‘Need Versus Greed’ – Can Consumerism Be Compatible With Sustainability?

Have you noticed ‘green’, ‘eco’ or ‘conscious’ on the label of your recent purchase? Research has indicated millennials and Gen Z is challenging consumption cultures, opting for ‘sustainable’ alternatives. More popularly recognised as ‘woke’ consumers or those “alert to injustice in society”, a McKinsey report suggests that these consumers will account for 40% of global consumers by 2020.

In this climate of change, where an increasing number of consumers are basing their purchase decisions by assessing a product or brand’s commitment to limiting it’s an environmental and social impact, the business of fashion, which constitutes as the second most polluting industry of the world - is set to witness a radical shift.

As conscious products are emerging as a global trend, the world has taken its first step in a new direction. I use the word “trend” quite judiciously because we’re yet to ascertain a qualitative measure defining sustainability or the quantitative impact of this rise of consciousness. Fast-fashion brands like Zara, H&M and ASOS have jumped on the sustainability bandwagon having recently announcing ambitious goals comprising of energy consumption reduction to using eco-friendly fabrics in aid of becoming ‘circular’, i.e. create goods that can return safely to the biosphere when no longer of human use. But, there still remain challenges and limitations. 

For example, a brand may switch to using only organic fair-trade cotton and well, you may think that’s a step in the right direction? While cotton is an easily decomposable natural fabric, it’s cultivation involves usage of thousands of litres of water, which is a wastage of a precious natural resource. Therefore, on the surface, many initiatives seem to and are fulfilling an eco-goal in many ways, but to truly make an impact, brands will need to digress from the trend and do a cost-benefit analysis against defining parameters to ascertain the impact over a period of time. The big question remains, is creating more, despite using a “better” alternative, constitute as ‘sustainable’? 

Whilst consumer ideology is forecast to bend towards opting for the “better” other, it can’t be said for certain whether it may impact consumption levels altogether. We need to wait and watch to see whether consumers commitment to being mindful will extend this to limiting consumption. As for manufacturers, it’s simple – if there is demand, there will be supply, which means more is being created. H&M’s 4 billion dollar inventory problem, reported by the New York Times, is a testament of the fact. More of anything, whether sustainable or not, accounts for a carbon footprint. 

Moving focus to the business of fashion, this shift is likely to affect scalability, the perception of luxury and use of technology, paving a way for a renaissance of ancient artisanal crafts along with a need for a supply chain of innovators and disrupters. I think this is where, consumerist ideas are going to be challenged by sustainable idols, reshaping the equilibrium. 

While fast-fashion and high-fashion brands of the world are tuning their CSR goals to minimise their impact, they’re still less likely to scale-down for the cause. Considering the size of the fashion industry, scaling down of key players would mean a rise in unemployment and adverse impact on small-scale industries that are supply chains for these businesses, which may prove detrimental to certain, especially developing economies. It may be forecast that scaling-down by a certain degree is a natural progression because of the slow nature and limited access to sustainable raw materials, but in my opinion, this may not hold true as an interesting landscape is forming for consumerism to interact with sustainability through technology and a focus on revivalism. 

Investment in innovation and technology is likely to remain on an upward trend, enabling zero-waste and recycle. Technological advancement has already paved ways for effective waste-management, recycle of fabrics, inventions of packaging solutions replacing plastic and biomaterials mimicking leather. While high-fashion brands like Prada have announced using only ‘Econyl’ fabric by 2021, which is recycled Nylon to reduce the use of virgin nylon, and Chanel has invested in the Finnish company, ‘Sulapac’, a fully biodegradable material boasting of having the ‘benefits of plastic’, it’s only a matter of time, when technology will aid brands in both, material and method, to become circular. In this regard, consumerism and sustainability can complement each other.

As there is a greater focus on the hand-made rather than man-made, artisans are being empowered and ancient crafts are being protected from becoming extinct. Anything artisanal is slower to produce with a significantly lower impact on the environment. In turn, this will also make way for artisan-friendly businesses and those based on the model of up-cycling to thrive. In many countries that are culturally rich in crafts, especially India and other parts of South-Asia, traditional crafts have witnessed a decline due to fast-fashion demands, leaving craftsmen in search of better opportunities to make a living. This is going to be reserved once artisans are fairly paid and there is a rise in demand for their crafts.

To keep an equilibrium, producers and consumer must acknowledge that consumption is not bad, however, the onus is greatly on consumers to reassess their consumption patterns in accordance with their needs and manufactures to integrate the social responsibility of crafting sustainable and ethical pieces as an intrinsic part of their brand culture. As Gandhi said, “The world has enough for everybody’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.”. Therefore, consumption in limits and with awareness is the only way forward for consumerism to complement the sustainable movement.

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