In 1967, the Earth’s changing climate was first modeled to explain how the rise of carbon emissions humans produced was creating deteriorations in the atmosphere that could have severe repercussions in the long term.

Time passed, and as we acquired more vocabulary to describe climate change and its effects, climate change became a wider topic of conversation in the news, political campaigns, and schools. 

Dextras, an artist based in Vancouver, makes dresses made of plants. Image Courtesy of Business Insider India. 

 Records then showed that the fashion industry is the number two polluter of the entire world, only after the fossil fuel industry. The number is not surprising given that, regardless of age, gender, and all sorts of demographics, people wear clothes worldwide. Fashion is a key component of our daily life that has leveraged globalization, pop culture, and the digital age to become a good thing that people wear and dispose of very quickly. 

Stella McCartney introduced a seaweed based fiber for her spring 2024 collection. Image Courtesy of Stella McCartney. 

However, environmental activists were present outside fashion shows and in public spaces, where the press could echo their voices.  

The fashion industry began to react to this socioeconomic and political issue. 

The eras of sustainable fashion 

In the decade of the 2010s, there were further developments, discoveries, and investments to make sustainable clothing more accessible and affordable. The concept was interpreted in many different ways through the lenses of fashion designers and artists.

Image Courtesy of Stella McCartney
“Trashion” was a popular trend of making fashion with trash during the decade of the 2010s. Image Courtesy of Whitehot Magazine. 

The idea of making fashion with literal trash, which included food packaging, cans, glass, and newspaper, made it everywhere, from fashion shows and exhibits in Europe to crafts stands and Project Runway’s “unconventional material challenges.”

Image Courtesy of Disney. 

There was also the apocalyptical concept and the almost nihilistic idea that we have run out of resources and reasons for humankind to exist. Wall-E, as an example of this existential crisis and urgent warning to address climate change, inspired sustainable fashion to explore these end-of-world themes to push forward these environmental ideas.

Another route to this narrative that goes towards a utopic future is space exploration and the idea that humans will eventually leave planet Earth to live on another planet as our technology develops and our natural resources run out. 

Iris Van Herpen creates dress made of ocean plastic waste. Image Courtesy of Iris Van Herpen

And then, there is technology. Scientists and engineers have been working diligently to develop materials that are plant-based or made of natural materials almost to their entirety—pineapple or mushroom leather, human hair yarns, and snail poop, to name a few.

On another route, there has been significant progress in developing materials made of textile waste and other recycled materials. Recycled polyester, recycled nylon, and materials from products like tires and packaging. These multi-million investments and developments are making sustainable fashion more accessible to a wider audience of consumers.

​​Allbirds' M0.0NSHOT sneaker, sold as the “world's first carbon zero shoes."

But in recent years, sustainable fashion has seemed less present and less exciting than it was only a few years ago, right before the coronavirus pandemic. 

Why does it seem that sustainable fashion has gone out of style? There are a few contributing factors.

The interests of new consumers

In 2019, a 16-year-old Swedish activist, widely known as Greta Thunberg, addressed world leaders at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York City. “How dare you?” Said Thunberg, full of rage, creating headlines all around the world, becoming the Person of the Year in TIME magazine, and making many people feel hopeful and optimistic about the future as young generations begin to be more involved in politics, social justice, and issues impacting the entire world. 

Years passed, and although Gen Z is an outspoken generation with strong advocates on all political issues from left to right and the North to the South, their consumption trends are not necessarily associated with the values they stand for. 

Fast fashion companies like H&M, Zara, and Forever 21 have been so successful in targeting young consumers and creating a sense of urgency to buy clothes while they are still “in stock” that they triggered the fashion industry to move even faster, creating ultra-fast fashion businesses like Shein and Temu that come up with new products every day and are made of the cheapest and most harmful materials that clothes could be made of. 

This disposable way of consuming fashion comes hand in hand with Gen Z’s interest in wearing different clothes for each Instagram post and for every party. The clothes serve as a visual prop more than a functional one, so these fast fashion companies barely invest in design elements that elevate the clothing, such as pockets, zippers, or linings. 

Capitalism has more style than sustainability.

Image Courtesy of Brad Ogbonna for Vogue. 

The core messaging of sustainable fashion is reducing. Reducing consumption, reducing cheap labor, and reducing the mass production of clothes people don’t want, won’t wear, and will buy. In contrast, the core message of capitalism is increasing. Increasing the goods you own to achieve status, increasing the spending of money you don’t have, and increasing, in consequence, the fashion system that produces billions of clothes every year. 

It is very clear what system works best for the environment. However, for consumers who are exposed to a ton of advertisements and capitalist friends, family, and neighbors, it is also very clear how they are leaning toward it. 

It is not that we don’t know how to find the solutions. We have found plenty of alternative sustainable ways to use, reduce, and produce clothing while reducing our carbon footprint. It has to do more with our priorities and our realistic beliefs. 

Maybe we want the polar bears to live on their glaciers for many more years, for the forests to stay green, and for marginalized communities to stop being irreversibly harmed by the impacts of fashion pollution. But we also want a new shirt for the special event coming up, and we want a shirt that comes at a reduced price because how dare these “bougie” sustainable stores sell expensive shirts. We have the answers, but we are asking the wrong questions. 

The politics of it all

The Paris Agreement, signed in 2015, brings 196 parties to cover climate change mitigation, adaptation, and finance. Almost a decade has passed but, at least in the United States, there is still skepticism on how, why, or when clean energies can be implemented without harming the oil and gas industry. 

Sustainability involves a change of practices, and change is inevitably political as there are individuals and parties who would oppose these changes. 

Jennifer Lopez for Vogue December 2022.

Is sustainable fashion out of style? 

The motivation for people to purchase sustainable fashion and consume clothes responsibly is a trend of the last decade. Yes, there is an interesting trend in the popularity of second-hand stores and thrifting as a weekend activity for new generations. Clothes are affordable and have a sense of uniqueness that doesn’t exist in the mass-produced ultra-fast fashion world.

The warning messages that sustainability is urgent came from influential characters such as Greta Thumberg, Bernie Sanders, Lisa Simpson, and Leonardo DiCaprio, but they seem to have been diluted by the nick of time. 

Maybe we have moved on to focus our attention on another socioeconomic or political issue (as we’ve had quite a few of those in the last decade). People say that it’s never too late to change, but when it comes to sustainability and time passes, and the progress that we pledged in 2015 has yet to be accomplished, the inevitable question surges. Will sustainable fashion come back to be in style?