Keeping the runway out of the landfill: how sustainable fashion became one of the decade's hottest trends

Top brands are moving away from fast fashion and into clothing and accessories that will last

Top brands are moving away from fast fashion and into clothing and accessories that will last

Designer Stella McCartney used to use virgin cashmere in her designs, but found the environmental impact was too great. Now she uses Re.Verso — recycled cashmere made from post-factory cashmere waste in Italy. (stellamccartney.com)

Over the last decade, shoppers spent countless hours in the malls looking for the best deals at fast-fashion retailers.

But whereas buying clothing for next to nothing used to be a badge of honour, more and more consumers are recognizing the environmental and labour impacts of fast fashion — that is, clothing that is made cheaply, sold cheaply, and not made to last.

"Quite like fast food, there's a time and a place for these types of garments, and you should not be subsisting on them alone," says L.A.-based fashion director and Vogue.com contributor Mosha Lundström Halbert.

H&M is a retailer known for its inexpensive fast fashion — but now it's also venturing into clothing rentals. (Carsten Koall/Getty Images)

"I think it's fine to pepper them into your wardrobe — a great buy every now and then. But the idea of buying just, like, heaps of disposable fashion versus one quality piece has really got to change."

The average American produces 80 pounds of clothing waste each year, according to Anika Kozlowski, an assistant professor of fashion design, ethics and sustainability at Ryerson University in Toronto.

As clothing production has increased by 400 per cent over the last 20 years, "the fashion industry is also one of the worst carbon emitters," Kozlowski says in an interview with q's Tom Power. She notes that the fashion industry alone accounts for between eight and 10 per cent of global carbon emissions.

Waste is sewn into the fast-fashion model, as are exploitative labour practices, Kozlowski says.

This week, the New York Times reported that the U.S. Department of Labor launched investigations into Fashion Nova from 2016 to 2019.

"Fashion Nova, a direct to consumer fast-fashion brand, was found to be using factories where they pay as little as $2.77 an hour, and that's in California," Kozlowski says.

"So we also have this tendency to think that this is happening away from us, but it's not. It's even happening here in North America."

So what can consumers do?

Invest in staples

Kozlowski says people should think about how they plan to use the clothes before buying.

Canadian fashion brand Kotn takes a "farm-to-table" approach to all of their clothing, tracing the manufacturing process at every step. (kotn.com)

"Something that you wear a lot that's a sort of staple, invest in those pieces. Buy from someone local, buy where you know it's made well and the person who made it is being paid a fair wage," she says, noting Kotn and Eliza Faulkner as examples of sustainability-minded Canadian brands.

"They're not looking to sell you 20 T-shirts in a year. They want to sell you one really, really good one, and they want you to have it for the next 10 years. They're willing to take it back. They're willing to repair it for you."

Lundström Halbert also recommends choosing pieces that are made from natural materials, and those that are more likely to endure from a fashion perspective.

"Oftentimes if you buy something super trendy," she says, "it ends up in a landfill because you're sick of it a few months later."

A return to craftsmanship

Lundström Halbert says a growing number of brands are returning to the idea of craftsmanship and artisanal skills, and quality products that are made to last.

For example, this year, Louis Vuitton invested in Stella McCartney — who was known in part for her knitwear — but the virgin cashmere she was using had the largest environmental impact of all the materials in her collection.

Eliza Faulkner is another Canadian designer who is on the leading edge of sustainable design. (elizafaulkner.com)

"So she now only uses re-engineered or recycled cashmere," Lundström Halbert says. "She also only uses recycled nylon and polyester, and for her viscose, which is also known as rayon, she uses more sustainable sources from forests in Sweden."

Lundström Halbert also points to Gucci, which has started fashioning high heels from bio-plastics and jacket linings from recycled fishing nets, as well as designer Gabriela Hearst, who is producing luxury design from what's known as "deadstock fabric" —  fabric that was originally intended for another brand.

"It might have been sitting in a warehouse for years or decades unused, and instead of it going to a landfill, she's turning it into a beautiful new garment."

'No silver bullet'

Fast-fashion lovers shouldn't console themselves with the idea that they can donate the clothes to charity, either, says Kozlowski. 

In fact she says only a small fraction of the clothing Canadians donate stays in Canada and is resold. The rest goes into landfills, or overseas where it quickly becomes landfill, too.

The bottom line, she says, is that consumers need to buy less.

"Figure out what really works for you. What is your style? What works for your body type? What colours work well for you? Invest in those staple pieces," Kozlowski says. If people have special events, they should consider renting, or buying on consignment, she adds.

"There is no silver bullet that's going to save what's happening in fashion. So a diversity of action allows everybody to buy in, from individuals to small brands to corporations," she says. "And the more that we see a diversity of materials, a diversity of ideas, a diversity of business models, the better off we'll be."

Written by Jennifer Van Evra. Produced by Cora Nijhawan.

Miss an episode of CBC q? Download our podcast.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?