Why sustainable Streetwear needs its own Elon Musk

Streetwear needs to become more sustainable urgently. Learn how that can work out.

Alina Amin


Background     Fashion     

is the new black

Sustainability is the defining issue – from the materials of our shopping bags to the fuel in our cars. Resources, materials, conditions of production, and – ultimately – lifestyles are the main topic of the discussion. All of us are confronted by questions like, should I get an electric vehicle? And most importantly: What do I do about my sneakers?!

We’re all in this together – are we?

Living more consciously is on everybody and their mom’s agenda and we all know that the fashion industry is notoriously deemed as one of the most harmful industries for our environment. Something, that’s been a topic for some years now.

With fast fashion growing exponentially and micro-trends popping up left and right, the industry seems to have a long way ahead.

There is a silver lining – or at least it seems like it. Because consumers are pushing big companies to find more environmentally friendly and socially conscious solutions. Same can’t be said about streetwear though. But why? Let’s find out.

How it’s going

Over the 2010s, streetwear grew to be a major part of the fashion industry. What was once a niche for the less fortunate – an expression of culture – is now a mass market. Streetwear brands are doing splendidly, mainstream and luxury brands are converging in style. Streetwear sets trends and influences the industry.

With great power comes great responsibility, which means that streetwear is right in the middle of fashion’s sustainability problem. And while fast fashion companies at least pretend to care about the environment, it feels like big parts of the streetwear industry couldn’t care less.

“Ethical isn’t a word commonly associated with streetwear”

Creative Business Consultant Julie Gilbert believes, that streetwear needs to develop a sense and language for social responsibility, in order for a change. “Responsibility, in terms of sustainability, isn’t written into that culture. So there’s a language that needs to be developed that will resonate.”

This should be different. The roots of streetwear, like the roots of the entire hiphop culture, lie in overcoming social injustice through self-effective action. Our social consciousness is strong. But while we struggle to get our seat at the table, taking responsibility for the greater good is too often put on the back burner.

Should the mega corporations be held accountable first? Yes. But we wouldn’t be a bottom-up culture if we just blamed those at the top.

Shaping the future

Streetwear consumers don’t put the same pressure on brands that consumers of other fashion genres do. At the moment, sustainability and hype just don’t go together.

There are a handful of creatives in the industry trying to tackle this problem. Well known sustainable and environmently conscious brands are Noah, Nudie, Patagonia, Armedangels, and Pangaia, f.e. In the field of high priced streetwear goods we got Heron Preston – whose brand doesn’t claim to be fully sustainable but cares about the environment, or Berlin-based high fashion label GmbH. German brand Vacid uses organic cotton and produces in Portugal, which has a better reputation in terms of production conditions. Afew Goods from Düsseldorf want to “create an understanding of conscious consumption and raise awareness of the importance of fair and ecofriendly produced goods while focusing on a 100% transparent supply chain”.

But one hundred percent dedicated projects which are also one hundred percent streetwear are a relatively new phenomenon, not the majority. Those brands who are fully streetwear are often just a little bit eco – if at all –, which only has a small impact. The brands that are fully eco often look like that, too. Meaning they don’t sell, limiting their impact.

This is how we do it

The world is in dire need of a more environmentally friendly fashion industry. Vintage shopping and thrifting is pretty cool already – but what if you want to buy a new pair of jeans? Eco friendly brands need a cooler image to appease to todays generation of consumers.

Sustainable alternatives aren’t exactly mainstream for the streetwear-loving Gen-Z. Fast fashion companies like SheIn continue to grow exponentially, even though more young people seem to be interested in mother nature.

What do we do now?

If you want to know how to solve the problem you should look at cars. Remember the time before Tesla? Yeah, e-cars weren’t exactly luxurious or cool. They were products for post-materialist geography teachers. Then they suddenly became desirable. They don’t populate rap videos yet, but slowly you could imagine that too.

So, what happened?

Elon Musks Legacy

The first e-car was invented in the 1800s by Henry Ford but was quickly forgotten, when internal combustion engine vehicles rose to popularity. Over hundred years later, Elon Musk not only developed a pretty neat car, he also made it luxurious, interesting and hyped.

Tesla’s first car, the Roadster, was a sports car: fast, elegant, everything car lovers want. It was followed by the Model S: a luxury sedan that came up with the ludicrous mode: from zero to one hundred in three seconds! Then there was the autopilot, which may not have been one, but definitely aroused interest. Then, the Model X. An SUV (who needs SUVs in the city!?!!1!?) with gullwing doors! Seriously, no one NEEDS something like that. But the thing is, everyone wants it. We want something like that. The cars were worth talking about. They were sensational; they delivered stories; they were supposed to be fun. That’s why the gullwing doors were good for the climate after all: They made the car desirable. They helped to start a revolution.

The hype man

Then there is the founder. Elon Musk is a pop cultural icon. While he’s not uncontroversial, he has reached the ultimate tech-influencer status. His wild ideas and impulsive persona have gotten him millions of followers, genuine fans and, of course, a lot of money. A sole tweet of Musk can make or break stocks, trends and ideas. He’s the epitome of an icon.

He seems to be a little more approachable than other tech-billionaires. With funny tweets and quirky TV-appearances, he makes himself seem more relatable. He seems to be a real-life caricature of a “The Wolf of Wallstreet”-fanfiction.

His cultural status has given him the power to make about anything look cool.

If he has it, I want it too!

Sustainable clothing needs wing doors. It has to be so cool that it wouldn’t have to be sustainable to be in demand. Sustainability has to be something that we all demand from every brand, especially the higher prized ones. It should not be a reason to buy uglier clothes.

Just like electric vehicles had Musk, sustainable streetwear, a fashion-niche that’s extremely trend- and hype-driven, needs its own star. Someone who knows what’s cool, who influences trends and ultimately is trusted by his fans. Someone who can convince today’s youth that, yes, it’s cool to by eco-friendly clothing.

Where do we find somebody like that?

It’s Hiphop, after all

We would argue that the Hiphop-scene actually has a bunch of people with serious potential to become sustainable fashion’s Elon Musk. Just look at Kanye West. The man has created an entire culture around himself and his brands. He stands for so much more than just hype and trends. Kanye makes and sells art. He doesn’t follow culture; he shapes it.

There are very few people in the entertainment industry that have this power. But for us, it’s safe to say that most of them exist in the spheres of Hiphop. A$AP Rocky, Tyler, The Creator or, in Germany, artists like RIN, Capital Bra or even Haftbefehl. These people shape youth culture and impact the younger generation. While Capi and Hafti would surprise us by starting their own Armedangels competitors, Rin’s fashion brand Ljubav is produced by a family business in Portugal from 98% organic cotton. Its motto is “regional is the new international”.

It’s not that unlikely that a rapper will take on the role of streetwear’s Elon Musk. And young streetwear designers like 6PM’s Achraf Ait Bouzalim are no less sensational than rappers.

Popular culture determines what’s cool. Hiphop determines popular culture. So, what’s our answer to sustainable Streetwear’s dilemma? Get yourself a Hiphop icon. And put some gullwings on your product.