, whose coverage dates back to when sneakerheads were still a subculture, has written about stepping away from the hype machine, no longer wearing the blockbuster releases and instead favoring basics like the Adidas Campus. Today, his ethos for buying new stuff is clear. “When I look at new things, I don’t think, ‘Do I really want this?’ but, “Wait, what do I already have? Does this just duplicate things I have already?’” he says.

He points to Virgil Abloh’s controversial comments predicting the death of streetwear and widespread movement toward vintage. “I would definitely say it’s gonna die,” Abloh told Dazed. “Like, its time will be up. In my mind, how many more T-shirts can we own, how many more hoodies, how many sneakers? I think that we’re gonna hit this really awesome state of expressing your knowledge and personal style with vintage... I think that fashion is going to go away from buying a boxfresh something.”

Virgil Abloh wearing one of his numerous collaborative sneakers with Nike.David M. Benett/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

From a wider perspective, Bengtson thinks Abloh's comments are ridiculous. He points to kids who haven’t bought much of that stuff yet and are still wearing what their parents purchased them. “But from a personal standpoint,” he says, “it’s like, “Yeah, I already have too many T-shirts. I already have too many pairs of sneakers. Why do I need to buy another one and add to something else put out here that’s just going to get tossed?”

Alec Leach, former style editor at Highsnobiety and curator of the “responsible fashion” Instagram account Future Dust, has been fully committed to only buying vintage for nearly a year. Since April 2019, he hasn’t bought anything brand-new. He says it’s been difficult at times, but he doesn’t plan to go back after finishing up the year.

“Working as a fashion editor for five years, you get really exposed to how relentless the cycle of new clothing is,” Leach says. “I figured, ‘How much great clothing has been made in just that five years?’ Fucking shit loads of amazing stuff was made in that time. Shopping second hand, with all of the apps and platforms that are out there, is super-easy. It’s good to discipline yourself sometimes. It’s healthy to go through periods of abstaining from things.”

Leach realized he could find a lot of great clothing with work, but he didn’t realize just how great it would be for his personal style. He says he’s focused on classic basics like the Dickies pant or Champion sweatshirt, and his commitment to vintage led to discovering brands like John Smedley. Founded in 1784, the English brand is known for traditional, quality knitwear. Because it’s been around for so long, its products are easy to find on the second-hand market for affordable prices.

“I started thinking a lot more holistically about the clothes that I wear and a lot more about building a uniform, which has been really, really healthy,” he says.

It hasn’t been without challenges, especially because the vintage market isn't as great where he lives in Berlin, but he’s adamant about more consumers following his lead. “We don’t need any more clothes,” Leach says. “There are mountains and mountains and mountains of clothes out there already. The impact of buying something second-hand is tiny compared to even the most sustainable garment. Even using a really great certified organic cotton that’s been dyed and processed really well. If you’re speaking specifically to an American audience, American eBay is fucking insane. You have the best, best shit there.”

“There are mountains and mountains and mountains of clothes out there already.”

Consumers should ask themselves a few questions, he says: Are your current shopping habits good for your mental health? For your wallet? For your personal style? “If you follow the consumption pattern that the modern industry wants us to follow,” Leach says, “you’ll be anxious, you’ll look like shit, and you’ll be broke. I don’t think the modern culture around fashion right now is good for us in basically any way.”

That’s why Leach touts brands with “responsible design” or “cultural sustainability.” He points to brands like Patagonia, which has essentially been making the same products since 1973, or Levi’s, whose 501 jean is nearly 150 years old and still a staple. “Noah isn’t super-innovative when it comes to production methods,” he says. But he points to the brand’s timeless designs, which often merge downtown skateboarding and Long Island beach culture. “Aesthetically, it could be from any era. There’s a lot to be said for dressing in a way that has a lot of longevity to it.”

Even if consumers aren’t willing to completely give up buying new clothing, they could think more before purchasing. Will that new piece stay in your closet for a year, a decade, or even longer? Being a better consumer can be as easy as eliminating purchases on the lower end of that scale. In addition to dedicated apps like Grailed or eBay, Instagram has emerged as another resale platform for enterprising teens. With used clothing as close as your timeline, just taking smaller steps in the right direction is extremely doable.

“Any of us who’ve been in this industry at any level have been complicit,” Bengtson says. “We’re all so tied to the companies that produce this stuff that we’re all pushing the same message of ‘How can you not buy this.’ Actually, don’t buy this. If you’re going to go for the sustainability side, that’s the message you should send. None of us tied to the hype product network are ever going to be completely honest about it.”

It’s time for us all to take a step back and consider what we actually need. The cost of “new” is more than the planet can afford.