is bryanboy right — is sustainability incompatible with fashion?
We weigh in.
Helen Kirkum sneakers, photographed by Namal Lanka
Back in 1986, environmentalist Jay Westerveld coined the term ‘greenwashing’ to describe companies posturing as eco-friendly to boost their sales. Three decades later the practice is as prevalent as ever, and blogger Bryan Yambao, known professionally as Bryanboy, has had enough of it. “I’m gonna jump off a bridge head first if I hear about yet another ‘sustainable’ clothing line,” he wrote last week in a tweet which has since been pinned to his profile. “There’s nothing sustainable about creating something new en masse. Just stop. Please. You wanna know what’s sustainable? Wearing your old damn clothes, that’s what. Bye.” His words are aimed squarely at brands co-opting activism to sell products and worsening the ultimate problem of over-consumption, but they also flag up a debate which has been ongoing for years: can fashion ever be truly sustainable?
It’s not hard to see Bryan’s point, and he’s far from the first person to make it. The fashion industry relies on profit, and plenty of companies are willing to bypass human rights and fuck up the environment to secure it. Documentaries like The True Cost have underlined this sad truth in the past, and journalists like Lucy Siegle have pointed out that even brands aiming to make positive change often do so to boost their own sales. Model Lily Cole even went so far as to describe ‘ethical fashion’ as an oxymoron way back in 2011. The catch? Cole herself is the co-founder of – you guessed it – a seemingly now-defunct ‘ethical fashion’ brand.
A quick glance at these facts might make you feel nihilistic, frustrated or, like Bryan, metaphorically tempted to hurl yourself off the nearest tall surface, but they only capture a fragment of the bigger picture. Yes, creating huge quantities of new clothing is bound to be bad for the environment. But what about the designers making small collections using ethically-made fabrics? Or the ones reusing and recycling old textiles to realise their vision?
Footwear designer Helen Kirkum agrees that the system as it stands doesn’t allow for ‘sustainable fashion’, but she’s optimistic that it can change. “I think designers and brands are already in the process of reworking the current system,” she explains to i-D. “Some are even forming entirely new ones.” Kirkum’s own work is exemplary; she aims to challenge our idea of waste by splicing together scraps of old fabric. It’s literally a process of turning trash into treasure.
“My work is about creating products that give us new visions of what luxury could be,” she continues. “It’s also about inspiring creativity within consumers, [encouraging] them to reimagine their own pieces before discarding them.” This isn’t just about “wearing your old damn clothes” – it’s about designers realising the potential of discarded textiles and turning old into new. Margiela’s Artisanal line has long embraced this ethos, and it’s one which Kirkum says is particularly popular in the sneaker world: “Consumers are ready to take their products and make them their own; they don’t need to rely on that next seasonal colourway.”
“I’ll always fight for social justice, but I can also fight animal cruelty by using materials like Pinatex Pineapple Leather; I can reduce water consumption by hand-dying material and using natural pigments; I can recycle found materials. I really consider working sustainably as something rooted in quality, because I want to make something worth preserving forever.”
It’s also not exactly fair to say that no clothing line can be truly sustainable, especially as so many young talented designers are busy finding solutions rather than just bemoaning the problem. Paolo Carzana is just one of many innovative minds recently spotlighted by i-D. He’s emblematic of a new generation which understands that fashion currently relies on a chain of exploitation: “Our impact on garment workers is completely unsustainable,” he summarises bluntly. “I believe there are two options. We either ignore the problem, continue to abuse the resources we have and contribute to mass destruction, or we make a conscious change and fight for a revolution in production, both for people’s lives and the environment.”
Unsurprisingly, Carzana falls into the latter category. Like many bright young minds, he’s currently honing his craft at London’s Central Saint Martins and figuring out how best to change the industry for good. “I’ll always fight for social justice, but I can also fight animal cruelty by using materials like Pinatex Pineapple Leather; I can reduce water consumption by hand-dying material and using natural pigments; I can recycle found materials. I really consider working sustainably as something rooted in quality, because I want to make something worth preserving forever.”
These designers might only be operating on a small scale now, but they may well be the Demna Gvasalias of the future. Today’s generation is acutely aware of fashion’s devastating impact, so to imply that fashion can never be sustainable and therefore we should all just give up isn’t exactly encouraging. We might only be able to make a small change, but it’s better than nothing.
But there is one key takeaway: greenwashing sucks. “Sustainability is a terrible word,” agrees Tamsin Blanchard, a renowned journalist and activist who works closely alongside NGO Fashion Revolution to fight for a kinder, more transparent industry. “It’s completely meaningless, it makes people roll their eyes and it turns people off – I love the fact that Bryanboy is talking about it!” But Blanchard is also quick to reinforce that the world is literally burning, and that the more benevolent members of the industry are just trying to find solutions. “Fashion is in complete turmoil; it’s trying to find innovative ways of reducing water usage; it’s sourcing biotech materials that don’t involve huge amounts of fossil fuels. We’ve all seen the dire warnings that we only have 12 years to stop temperatures rising to catastrophic levels. Time is running out.”
It’s easy to argue that fashion is driven by profit and mass production and can therefore never be sustainable, but this argument is overarching and ultimately unhelpful. After all, fashion isn’t just the high-street giants pumping out endless collections, nor is it only the luxury brands incinerating surplus stock en masse; it’s also the determined students and the resourceful designers using ‘old’ fabric to create new products. Their efforts alone can’t overturn a fundamentally broken system, but with the help of powerful bloggers like Bryanboy they can shift the industry paradigm and move the discussion into more useful territory. The world is burning, but by making small changes and spotlighting genuinely sustainable designers we can at least help to douse the flames.