The price of sustainability: Whose responsibility is it to save the planet?

The price of sustainability: Whose responsibility is it to save the planet? - Candid Orange

By Shannon McGuigan

In a world that’s warming by the day, the world’s most powerful leaders scrambled together at COP26 to tackle climate change. November 2021 saw the UK host the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties in Glasgow with One goal in mind: to ensure global temperatures do not continue to rise beyond the threshold of 1.5 degrees above preindustrial levels.

The effects of climate change have become increasingly more apparent in recent years – from catastrophic bushfires in Australia to the wildfires on the Californian hills. As such, we are now consistently looking for more ways we can reduce our carbon footprint, lead more sustainable lives, and reduce the negative impact we have on our natural environment.

We are trying to save the planet. Should fashion face the blame?

Over the last decade, we have searched for ways to lead more sustainable lives, both at an individual and societal level. Whether it be the Eco-Schools Green Flag initiative or the increased popularity of recycling, there appears to be a collective enthusiasm for saving the planet. As of 2020, 89% of people in the UK stated that they recycle frequently and 56% of people asked declared that they were recycling more regularly within the previous year.

With society rushing to find ways to become more environmentally friendly, there is increased scrutiny concerning the individual carbon footprint, especially concerning the fashion industry, and specifically purchases from fast fashion companies.

Are fast fashion companies being environmentally friendly? No, of course, they aren’t. The fashion industry as a whole is particularly harmful to the environment – it contributes 10% of global COemissions and uses 1.5 trillion litres of water annually. The ever-growing waste that comes alongside the fashion industry is also contributing to growing concerns surrounding the rise in microplastic waste.

Globalisation also means that the items produced in manufacturing travel at a faster rate and further than ever. This alone is a huge threat to the environment as garment transportation is increasingly converting to air cargo. This can have a catastrophic impact on emission production, with estimates suggesting that if just 3% of garment transportation was by air cargo instead of ships, carbon emissions would skyrocket by more than 100%.

The impossibility of being completely ethical in a capitalist world

So yes, buying fast fashion is not environmentally friendly but with environmental challenges rife in slow fashion also, neither is buying any clothes unless they are second hand. It perfectly illustrates the difficultly of leading a completely sustainable and environmentally friendly lifestyle in the current society we live in.

In a capitalist society, it is impossible to live entirely morally, environmentally or ethically. Foster’s Treadmill Theory of Production illustrates how everyone is a part of and contributes to capitalism one way or another. Whether we know we are part of the treadmill or not, there is no possible escape.

What this means is that even if you are aware of your existence on the ‘treadmill’ of capitalism, it is impossible to be ethical 100% of the time or even most of the time. Perfectly illustrated in the popular Netflix show ‘The Good Place’, when a central character Michael points out that life is too complicated for anyone “to be good enough for ‘The Good Place’”. He highlights how even buying something as simple as a tomato negatively impacts the environment as it contributes to global warming and exploitative labour.

Even buying items that present themselves as “environmentally friendly” can also be the opposite. As a prime example, The Body Shop previously branded itself as a company that “cared” and was “actively helping to protect the environment” and Indigenous communities around the globe. However, the truth was quite the opposite when it came to their business practices. They were actively exploiting Mexican Indian Natives in their Body Shop American Express Campaign. They also partially destroyed a local economy in Ghana when they abruptly ended a deal to buy shea butter from the area in 1996. 

As a company, the Body Shop presented itself as the animal-friendly competitor to the cosmetic producing goliath L’Oréal when it was first established. However, it then went to sell itself to the same cosmetic producer for £256 million. What The Body Shop illustrates is that business branding and business practice are not synonymous. A business can portray one image to the public but have an entirely different business practice.

Are the environmentally friendly companies even “green”? Should we still try to lead sustainable lives?

Many companies with “green” branding but divergent business practices elucidate a key point: consumers who are making the effort to source items from companies they believe are sustainable and environmentally friendly may still be harming the environment. To vet every sustainable company in case they are not entirely transparent about their business practices would take a copious amount of time and would be unreasonable to expect from consumers. 

With the sustainable practices of companies being questionable, it seems unfair to be critical of those who spend money at fast fashion stores or on fashion items entirely. This should be considered especially when many of those who shop at fast fashion stores may not have the privilege to pay the price tag that comes with sustainability.

However, the lack of transparency of business practices highlights something even more important: businesses must be held accountable for the negative impacts they have on our environment. With 20 firms being responsible for a third of carbon emissions and 100 companies being responsible for 71% of greenhouse gases since 1998, the efforts of the individual seem redundant. Regardless of how diligent the individual is in leading a sustainable lifestyle, without holding the world’s most environmentally harmful companies to account no effective change will be made in the fight against climate change. Considering this, it is unfair to blame the average person for their lifestyle choices. Instead, we should be holding politicians, policymakers and those with influence accountable. 

It is not to say that we shouldn’t lead the most sustainable life we can, but it must be acknowledged that sustainability comes with a hefty price tag which is often a privilege. Most importantly, no effective change will transpire until these huge conglomerates make environmentally friendly choices and prioritise the ecosystem and basic human rights over maximum profit. Let’s not be too harsh on the choices of the individual when those who are causing the most damage continue to ignore climate change.