Millennials & Sustainability: Slow Food, Fast Fashion by Michelle Blanco, May 20 2016, 92 Comments

Fast Fashion

It’s no secret that the latest trend is saving the earth. From the proliferation of organic food available everywhere to Beyoncé’s 2015 decision to go vegan, more and more people are jumping on the pesticide-free bandwagon. Whether by educated efforts toward sustainability or mere greenwashing, it’s hip to be a hippie. In a 2015 Nielsen report on millennial buying habits, statistics show increasing millennial interest in purchasing sustainable food and home products.

According to the study:

  • 69 % of millennials preferred to buy products that were “made from fresh, natural and or organic ingredients”
  • 58% also preferred to buy products “made by a company known for being environmentally friendly.”

These numbers grew 12-13% from the previous year, meaning that eco-conscious buying in certain industries is gaining evermore popularity with young people, but what about fashion?

Fast Fashion Fast Food

Unlike fast food, fast fashion has yet to receive the same level of public outcry we've seen in the food industry. With documentaries like "Supersize Me" and "Food Inc.", as well as a slew of books on the subject, millennial consumers have long been aware about the the abuses within the food industry. But for whatever reason, documentaries like "The True Cost", highlighting the abuses in the fashion industry have been less buzzy and have failed to derail the urge to impulse buy the cheapest and trendiest clothing available.

Food Over Fashion

What was most alarming in these studies was the discrepancy in millennial's food and clothing choices. A Barkley & Service Management Group study polling 4,000 millennials ages 16 to 34 showed that while young men and women wanted “clean and green” options in grocery stores and restaurants, when it came to apparel, the criteria did not include environmental friendliness. Brands like Nike, Levi’s, Forever 21, Abercrombie & Fitch and Gap topped the list of millennial favorites which are known culprits for sweatshop labor and cheap materials. While a handful of major brands have made efforts to clean up their production and labor practices, (most notably Levi’s with their Wellthread™ label), the millennial purchasing power regarding sustainability doesn't seem to translate into ethical retail decisions.

Celebrity Activism

Along with Queen Bey's vegan moment, other celebrities are waving the banner for change in the fashion industry. At last week’s Met Gala in New York City, Emma Watson, Margo Robbie and Lupita Nyong’o wore dresses designed by Calvin Klein as part of the "Green Carpet Challenge" issued by creative director and sustainability advocate Livia Firth. The dresses were made from recycled and organic materials with the purpose of being worn again and deconstructed for a variety of occasions. Statements on sustainability are rare on the red carpet as well as within high fashion publications, with these parties being somewhat obligated to play nice with major labels who sponsor them. With few designers taking seriously the charge to clean up production and materials, there is a lack of excitement and no trickle-down effect stemming from the luxury end of the spectrum. Eco-conscious designer, Stella McCartney, spoke on the the lack of priority towards sustainability in the fashion industry and among consumers:

“People don’t always question the sourcing of their materials, and it’s critical, it’s key,” said McCartney. “In farming, you know you have to put back into the soil in order to get a good crop the next season. The fashion industry doesn’t always approach it from that point of view.”

Saving People, Not the Planet

There seems to be a major disconnect for consumers between food and fashion. People seem to understand that good food is directly beneficial to their health and well-being, but are failing to see the direct benefit of buying ethical clothing. At the Creativity and Sustainability Conference at FIT this past April, Dr. Donald Lee, a representative from the United Nations Committee for the Eradication of Poverty shared some U.N. goals for improving life quality. When nearing the end of his speech he noted somewhat ominously, "What people don't understand is that we're undertaking these initiatives not to save the planet, but to save people. The planet will always renew itself. We're more concerned that people can't." What Dr. Lee was alluding to was an uninhabitable planet, rife with excess landfill waste, polluted waterways and disease ridden populations. It’s a rather grim vision, but one that needs to be considered seriously in order to facilitate real change in how we think about and consume fashion.

Until the millennial population becomes deeply disturbed by the inhumane and unsustainable practices in the fashion industry, corporations are unlikely to change. In our consumer-driven economy, though labels hold much power, even they are at the mercy of consumers. Brands like Everlane, The Reformation, Cuyana & Datura have slowly gained traction by creating stylish, ethical options that appeal to the millennial fashion set. But these brands have a long way to go in competing with major retailers and slowing the churn of fast fashion. With time and valiant activism, we can only hope that our passion for kale and quinoa can convert itself into an appetite for greener fashion.

About the Author:

Michelle Blanco is an English major turned fashion stylist and sustainability crusader. After a year stint working as a copywriter for a venture capital firm in Sacramento, Michelle moved to New York to pursue wardrobe styling. Her work includes assisting on fashion photoshoots for advertisements and e-Commerce campaigns for brands such as J.Crew and Calvin Klein. Michelle currently resides in Brooklyn, New York.

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