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THE ECO FASHION PARADOX – I grew up in simple living habits. As far as I remember, before buying a product, probably for personal economy more than ecology, at that time, I would question myself. Before even comparing prices, before measuring the impact of garment on the environment, before considering the waste caused by the packaging or the end of life of the product, before measuring the economic impact of a local purchase or estimate the violations of human rights, I always ask myself the question: “Do I really need it?”. Does this product I purchase is necessary for my existence? Or is it a need that I have created or that was suggested to me through various advertisements to fill a void that has for real underlying cause something that can not be fixed by the purchase of material stuff ?

After all, even the most environmentally friendly products in the world have an environmental footprint. Even the certified organic carrot from a local farm that was bought directly from the farmer at the local market has an environmental footprint. The harvesting of that carrot may have required the use a tractor or rototiller. Then, the product was transported to market by truck or car. In addition, maybe the person who traveled to the producer’s farm to give the “organic” certification went there with a car that has contributed to damage the environment, ironically. Do I really need to eat an organic carrot ? Yes, eating is an essential need for our survival. Do I really need to buy another t-shirt, even if it is organic, while I have enough in my drawer? That is the question.

We often hear or read “Eco Fashion”. The use of the word “fashion” in this context is probably expressed as meaning “clothing” more than in its sense of trend. Still, it leads us to think about on the contradiction that may exist between eco (sustainability)and fashion.

Are fashion and sustainability two contradictory concepts?

On the one hand, fashion is fleeting. It changes often, it  evolves quickly. The word “fashion” can also have the sense of “way of doing things.” And maybe one day it will be “fashionable” to have timeless fashions. But in its most common meaning, the word “fashion” refers to seasonal garment trends that often change and never last very long. One could believed that this social phenomenon encourages consumerism. On the other hand, sustainability is a way of doing things to ensure perpetuity. Its philosophies encourage responsible consumption and the most responsible consumption is often not consuming at all.

There is an obvious contrast between consumerism and not consuming. But, we consume every day. We built this world so that everyone, every day, consumes. For example, we have to eat, we have no choice. Few, very few, of us grow everything that they eat. So we buy. And when we don’t have the choice to consume, when necessary, this is when a responsible consumption makes sense. We buy eco-friendly products that have less impact on the environment, will have no negative impact on our health or whose production did not violate human rights.

Most of us currently have enough clothes in our closet live decently for many years. Is it necessary to buy more?  Do you have to buy that shirt or dress knowing that you already have too much (Even if it is organic)? To understand if the concept of eco fashion is contradictory or not, the question we should ask is: “Is fashion necessary?

Is fashion necessary?

For a long time in human history, wearing clothes has been an essential need. We can’t walk around without clothes mainly for protection against the weather. In addition to its purely practical function, getting dressed has become, in the recent thousands of years, a way to introduce, to express and define ourselves. Whether you want to make a good impression on people that you meet, to bring beauty and art in your life or to create your identity, you can dress in many different ways. Other who like the style may become interested to dress in a similar way. Too many people dress that way. It becomes lame. A new way of getting dressed has to be found. Fashion is born.

Personally, I have a philosophy that we should not trust appearances and no matter how one is dressed it does not really matters. I never liked shopping for clothes, I wear my clothes until it is completely impossible to wear and I still have old t-shirts from 10 years ago, full of holes. What others think of my physical appearance doesn’t matter to me. If I did not have to introduce myself in a professional context, I’d probably only wear old, worn out and outdated clothes.

So is fashion necessary? Not for me. But hey, it’s not just me. And everyone is unique in his relationship with clothing. I understand people who define themselves by what they wear or who wishes to create positive energy through their clothing. Or people who, in a professional context or not, want to look good. Or artists who create through their styles. They are the performers of the designers’ music. Is it necessary to look good? Or is art necessary in our lives? It all depends on our perspective. Some people will say yes. Others will say no. Is another form of art necessary to my life? Music… maybe.

Sustainability must not be a pretext to consumerism 

As mentioned earlier, all products have an ecological footprint. Even the best “green” products. We always aims to reduce the impacted on the environment. But as long as our transportation will be based on the combustion of fossil fuels, selling a non-existent environmental footprint will be impossible. If a product has a lower impact on the environment, is that a good enough reason to buy something you don’t need?

In the documentary “The True Cost” (which depicts the dark side of fashion), a topic is presented in the middle of the film. There are two kinds of consumer products: 1) Products that you use. So, products that are used for long period of time (a car, a washing machine… clothes you wear, etc.) and 2) products that you use up (food, soaps, etc.). We must be vigilant and always distinguish between the two. In our case, clothes (despite the way fashion works) are products to use for several years. Although this is an environmentally friendly product that I buy, I must make good use of it.

If it becomes something that I buy and wear a couple of time before throwing it away or donating it, then I get something else from the new collection every six months, what good does it make to buy eco-friendly products if I do not change the basic philosophies of consumerism? I guess it does have a smaller impact then buying at H&M or Walmart. But what is the lowest impact of them all?… Do not buy.

Is Eco Fashion a paradox? 

Finally, can fashion (in its sense of clothing trend) and sustainability be harmonized? Is it possible to want to reduce my environmental footprint while getting dressed artistically? Is it an essential need to dress to look good? Does fashion and sustainability have conflicting philosophies? As the contemporary french writer Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt wrote in “L’Evangile selon Pilate”: “What is truth? There yours, mine and that of all others. All truths are only true to the one who said it. There are as much truths as individuals.

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About the author Ugo Dutil: I grew up at the ecovillage “La Cite Ecologique” from 1 to 11. I decided to go back and live there when I was 25 years old. I like this way of life that allows us to prioritize human relationships over material possessions. I’ve been working with Respecterre since 2013. Voluntary simplicity and responsible consumption, especially in textiles, fascinates me.