The Paradox of Eco Fashion

Written by Jennifer Nini

Many of my favourite things start with the letter ‘f’. There’s food: organic and biodynamic of course. There’s fun: there’s too many activities to list here. There are flowers: my first choice are orchids followed by dahlias, carnations and peonies. And then there’s fashion: always sustainable, always ethical.

And as an individual who appreciates beauty in all its forms, I have developed a harmless daily activity of flicking through artistic and inspiring Instagram photos uploaded by the various sustainable ‘eco fashion’ brands and e-tailers that I follow. But then a niggling thought hit me several weeks ago that has been bothering me since it entered my mind. That particular thought bugged me so much that it culminated into the act of writing this particular blog post.

The thought I just couldn’t shake

The thought was this: exactly just how eco is eco fashion? Viewing Instagram images of models in beautiful organic cotton garments is a more sustainable option yes – but cotton is an extremely water thirsty plant and being organic doesn’t make it less so. It is advertised as a better option, but I know it isn’t. Garments made from hemp and bamboo are much better options.

I also began to question the motives of some of the ‘eco’ bloggers and ‘eco fashion’ brands that I was following on social media. Upon flicking through countless images, I decided to ‘unfollow’ several because the constant marketing bombardment promoted a shopping philosophy that I fundamentally disagree with: one that encourages you to buy more. How can eco fashion be considered sustainable when it relies on the same capitalistic systems and marketing mechanisms that drive unsustainability in the first place? The truth is that the eco fashion industry still relies on unnecessary consumption as much as the fast fashion industry does.

And herein lies the problem that seems to have permanently wedged itself into the crevices of my brain.

Common Misconceptions About Sustainable Fashion

Credit: Maiyet.

Eco fashion and fast fashion, what the heck is the difference?

Eco fashion and fast fashion are inextricably linked because the industries both rely on people’s unsustainable practice of mindless consumption. Now I’m not saying that eco fashion is as bad as fast fashion. If you were to purchase a garment, indeed an eco fashion choice is by far the better option – at least it attempts to address environmental issues, as well as social and economic issues. What I am merely saying is that eco fashion has its flaws. To really address the underlying causes of environmental destruction and resource depletion involves transforming the cultural buying habits of much of the Western and developing worlds from unrestrained consumption to one driven more by necessity.

True eco fashionistas understand this and adopt shopping habits that are on a ‘needs’ basis instead of a ‘wants’ basis. They are the ones who can see through ‘green washing’ propaganda. They are not afraid to point out that the greenest action people can take – is not to purchase anything at all!

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About the author

Jennifer Nini

Jennifer Nini is a writer, activist and the founding editor of Eco Warrior Princess. In 2010, after studying Fashion Business, she launched Eco Warrior Princess to explore her interests in fashion, politics, social justice and sustainability. Jennifer is also the founder of The Social Copywriter, a digital agency harnessing the power of copywriting and content marketing to help mindful businesses reach more people. When she's not perfecting a sentence or coaching business clients, you will find her at her certified organic farm reconnecting with nature.


  • Yes yes yes! I have been thinking this for quite some time. I watched a fantastic documentary recently called the 11th hour (I’m a bit behind, I know) and that touched on the need for the western world to remove “consumption” as our primary means of ‘the human experience’ from our time on planet Earth. I couldn’t agree more. The world needs a big cultural shift, there is no doubt about that.

    Great post!

    • Hi Katherine, am so glad you liked it and what I wrote resonated with you. You might also enjoy Home, a doco narrated by Glenn Close about our Earth and how humans have indeed affected it’s landscape. Glad to know that humanity is waking up, me, you and others are needed to help raise the level of consciousness, have a wonderful weekend!

  • Jennifer, this is a great point that many people fail to realize. But sadly, there is a clear reason for this: anyone involved actively in the slow fashion movement, or in ethical fashion is either looking to manufacture of promote products in some way to profit from this new market segment of “conscious consumers”. It’s hard to see them as evil, as they are trying to do something good… but there is a lot of irrationality and biased opinions on both sides of the fashion industry. I have read articles on the HuffPost, for example, rife with inaccurate claims about organic cotton, and sure enough, these “writers” end up owning an organic fashion brand. I think the best weapon against false claims is data and rigorous scientific research, although sometimes it’s hard to find or it doesn’t even exist.
    Thanks a lot for talking about this!

    • Thanks Yari for your thoughtful comment – yes green washing remains a big problem in our circles because what you say is true – they feel that by offering a more ‘green’ alternative, they are “part of the solution” when in fact it’s a lot more complicated than that. So glad to have met another person who is not afraid to voice their opinions and air out the dirty laundry of eco fashion. Cheers Jen x

  • Hi Jenifer,

    Thank you for this article, it really resonated with me. I have been struggling with this paradox recently because I am doing in internship for a company that sells T-shirts (albeit made sweatshop free and with organic cotton) and funds sustainable projects with 50 percent of the profits. I am fully behind my company’s social mission, but I feel guilty about encouraging people to buy, buy, buy. I have voiced my concerns to my boss and he seemed receptive, but I am at a loss for suggestions to change my companies current model. We have done promotions where people send in photos of themselves wearing our shirts in locations around the world, and I thought about having people add (backpack) patches from the exotic locations and then sending them to us to resell as a “special item,” but I’m not sure how well such a promotion would work.
    Do you have any suggestions? I would really value your opinion. Ciao,Jacque

    • Thanks for sharing Jacque. It sounds like quite a pickle and this kind of a curly question for me too – there are no straight forward answers. I wish there were though – how easy it would to think of black and white, but unfortunately there are many complexities that arise.

      The social mission of your business is a great one – compared with so many other businesses out there that aim just to be profitable, at least yours is trying to help make a difference to others lives. Rampant consumerism is a problem but I also understand ‘ethical’ businesses have no alternative option but to play this ‘marketing to consumers game’ just to compete and get their brand names out there. It can be quite a catch 22.

      BUT how wonderfully refreshing it would be if brands marketed like this: ‘If you really need it, than why not buy it – but if you don’t, perhaps you shouldn’t!” ??

      What appeases my mind is that as a society, clothing is a necessity. We don’t walk around naked! The other thing is that people buy things that represent who they are and what they stand for – it is inextricably linked to identity. So if someone purchases something from your organisation, they are not only contributing to their moral identity by ‘doing good’ they also feel good about it so thus contributing to their happiness!

      In short, what most people don’t realise is that buying things makes people happy (or at least satisfied that they have met a need). What we need to do is change the idea of happiness so that it is not linked to external things. And this is a much harder concept to change.

      Also I think that your promotion idea sounds like an interesting one – I’d have to find out more about what it entails before I can make any judgement.

      My comments have probably raised more questions than they have answered, but it highlights the complexities in life. If you feel like corresponding further about this or your promotion, please send me an email or complete the contact form (in the ‘Contact’ area).

      Hope you have a lovely day and hope you come to some peace of mind in your moral struggle! xx

  • Yes agree with all this. Sadly, buying loads of organic cotton clothes isn’t going to do much to save the planet but it makes people feel better. There are pros and cons to all fabrics, yes organic cotton is better than some, and if you look for those that are made fairly then that is a step in the right direction. But buying nothing or buying second hand is best of all.

    • Yes indeed Kate. You won’t believe how many brands pitch us about their organic tees and I often wonder, how is this revolutionary? Are the resources being used up to create this tee worth the ‘good’ that the brand is doing? And also, how many tees does one need? I’m fairly certain most consumers I’m have more than their fair of tees, jeans or whatever. And I tend to by second hand too. I actually went through my shopping habits in great details in this YouTube video. Thanks for such a thoughtful comment too 🙂

  • Well, there are actually few companies that encourage you to buy less – fewer, better things (Cuyana for example, even though they are not a sustainable company per se. I agree with you, and believe that change of mindset and awareness is what we need.

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