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Can the fashion industry ever be truly sustainable?

It’s no secret that the fashion industry is a major contributor to climate change; fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world and accounts for up to 8% of greenhouse gas emissions according to the UN. Thanks to its long supply chains and energy-intensive production, the fashion industry consumes more energy than both aviation and shipping combined. Through the production of raw materials, manufacturing, distribution, and consumer behaviour, the industry swallows up natural resources like no other; around 9,700 litres of water are needed to produce just 1kg of cotton – a staggering figure when we consider 785 million people in the world do not have access to drinking water. In addition to water pollution and consumption, the list of destruction goes on, with textile waste, toxic chemicals and fossil fuels, the degradation of soil, and the destruction of rainforests – and that’s without even considering the human cost.

Despite these overwhelming truths, few industries boast about their sustainability goals quite like the fashion industry. While more and more fashion brands are claiming to be ‘green’, it’s becoming harder for consumers to know details about the footprint of their purchases so they can make wise choices. With the fashion industry focused on growth, alongside the ever-increasing demand for affordable (but ‘trendy’) clothes, the task of sustainability continues to loom over us.

Can consumers really change the story on their own? Is ‘sustainability’ a myth? I sat down with Cosmin Diaconu, Cambridge-based fashion designer and recent graduate of Anglia Ruskin University, to discuss his fashion journey and what sustainability means to him. Cosmin owns a small luxury vintage business RetroGusto (@Retrogusto), and has had his designs showcased most recently at the Cambridge University Charity Fashion Show.

“I love how a thought or an idea can be transformed into something that can make people more confident and boost their self-esteem”

When asked about what shaped his path into the fashion world, Cosmin reflects that his passion had “always been there”. At the age of eight, he recalls dressing dolls, using scrap materials and his mother’s sewing machine to craft delicate designs. While these beginnings were merely childhood fun, later he realised he wanted to pursue fashion design at university, after he watched several fashion competitions that sparked his creative interests. Cosmin has since had his collections showcased at the Graduate London Fashion Week and the Mill Road Eco Fashion Show and has also worked on two of Beyoncé’s outfits for the Renaissance Tour – a moment he describes as “life-changing”.

“I always feel inspired by the things around us – objects, emotions, moments, sounds – and when that happens, I take a note of it.” Cosmin describes his process from sketchbook to final design as a “moment of magic”. He plays some music, draws inspiration from his sketches, collages, or paintings and lets his creativity flow as he works on the mannequin. “I find [the process] hard to describe. I let myself go and let it happen somehow.”

For Cosmin, sustainability is something that was embedded in him through his upbringing. “For me, sustainability is a way of living. I grew up in a working-class family and most of the clothes I had as a kid were passed down from my older brother or other cousins. Nothing was seen as a waste, and my parents always tried to reuse and repurpose them. I think this has greatly influenced my day-to-day activities and my practice as a fashion designer.”

Having previously showcased his work at the Untagged Fashion Show, where outfits were made entirely out of deadstock and repurposed second-hand clothing, Cosmin knows all too well the possibilities of creating new art out of old materials. He reflects: “I love how a thought or an idea can be transformed into something that can make people more confident, influence their emotions, and boost their self-esteem. It’s a form of self-expression that has a profound impact on our psychological well-being.”

“Market-based solutions such as carbon offsetting do not eliminate a history of environmental destruction”

While Cosmin has utilised second-hand fabrics in his creations, I ask for his perspective on sustainability in the fashion industry as a whole. He responds: “I believe the fashion industry is becoming increasingly aware of its negative impact on the planet, and it is shifting towards more sustainable practices: sourcing eco-friendly fabrics, reducing carbon footprints, and recycling when possible.” He admits, however, that “sometimes they overuse this concept, and it’s our duty to ensure we conduct thorough research before believing everything. We can all play our part, and even small actions can make a difference!”

Reflecting on Cosmin’s response, I question whether fashion can actually be ‘sustainable’, and whether the term still holds value when fast fashion brands increasingly use it to greenwash customers and generate more profit. Even Patagonia has done away with the term, perhaps in an effort to recognise that market-based solutions such as carbon offsetting do not eliminate a history of environmental destruction. Cosmin agrees: “You’re absolutely right, unfortunately, and it’s very frustrating.” Yet he also suggests that we have some power to change this: “By conducting more research before making purchases, we can access the information needed to determine if companies are being honest or not. It’s essential always to question ourselves, ask questions, and seek answers.”


Images from RetroGusto’s most recent shootDomininkas.com (@domsimages) with permission for Varsity

“If we discover that companies are abusing certain terms, such as sustainability, we shouldn’t hesitate to raise awareness among others and inform them. It may sound simplistic, but if we all play our part, we can make this happen!” Cosmin’s ambition to make a change in the world speaks volumes to what drives him in his career. When asked what his motto would be, he reflects: “I don’t know if I have a motto that I live by – maybe ‘always believe in yourself’? It sounds very cliche, but I believe it’s true. When you believe in yourself, you can achieve anything you want, and I’ve proven this to myself many times.”

Cosmin has gone on to promote sustainability in his own way, through his vintage resale business RetroGusto. “It was born from my desire to change the fashion industry for the better. As a young designer, I feel like it’s my duty to do my part, no matter how small, towards a greener planet.” In reselling second-hand clothing, RetroGusto aims to promote “conscious consumption by showcasing the beauty and value of vintage clothing”.

Fast fashion products usually have an extremely short lifetime and this is reflected in consumer behaviour: Europeans purchased 40% more clothing in 2012 compared to 1996, but wore it for half as long. While shopping second-hand is not a one-stop solution, buying clothes less often, and focusing on quality and longevity can be a good first step for consumers. Cosmin reinforces this perspective: “I feel clothes from decades ago had better quality and lasted longer, which is why I decided to venture into the more luxurious side of the second-hand clothing market … by offering high-quality vintage pieces, I can provide customers with timeless elegance and durability, while also promoting sustainability.”

“There are many items out there that can still be worn rather than being thrown away”

When asked why it is important to consider shopping second-hand, Cosmin replies: “It is the only way to stop overconsumption. We have all witnessed the direction fashion is heading with the proliferation of fast fashion brands. I believe there are many items out there that can still be worn rather than being thrown away.”

Today, the average person buys 60% more clothing than in 2000, an alarming figure that reflects fast fashion’s operating model which pumps out new designs at a frightening rate. People are buying more, and thus discarding more, which has disastrous effects on the planet.

“Governments must begin to enforce regulation on the industry, and hold mass-market retailers accountable

Yet while turning towards second-hand and eco-friendly clothes is a good start, we must also be careful not to villainise those for whom fast fashion is the only affordable option. In the face of increasingly gentrified charity shops, and expensive ‘slow fashion’ brands, the pressure to change should not be placed entirely on the consumer. Governments must begin to enforce regulation on the industry, and hold mass-market retailers accountable.

While the fashion industry thrives on innovation, overconsumption comes at an enormous environmental price. It is clear to Cosmin that when “we breathe life into old clothes”, we can all do our small part to fight what first appears to be a daunting challenge. Slowing down our consumption is one means to create a sustainable future of fashion – whatever ‘sustainable’ means.

RetroGusto will be hosting a pop-up store in the Grand Arcade 18–27 May, with a series of events and free workshops teaching people how to hand sew and perform small repairs on their clothes. All are welcome. 

Models: Olivia Chilvers, Zafirah Badmus and Zuheir Zaidon

Photographer: Domininkas.com (@domsimages)

Make-up Artist: Andreea Chitaru

Co-director: Milena Jones

Creative director: Cosmin Diaconu

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