Should consumers look to brands or the government for progress on sustainability?

It seems like a simple question, with presumably a simple answer. Yet ask ten random people who work in or with fashion and you will find anything but a simple, cohesive response. Should governments be regulating brands and their suppliers? Are brands responsible for shouldering the cost of initiatives like circularity? Is it up to consumers to "vote with their wallet" and buy better products?

When the sustainable fashion movement first started becoming mainstream nearly a decade ago, the general consensus was that it was up to consumers to push the fashion industry in the right direction.

"Conscious consumers" became a buzzy term used to describe shoppers who carefully researched brands and made well thought through purchases. Elizabeth L. Cline documented the rise of conscious consumption and her own personal journey to making better purchases in her 2019 book, The Conscious Closet. A year later, she wrote an article explaining why she gave up on being an ethical consumer. Nearly two months after Cline's article was published, Whitney Bauck released her own article about the let down of conscious consumption. While the perspectives of Cline and Bauck were different, both women are in agreement that this whole "voting with our wallets" thing is not working out. Instead, they suggest consumers start investing their time in "nurturing democracy" and pushing for change to come from governments.

This is not the first time governments have been looked to for help this year.

In the early days of the pandemic, fashion industry leaders from the American Apparel & Footwear Association, Council of Fashion Designers of America, and the Travel Goods Association sent a letter to the U.S. Congress pleading for financial aid as the economy began trending downward. Help did not come. Instead, the U.S. government spent most of this year bickering across the aisle. Optimistically, some citizens believe that with enough protesting and petition signing, things can change. The government can be a functional tool that works for the people. Realistically, the world is getting more divided every day, and neither side is going to magically come together anytime soon. In the U.S., stimulus talks have stalled. Republicans and Democrats can't agree on how much money to spend and where to send it, so as a result, no one gets any money. Companies and brands have been left to fend for themselves as they have done for much of the year already.


Commentary:

We expect fashion brands to make money on their own and retain customers on their own, but when it comes to planning and implementing environmental initiatives, we turn to governments and consumers to be the watchdogs. This is probably because most of us have witnessed enough bad behavior from companies and their CEOs to instill a permanent sense of skepticism in us. A bit of skepticism is good. We should be asking brands to provide evidence to back up their sustainability claims. But, that skepticism has turned into distrust. Elizabeth L. Cline once trusted brands to provide her with an ethical, environmentally-friendly alternative to what she could find at Walmart. Then a few brands that she once liked made a few public mistakes, and the trust was gone. That doesn't mean that every brand is the bad guy, though. Yes, Everlane and Reformation treated their employees poorly, but why does that mean they can't change?


These sustainable brands were part of the movement that brought issues like workers' rights and fashion's impact on the environment to center stage. Now they've been the victim of their own marketing. Consumers should step in now and "nurture" these brands to help them become better versions of themselves. If we turn our backs on brands, then we will be cut out of the conversation about promoting sustainability. Other investors and people with interest will fill the void left by conscious consumers, and they may prioritize profitability over worker safety and sustainability. Brands are entities, and they are controlled by whoever has the power. Consumers need more power, not less, if we are ever going to control brands' actions. That's why now is not the time to give up on ethical, thoughtful consumption, now is the time to double down on it.