Followers of the sustainable fashion movement believe that the fashion industry has a clear opportunity to act differently, pursuing profit and growth while also creating new value and deeper wealth for society and therefore for the world economy. They believe that clothing companies ought to place environmental, social, and ethical improvements on management's agenda. The goal of sustainable fashion is to create flourishing ecosystems and communities through its activity. This may include: increasing the value of local production and products; prolonging the lifecycle of materials; increasing the value of timeless garments; reducing the amount of waste; and to reducing the harm to the environment created as a result of production and consumption. Another of its aims can sometimes be seen to educate people to practice environmentally friendly consumption by promoting the "green consumer", which can allow for the company itself to gain more support and a larger following.
There are doubts within the movement as to the effectiveness of "green consumerism." Business models based on selling more units of clothing or accessories are widely not considered to be sustainable, regardless of how "eco-friendly" the garments themselves are. Thus the industry has to change its basic premise for profit, yet this is slow coming as it requires a large shift in business practices, models and tools for assessment. This became apparent in the discussions following the Burberry report of the brand burning unsold goods worth around £28.6m (about $37.8 million) in 2018, exposing not only overproduction and subsequent destruction of unsold stock as a normal business practice, but the behaviour amongst brands that actively undermine a sustainable fashion agenda.
The challenge for making fashion more sustainable requires to rethink the whole system, and this call for action is in itself not new. The Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion has argued that the industry is still discussing the same ideas as were originally mooted in the late 1980s and early 1990s. When taking the long view and examining fashion and sustainability progress since the 1990s, there are few actual advances in ecological terms. As the Union observes, "So far, the mission of sustainable fashion has been an utter failure and all small and incremental changes have been drowned by an explosive economy of extraction, consumption, waste and continuous labor abuse."
A frequently asked question of those working in the area of sustainable fashion is whether the field itself is an oxymoron. This reflects the seemingly irreconcilable possibility of bringing together fashion (understood as constant change, and tied to business models based on continuous replacement of goods) and sustainability (understood as continuity and resourcefulness). The apparent paradox dissolves if fashion is seen more broadly, not only as a process aligned to expansionist business models, and consumption of new clothing, but instead as mechanism that leads to more engaged ways of living on a precious and changing earth.