Wake up, fashion. Sustainability doesn’t mean anything
The recent spotlight on fashion’s role in the climate crisis has undoubtedly inspired shifts in the industry, but it’s increasingly difficult to tell real change from false promises and empty claims. Overconsumption is as much of an issue as ever, and fast fashion businesses continue to grow despite efforts from climate activists to encourage slower models. New brands are emerging under the umbrella of sustainability, while existing brands throw buzzwords into the wind, clambering to attract conscious consumers. Fast fashion retailer ASOS has an ‘Eco Edit’ whilst H&M has a ‘conscious collection’, both encouraging consumers to “buy pioneering sustainable fashion.” But what does sustainability really mean? And is anyone actually doing it right?
We tend to get distracted by buzzwords like sustainability without stopping to consider them. If brand definitions are anything to go by, then sustainability is incredibly vague. Everlane, frequently ranked amongst the most sustainable brands, justifies their position on the basis that they are “partnering with the best, ethical factories around the world sourcing only the finest materials.” Meanwhile, Levi’s are “focusing on the finishing processes to remove water wherever possible” and Alternative Apparel are “using organic cotton and recycled materials.” According to the Cambridge dictionary, however, sustainability means using methods that do not harm the environment so that natural resources are still available in the future.
“Sustainable doesn’t really mean anything concrete. There is a lot of leeway for brands to use it without facing any legal ramifications.”
Julie Zerbo, an American lawyer and founder of The Fashion Law, says it’s important to distinguish between vague claims and earned credentials. “The first issue that comes to mind is that sustainable doesn’t really mean anything concrete,” she says. “There is a lot of leeway for brands to use it without facing any legal ramifications.” Julie explains that a brand marketing their use of 100% recycled denim is making a concrete claim, which can be fact-checked and proved. However, a brand’s claim to sustainability cannot be measured in the same way. “It’s different to saying ‘this is USDA organic’ because there is a checklist you have to meet to label a product in that way,” she continues. “None of that applies if you want to label a garment as sustainable.”
It’s not surprising that consumers welcome buzzword marketing with open arms. When faced with overwhelming, vast issues such as the climate crisis or inequality, we want something tangible to appease the powerlessness we feel. Buzzwords like sustainability make us innocent by association. They are part of our self-proclaimed identities that only require enough explanation to fit in an Instagram bio. The snappier the word, the shorter the explanation, the better it is for marketing purposes. Buzzwords and greenwashing tactics bridge the gap between who we are and who we want to be.
“We go to countries far away and exploit their raw materials and labour. We ship the finished product to our country, we consume it rapidly (because it was made with planned obsolescence at its core) and then we dump the remains on another country… who doesn’t want it.”
According to Julie, adding ‘sustainable’ to a fast fashion system allows consumers to carry on shopping as they always have, minimising the guilt by sanitising the realities of fast fashion production. “Gen-Z are the most photographed demographic and being constantly photographed creates an endless appetite for new things,” she says. “Consumers in the US and London – they are not going to Bangladesh to see the conditions that their clothes are made in. Being out of touch with the issues makes it easier for people to just continue to shop the way that they always have.”
The reason companies use buzzwords without any real change behind them is that consumption ultimately benefits them financially. In the same way that being associated with activists or political movements would, sustainability is an angle they can sell. The problem is that consumption isn’t sustainable. The easiest way for fashion to become sustainable would be for people to stop buying it.
For Aja Barber, a freelance writer and fashion consultant specialising in sustainability, we need to slow down consumption for the planet, but also for the people. She highlights the relationship between fast fashion and colonialism by explaining, “We go to countries far away and exploit their raw materials and labour. We ship the finished product to our country, we consume it rapidly (because it was made with planned obsolescence at its core) and then we dump the remains on another country… who doesn’t want it. Not every company that manufactures overseas is awful, but a few truly are, so we have to stop giving them money until they pledge to do better. If we want to fight fast fashion we all have to start slowing down.”
“As a good rule of thumb, if you want to be a better consumer, step away from the big brands and support a smaller label or buy second hand.”
Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect people to stop buying completely, or boycott fashion as environmental groups like Extinction Rebellion have suggested, but we can change how much we buy and who from. When Fashion Revolution started their ‘who made my clothes?’ campaign, it was on the simple premise that transparency leads to greater accountability, which leads to change. The campaign states that, “we want to unite the fashion industry and ignite a revolution to radically change the way our clothes are sourced, produced and purchased, so that what the world wears has been made in a safe, clean and fair way.” Sometimes, the easiest step towards progression is asking the right questions, which in this case is: asking brands #whomademyclothes?
Julie points out that most consumers don’t really know what to look for on brands’ sites: “They don’t actually do their diligence in some sense I don’t think we can really expect consumers to do that, but I guess that’s beside the point.” Fashion Revolution developed the Fashion Transparency Index for that exact purpose – so consumers could see which brands were open about their supply chain. Apps like Good On You translate that data into a ranking system, so consumers can easily choose from ‘sustainable’ brands.
Though that shows some progression, Aja emphasises the importance of research when it comes to sustainability. “You shouldn’t depend on an app for everything. Sometimes I find reviews which don’t match up at all with what I see about certain brands in the news. As a good rule of thumb, if you want to be a better consumer, step away from the big brands and support a smaller label or buy second hand.”
Secondhand seems to be an increasingly accessible market, no longer restricted to the dusty confines of charity shops and vintage basements. The financial times predicted that, “the resale market is a rare sunbeam for the fashion business as a whole. It has grown 21 times faster in the US than other fashion retail over the past three years according to GlobalData, which also predicts that the resale market, worth $24bn, will mature to $51bn by 2023.” Resale, for the sake of marketing or morality, is nonetheless beneficial to the environment. Julie agrees that resale holds some promise. “I think that the resale model is realistic in that it recognizes that people will still continue to purchase, and potentially give garments and accessories a longer life span,” she says. “Do I think that LVMH will set up its own version of The RealReal? Yes. Do I think Chanel will? Yes. I think Chanel already should have because they have the most significant issues with the resale market. And that would not only allow them to extend the lifespan of the product, but it would allow them to exercise greater control over their products and that’s what luxury brands want more than anything – more than being sustainable.”
Buzzword marketing may exploit social movements and people’s will to do better, but in this case it may also have given them some momentum. If viewing the climate crisis as a trend has pushed brands to explore different sustainable techniques, then it’s progressive – even if they are just trying to sell a product. Cast a cautious eye over a brand’s website before you buy into their so-called sustainable range, think about whether you really need to click ‘buy’ or if you could do without, and if you decide you really need something new, try to find a second-hand version before splurging on something new. While it’s important to call out hypocrisy and complacency, we should also applaud efforts, however minor. It’s better to do something small than do nothing.